Version tested: Xbox 360
Collection 1? What sort of name is that? Come on, Call of Duty, you can do better than this. Content Collection 1 is what it's called on an internal spreadsheet for the accountants. The players expect - nay, demand - a little more sizzle in their presentation, something to get their blood pumping, something that sounds like it belongs on Ross Kemp's Ultimate Force. Operation Blazing Trident. Operation Exploding Panther. That sort of thing.
Yet despite its desperately unassuming title, Modern Warfare 3's first widely available map pack - now open to all Xbox Live gamers, after being quietly slipped to Elite subscribers earlier, and coming to PS3 and PC soon - still gets the pulse racing.
"The biggest content pack for any Call of Duty game ever," boasts the dashboard advert, so what exactly constitutes such a generous feast? Four multiplayer maps and two new Spec Ops missions, is the answer. It may not sound that much more stuffed than the usual map pack, especially with a 1200 Microsoft Points price tag attached, but there's considerable value for money on offer here.
Let's start with the Spec Ops missions, both of which repurpose locations from the single-player campaign for co-operative play. Black Ice opens with a typical bit of CoD vajazzle as you hurtle through an icy mine approach on a snowmobile. One player steers and occasionally pops off shots over the handlebars; the other rides at the back, shooting at your pursuers. There are ramps to jump over and concrete pipes to thunder through, so this is all about blockbuster bombast rather than any real strategy. It's also possible to fail this section without really knowing why, as the game bases your success on some fairly woolly criteria.
Stay ahead of the pack, shoot as many as you can, and you'll reach the mine entrance where a brief stand-off takes place. Breach the mine, and it's a quick jaunt inside to trigger a self-destruct sequence, then fight your way back out to the waiting helicopter for extraction. It's a short and sweet mission, one you'll turn to for simple thrills rather than any deeper challenge, but as a way of playing to Modern Warfare's strengths - and reintroducing snowmobiles - it gets the job done in muscular style.
Negotiator, the second Spec Ops mission, is much more interesting. Set in and around the temple and streets from the Persona Non Grata campaign level, it offers a ferociously tough challenge right from the beginning, even on regular difficulty. You and your partner are separated at the start as one player is being held at gunpoint with other hostages and the other is on the way to save them. It's entirely possible to fail almost instantly here, but even once you're reunited the difficulty remains high. There are more hostages and civilians through the level, 35 in all, and the game keeps tabs on how many you save or allow to be executed. If too many fall to friendly fire, it's an instant fail.
This gives the mission a distinctive rhythm, with several slow-motion breach moments, as well as constant split-second decisions and tests of your marksmanship as you round a corner to be confronted with yet more armed enemies and vulnerable hostages. Earning the achievements for beating Negotiator on Veteran, and for beating it with no hostages lost, will be quite a badge of pride.
Onto the maps, and it's interesting to note that post-match polling of other players reveals that nobody can agree on which one is best. That, to me, suggests an unusually well balanced selection
Piazza is a map in the classic COD deathmatch mould, a slippery-smooth circuit of interlocking pathways that lead you up, around, under and through a beautiful Mediterranean town square. It's perfect for close-quarters fighting, and that's where Call of Duty is at its strongest (hence Battlefield 3's next add-on making a much-advertised push into CQ territory). It's incredibly easy for enemies to flank and surround you wherever you are on the map, but just as easy for the situation to be reversed with a little shrewd teamwork.
Similarly claustrophobic and tense is Black Box, which also features the collection's most striking concept: a battle fought in and around the wreck of Air Force One, which has crashlanded in suburbia. From the interior of the plane itself to the half-demolished homes left in its wake, Black Box has the same urgent flow as Piazza, but set in a context that immediately makes every encounter hum with action-movie energy.
For those who prefer a little more room to stretch their legs, Liberation offers a Central Park surrogate with wider spaces and longer viewpoints. A tangle of subterranean tunnels satisfies those who prefer shotgun play, but it's the dried-out riverbed running through the map that dictates the direction of the battle's ebb and flow. A sniper hot spot, it offers rapid progression across the map but comes with serious risks attached.
Finally, Overwatch takes you to the top of an under-construction skyscraper, adding instant-death falls to the list of hazards to watch out for. There's a natural fall-back area at one end, but it's flanked on all sides by possible entry points. An exposed bridge offers the same snipers-and-commandos encounters as Liberation's river, while walkways above a central area can quickly become a killing box if you're not careful.
All four are solid maps, cut from the same cloth as classic COD maps of old, and fans will recognise the feel if not the specific details. What makes Collection 1 that much more generous than its predecessors is that each multiplayer map is also playable in Survival mode.
Balancing a map for both competitive and co-operative play is no mean feat, yet Activision has pulled it off. Sections of the map that were dashed past in deathmatch suddenly become essential fortification points. Tricks that worked perfectly in Capture the Flag only serve to leave you separated and vulnerable. You have to relearn the maps all over again, and it's a testament to how strong the various online components of Modern Warfare 3 are that this extra layer of gameplay works so well.
It can be hard to muster enthusiasm for map packs, as cynicism about DLC in general, and the community-splitting effects of Elite in particular, are weighed up against the hunger for new material. But judged against any reasonable criteria, Modern Warfare 3's first serving of extras is an unmistakable success. Fun and challenging Spec Ops missions, plus excellent maps that have been precision-engineered to complement the COD play style, all add up to an essential download.
9 / 10