Will fall's hugely anticipated ''Call of Duty: Black Ops'' satisfy the franchise's millions of fans?

There’s an office suite in Santa Monica where the Cold War still burns hot. Communist and capitalist propaganda papers the walls. Soviet and American black-ops soldiers have been known to haunt the halls, passing secrets and teaching killing moves with AK-47s. And there is a fake Vietnam War-era bunker illuminated with blood-red lights — harrowing atmosphere intended to inspire the employees of Treyarch Studios toward an ambitious goal. In the words of the company’s commanding officer, Mark Lamia, ”We want to make the most spectacular entertainment experience of the year.”

Bluster? Stand corrected, soldier. Call of Duty: Black Ops, in stores Nov. 9, is poised to join Inception, Glee, and Betty White as one of the year’s genuine pop culture phenomenons. The videogame is the seventh in the acclaimed CoD series, which has sold more than 72 million units and grossed more than $3 billion in sales since its debut in 2003. Last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was a sensation unto itself. Opening day: $310 million. First week: $550 million. Its total sales of over $1 billion is nearly twice the worldwide gross of Inception. ”By movie box office standards, it’s the biggest entertainment launch of all time,” says Brad Jakeman, chief creative officer for Activision, CoD‘s publisher.

The appeal of the games lies in their extraordinary visuals; deep, well-designed levels; and ”holy s—!” drama that challenges mind, thumbs, and conscience. Then there’s the multiplayer experience, which for many fans is the entire point. Indeed, three different Call of Duty games currently rank among the top four most popular multiplayer games on Xbox LIVE. ”Some of our consumers make Call of Duty the only game they buy all year, but they play it all year long, every night with their buddies,” says Daniel Suarez, Activision’s executive producer for the franchise.

Created in 2003 for the PC by a company called Infinity Ward, Call of Duty was an immediate hit that quickly expanded to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation consoles. To date, the franchise includes four games set in WWII and two Modern Warfare games set in the present. Black Ops moves the series to the 1960s, with characters based on real-life black-ops soldiers and a story nourished by Cold War conspiracy-theory lore.

It’s a game Oliver Stone could love, although these days he might be more intrigued by the Wall Street-ish corporate warfare surrounding CoD. Last March, Activision fired the two top execs at Infinity Ward for allegedly plotting to form a new company aligned with Electronic Arts. Since then, the dismissed employees have sued Activision for $36 million…and started a new EA-backed company. (Activision declined to comment on the litigation; the fired Infinity Ward execs could not be reached for comment.) Now Treyarch, which produced two of the previous CoD games, must try to match the success of Modern Warfare 2 — and shore up consumer confidence in the franchise. Are they prepared to take over as the series’ creative top gun?

So far, the answer seems to be yes. When Treyarch began developing Black Ops in 2008, the studio made a strategic decision to focus exclusively on CoD. The investment of time and effort is evident. Treyarch made extensive use of motion-capture filming techniques à la James Cameron’s Avatar to create more nuance in the characters and gameplay. They also recruited screenwriter David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, TV’s FlashForward) to help fine-tune the story line. The multiplayer mode includes new features, including video-making tools, and a virtual practice arena called ”Basic Training” to draw newbies into what’s become the essential CoD experience. ”Long, long before any of the stuff that has happened to create headlines about the franchise, we made a commitment to create the best thing we’ve ever done here,” says Lamia. ”This is our coming-of-age.”

Stars Do Their Duty

Ed Harris and Gary Oldman lend their voices to Call of Duty: Black Ops. They’re hardly the first big names to show up in the megaselling franchise.

Kiefer Sutherland – Voiced Sergeant Roebuck in 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War.

Will Arnett – Provided additional voices for last year’s Modern Warfare 2.

50 Cent – Lent his nonrapping vocals to Modern Warfare 2‘s multiplayer.

Jason Statham – PLayed Sergeant Waters in the original Call of Duty (2003).