Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia talks with USA TODAY’s Mike Snider about what players can expect in the gameplay of Call of Duty Black Ops 3 at the E3 2015 Conference.
USA TODAY

Just days after gobbling up Candy Crush Saga, video game publisher Activision is ready to release a new installment of a longtime favorite that regularly crushes it: Call of Duty.

The surprises keep coming from the No. 1 U.S. game publisher. Late Monday, Activision Blizzard said it would pay $5.9 billion to acquire mobile game maker King Digital, a move that immediately boosts its fledgling portable game portfolio.

Its next surprise: Call of Duty Black Ops III, the latest release in the multibillion-dollar first-person shooting series, breaks a lot of the rules that it created since 2003 when the initial game launched.

Treyarch, the Activision-owned studio that developed the Black Ops games, continues the futuristic geopolitical saga with this game, set in 2065. Super soldiers have augmented body parts and built-in data jacks to connect to computer networks.

Beyond giving characters new strengths, such as running on walls and hacking robot enemies, the developers wanted to open up the game so players had more choice in how they make their way through the game.

Typically, players must play the story mode solo and in particular order, unlocking the levels or missions consecutively. But Black Ops III lets you tackle missions in any order, in part to encourage up to four players joining together for missions.

Players who’ve gotten farther along in the game can share weapons and perks they’ve accumulated with others who haven’t made it that far. “We wanted to make sure that players who wanted to play together had that opportunity and that the game and the AI (game’s artificial intelligence) would be able to adapt,” said studio head Mark Lamia.

The game ($59.99, out Friday for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One; also on PS3, Xbox 360 and PCs, ages 17-up) is expected to be a hit. Call of Duty revenue has passed $11 billion, and this new game is the most anticipated title of the season, according to Nielsen.

“We have strong momentum,” said Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg in a conference call with analysts Tuesday about the King acquisition and the company’s third-quarter earnings.

Investors seem to like the one-two punch as Activision (ATVI) shares closed up 3.3% to $36.99 on Wednesday.

And analysts are bullish on the game’s fortunes. Sales of Call of Duty rose annually until 2012’s Call of Duty Ghosts, which released as Microsoft and Sony brought new game systems to market. “Sales were up again last year, and my bet is that they will be up yet again this year,” said Michael Pachter of equity research firm Wedbush Securities. He expects sales of 18 million copies by year’s end and eventually more than 22 million.

Even though Activision has expanded its video game portfolio with the resurrection of Guitar Hero and the King acquisition, Call of Duty is the publisher’s largest title, says Michael Olson of investment banking firm Piper Jaffray. “With this year’s version likely to grow meaningfully compared to last year, it shows that the game is not suffering from the franchise fatigue that many investors expect,” he said. “Importantly, Call of Duty is also becoming a larger contributor to Activision’s digital revenue stream as they increase the percentage of players buying add-on digital content to enhance and extend the game.”

Black Ops III has a new, improved multiplayer online combat game mode and totally separate Zombies: Shadows of Evil game with characters based on actors Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Neal McDonough and Ron Perlman. Actors Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) and Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) played characters in the story mode.

“We set out to make the deepest and richest Call of Duty ever,” Lamia said.

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider

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