So, where were we?
Oh yes. Russia has invaded the continental United States. An armada has arrived on the shores of the eastern seaboard, battles have been fought around strip malls and fast food joints, and gunfights have torn up the White House lawns.
All of which means that Modern Warfare 3 isn't just the first Call of Duty Infinity Ward now in conjunction with Sledgehammer Games has made since the legally complex departure of West and Zampella. It's the first Call of Duty Infinity Ward has made that begins at a point that has no connection to any kind of reality. The franchise has kicked itself loose from Planet Earth one plot twist, one nuke launch, and one snow-covered skidoo chase at a time. The series that was once so eager to tell the story of the everyday Joes at the sharp end of each global conflict is now heading towards what entertainment historians might refer to as the Late Brosnan period of its creative development.
That said, it's not looking half bad off the back of it. A recent reveal of the single-player campaign arguably not that close to being the most important part of a COD release shows that the franchise's spectacle engines are in robust Late Brosnan health. Watching developers walk through brief and enormously loud sections of New York and London levels suggests that the guiding principle for the latest game has been More of the Same, and Bigger Helpings. That means more set-pieces, bigger explosions, and another thick layer of scripting just to make sure that every last element goes according to plan. It's Call of Duty: Shut Up and Hang Onto Something, and if you're weary at the prospect of funfair ride mechanics enemies that won't die until the script renders them vulnerable, barrels which will explode wedged in with barrels that are just scenery it's worth remembering that we're promised more Spec Ops and more Multiplayer too. Come release day, there should be lots of twitchy tactical freedom in the box, ready to work alongside the on-rails carnage of story mode.
It should be a game of extremes, then. A trip into the Lower Manhattan level certainly hints that, come November, you'll be moving through a single-player campaign in which almost nothing is left to chance. Every waypoint marker leads you past pretty destruction, each plot beat calls for bespoke - possibly one-off - animations from your team-mates as they nervously lean against walls or tap each other on shoulders to issue frantic signals. As a player, it's weird to have this much care and attention lavished on you: this is a game that never sends you up a ladder and onto a rooftop unless you're going to glimpse a bomber going overhead at just the right second as you emerge, and which will never let a pranged chopper lazily spiral down from the sky unless it will knock against your chopper as it falls, sending you into a world-jumbling spin until your pilot rights everything at the last moment.
The developers have done an excellent job of ensuring that this clockwork world at least looks like chaos. Between the echoing skyscraper battlements of Wall Street, there's a real sense of being in the middle of a massive conflict, even as the game's unshakable pacing mechanisms dole out a mere handful of enemies for you to fight at each turn. New York's occupied by the Russian army at this point in the campaign, leaving you on a mission to trek through Manhattan, gathering delta team stragglers, and fighting into a wind that's already thick with ash and burning wreckage: crazy as it seems, the design renders it fairly convincing.
We've been here before, of course most recently with Crysis 2 but COD still manages to make New York feel like an event. On your way to a rendezvous with other resistance fighters, you'll battle the enemy both in the streets themselves, pinned-down by gun trucks and hunkering behind chunks of concrete as the metallic chattering of weaponry fills the air, and inside shattered buildings, working your way through offices, once plush, now carefully trashed, taking it one door, one artfully exposed staircase, and one flashbang at a time.
You may not have a great deal of control over how to approach many of the encounters at least not in the sections Activision's currently unveiling but Modern Warfare 3 certainly mixes up its target ranges for you fairly regularly. Enemies pop up first in the foreground and then in the distance, while the campaign sends you through the trading floor of Stock Exchange where you have to inch from one piece of cover to the next (it's a close-up, low visibility battle that brings back plenty of memories of the first Modern Warfare's TV station assault) one minute, and then upwards onto the overhead gantries to whittle down the ranks of enemies spawning below the next.
It mixes up weapons too Manhattan includes everything from standard assault rifles to the AT4 and that lovely grenade launcher - and keeps the objectives ticking over nicely. Meet the team, flank the Russian forces, head to the rooftops and take out a radar jammer. After that, there's just time for a quick and tightly choreographed buzz through the skyscraper canyons of the island while you take down a few rival whirlybirds. Up here you can see that New York's a wreck, but it's nowhere near as artful or meticulous a wreck as Crysis 2's take on the city. Instead, texture and detailing has been sacrificed for a rock solid 60 fps, and it's a trade that makes a lot of sense. This is a busy world that moves past you at great speeds, and it would be a crime to see it halt or stutter.
London, meanwhile, offers a change of scenery, but refuses to release the firm grip on pacing. Dropped into the shoes of a gruff Statham type named Burns, you're on a night mission in dreary British rain, sent in with your team to take a peak at a supply depot where the Russians are moving something unpleasant around in a convoy of vans.
The level kicks off in a semi-Dickensian warren of alleyways and dead ends as your squad moves into the facility, clearing out buildings before heading to the target. There are plenty of people for you to shoot with your silenced P90 "silenced" is a relative term in the COD fun park, mind but the real pleasure lies in seeing your partners neatly taking out their targets around you, too: sniping through windows from a distance, or killing up-close. It's a beautiful piece of atmospheric theatre, and the kind of thing that COD games excel at.
Once the mission turns hot (I felt a little like Statham myself just using that term) it's back to painstakingly-crafted panic, as you race through an industrial estate ducking bouncing concrete pipes that have come loose before leaping into a pick-up manning the turret, obviously to chase after a runaway tube train. The game's budget is being spent everywhere you look before a truly mesmerising crash, you zip through stations where individually animated commuters wait on the platforms, and out into a huge rain swept skybox, dominated by Canary Wharf - but while it's a classic Modern Warfare moment, it can feel, just a little, like something Nathan Drake should be doing rather than the hardened realists of the SAS.
COD just can't resist the lure of cinema, then, even when subsequent playthroughs will potentially mean that the cinema you're getting is the bank truck robbery scene from Groundhog Day. One, two, three, dog bark. Five, six, seven, air strike. It's elegantly done though, and the best scripted sequences out there, like the building collapse from Uncharted 2, and the plane hijacking that caps the first Modern Warfare, proves that there's a real Time Crisis thrill to memorising spawn patterns and tightening your racing line through a level. What's more, it's hardly easy to pull off, either, as Homefront, with its cut-price theatrics, has already made clear.
Talking of rivals, is Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3's big competitor this Christmas, likely to make the same choices? Will it match this campaign, or counter it, exchanging scripted thrills for something a little less linear? Can't wait to find out: November is going to be pretty interesting.