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For armchair soldiers everywhere, today really ought to be a holiday. Activision Blizzard has released a new set of multiplayer maps for the Call of Duty Black Ops combat game. Hundreds of thousands of people are already playing it on the Xbox 360 game console. There’s just no point in going to work.

As proven by last year’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 map packs, the launch of this kind of downloadable content is as huge as a new blockbuster game. While $14.99 may not seem like a lot of dough — a movie ticket doesn’t cost much less these days — the map pack’s release will likely dent sales of new games.

Thanks to the map packs, the hot-selling online warfare game, whose sales racked up $650 million in five days when it launched in November and have already topped a record-setting $1 billion, will get a further boost from today’s worldwide release. The first Black Ops map pack, Call of Duty Black Ops First Strike, is available exclusively on Microsoft’s Xbox Live online service.

As we noted before, if video games are the new Hollywood, map packs and downloadable content are smart way to satisfy the insatiable thirst that some gamers have for sequels. Instead of coming years later, though, these downloadable expansions to existing games keep players addicted to a recently released title. The new map pack will certainly keep me busy. In the past 84 days, I’ve played the full single-player campaign and risen to the equivalent of level 80 in multiplayer (in Black Ops, you can rise to level 50 in multiplayer and then you start again).

The map pack will likely create a log jam on Xbox Live today as gamers download the map pack for $14.99, or 1,200 Microsoft points.

For the video-game industry, the impact will be obvious. February’s retail sales numbers — which are likely to be low because of a shortage of Xbox 360 consoles and Kinect motion-control systems — may be weaker than usual since the downloadable map packs are not counted in retail sales figures produced by market researcher NPD. Electronic Arts will have to put up a good fight with Activision Blizzard, as EA just launched Dead Space 2 and the PlayStation 3 version of Mass Effect 2, both big releases. Sony, meanwhile, has launched Little Big Planet 2.

The rest of us are going to feel the impact, from workplace absences to empty beds. As we noted before, spouses of gamers may care about this so they can plan their solo vacations and make sure they don’t expect any romantic holidays around Feb. 1. (Yes, it was nice of Activision Blizzard not to schedule this on Valentine’s Day). On top of that, map packs consume the time of hardcore gamers as they extend the value of online play with new multiplayer arenas. A year ago, the two map packs for the previous Call of Duty game, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, sold more than 20 million units. That generated roughly $300 million in sales for Activision Blizzard.

What’s in these packs that promises to hold gamers’ attentions? The First Strike maps will include four settings: Discovery, in the Antarctic research station that is a scene in the game; Kowloon, set on the rooftops of the district of Hong Kong; Berlin Wall, featuring a firefight at Checkpoint Charlie; and Stadium, set in an American hockey rink. It also includes a Zombie map dubbed Ascension.

Kowloon looks cool with a “zip line” you can slide down to move quickly from one end of the map to another. The Discovery map has a snow bridge that can be blown up with a grenade. Berlin Wall has more room for sniping and a “no man’s land” in the middle that is covered by auto-turret machine guns. The Stadium game is a short-range map where tactical insertion, or finding a key point to enter the map, is important. Dan Bunting of developer Treyarch says that users wanted more vertical movement through buildings, more opportunities for long-range sniping, and interactivity.

Clearly, Activision Blizzard planned this map pack in advance. Last year, Activision said the downloadable map packs for the Call of Duty franchise had sold more than 20 million units. But the first map pack for Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 wasn’t ready until March 30, or 4.5 months after the first game debuted.

This time, Activision Blizzard is debuting the first map pack for Black Ops just 84 days after the debut of the game itself. The pack is out just in time, as the old maps were starting to get a little boring for me.

To celebrate the launch, the companies are hosting a “Grudge Match” on Xbox Live, where football stars Arian Foster of the Houston Texans and Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars will lead teams (along with Treyarch studio members) in matches on Xbox Live.

Check out the video preview of the map pack below.


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