If you're a paid Elite subscriber and an Xbox 360 owner, you'll be getting Content Pack 3 on March 13th. If you're an Xbox 360 owner but you're not a paid Elite subscriber, you'll have the opportunity to pick it up - bundled with Content Packs 1 and 2 - as traditional paid DLC on March 20th. If you're on PS3 or PC, regardless of what you're paying for, you're going to have to wait for the time being. Thank heavens Elite came along and made everything so much simpler, eh? Thank heavens for timed platform exclusives, too.
Confusion aside, I got the chance to take a pretty good look at the three new maps that make up Content Pack 3 at an Activision event last week, and the good news is that they're all worth the wait - no matter how long your personal situation means you'll actually be left hanging on for. Weighing in at three maps in total, what's on offer here is as big as the first two content packs combined, and you're in for lots of hectic, death-defying fun, moving along at 60 fps.
Let's start with Black Box, as it's the only standard multiplayer map in the selection and probably the one that you're going to spend most time on overall. Black Box is a fairly large chunk of territory, and it's set around a crashed airplane. A crashed airplane? If you're picturing the buckled body of a Cessna sticking out of a turnip field somewhere, you're probably thinking COD's lost its flair for drama. Maybe your next Spec Ops assignment will involve queuing to buy donuts with exactly the right loose change, eh? Don't worry: the plane in question is actually Air Force One, and the surrounding landscape is the Hollywood hills.
That's COD, isn't it? It's ridiculous Tom Clancy geopolitical fantasy melded with a little tinsel town glamour, and it makes for a truly spectacular shooting arena, too. With the aircraft's fuselage split into handy chunks down at the far end of the map, you've got plenty of gloomy close-combat spaces to lurk within, while the rest of the area is given over to split-level condos and lavish Mulholland Hills-style mansions, all plate glass, exposed brickwork, and stone hearths. If most of the walls weren't missing or splattered with jet-fuel, I'd be shopping around for a realtor.
These houses and the condos are the map's stroke of genius, as it happens, offering warrenous interiors that still provide good distanced options for snipers. It takes a surprisingly long time to learn the layout of a space as complex as this, and that means that Black Box should be something of a wild card in multiplayer rotation for a little longer than usual.
In between the plane and the buildings there's a stretch of open space that fills up with Claymores surprisingly quickly, while it can initially be very hard to tell when you're hidden and when somebody has the drop on you from an unusual vantage point. On top of all that, the map's filled with wonderful little details, from the tumbledown luggage in Air Force One, to the knock-off Mucha prints hanging in some of the condos. Black Box: I'm a fan, I think.
Black Box can be played as a Survival map, of course, but the other two offerings of Content Pack 3 are straight-up Spec Ops fun from the start. They're called Black Ice and Negotiator, and they're both firmly pitched towards cinematic panic - a sub-genre of the online shooter that COD pretty much owns by this point.
Black Ice delivers real GoldenEye flashbacks: it starts with a snowmobile chase right down into the heart of a mine - it's a diamond mine, obviously - where you then dismount and blast your way through some concrete tunnels before trashing a vital server room and then fighting back up to the surface. It's the best kind of Spec Ops map, in other words - its scenario manages to tell a neat little story, and while you're rushing along, your options are constantly in flux.
The snowmobile stuff is suitably Double Dash-like: if you're playing solo, you're going to be driving, but if you've got a co-op partner, they'll be strapped to the back seat, blasting away at enemies and dropping bananas. There are plenty of jumps as you head downhill, and a near-endless supply of baddy snowmobiles to shoot up too, allowing for plenty of pretty COD fireballs. The terrain's frosty but industrial - hence the GoldenEye flashbacks - and the tunnel into the diamond mine has to be navigated on foot. For most of this sequence, you're shooting down into the relative darkness as encamped enemies fire back up. It's great for honing those grenade skills.
Once you've smashed up the server, you've got just over a minute to get back to the surface, and this is where the developers spam you with angry reinforcements. It's a simple trick, perhaps, but the balancing seems just right to ensure you're almost always down to your last few seconds before you see daylight again. It's frantic and it's exhilarating, and it rewards the skilful and punishes the reckless. If PopCap made a COD map - which is a terrifying prospect in itself - it would probably feel a little like this.
Negotiator, meanwhile, is set in India, in a sprawling chunk of tenements. If you're playing co-op, you'll actually start in different positions on the map, with one player escaping captivity and trying to locate the other, who's holed up in an apartment somewhere and is about to be executed. Hurry up, eh?
This map's all about breaching rooms and picking off any targets lurking inside. Once you've tracked down your partner and saved him, you have to progress through the deadly narrow streets of the city together, finding a series of hostages who are being held in various houses, blowing the doors in, and trying to make sure that you only shoot the people who, like, deserve it. It's about thinking fast, prioritising targets, and working out who not to kill. That's a pretty simple agenda, perhaps, but it's going to be exhausting if you're aiming for top marks.
Given COD's fairly complex back-end set-up, it only seemed fair to ask which development team was making all this DLC at the moment. The answer appears to be that everybody's chipping in a little: Sledgehammer, Infinity Ward, and good old Raven. The important thing, though, is that you can't tell where the joins are. Content Pack 3 isn't going to redefine your expectations of COD, but it will remind you just how much arcade fun is still to be had with the series. Whenever you finally get the chance to download it, of course.