Traditional indicators like pre-order figures or column inches aren't what tell you how big Modern Warfare 2's going to be this Christmas. It's the way other titles have quietly disappeared from its release window, giving Soap MacTavish and his bristly-chinned friends a clear run for their deadly assault on Santa's base camp. It's almost as if Infinity Ward has been staging a brutal deathmatch with its competition over the past few months, blasting triple-A titles deep into Q1 with frightening efficiency, until only a handful of other giants - like Bungie's Orbital Drop Shock Troopers - remain on the battlefield.
While the single-player campaign promises to be a typically zippy thrill ride in which bombs will fall, tracer fire will bisect the sky and grim-faced commando types will make last-minute escapes on Skidoos, it's the multiplayer that should truly frighten the competition. COD's main campaign is always brilliantly-staged cinema but, inevitably, there are only so many times you'll want to sit through it. Multiplayer is more like a sport - and you can play sports forever.
With Special Ops handling co-op duties via a series of high-action mini-missions, standard multiplayer has the unenviable task of building upon something that's already staggeringly comprehensive. COD4's online arenas remain intense and often hilarious as they hurtle players through a gauntlet of stylish warzones. Their tumbledown walls and smouldering tanks present vivid snapshots of chaotic battlegrounds, while the devilishly manipulative levelling system is always on hand to provide you with that illusory sense of actually having achieved something.
Luckily it seems that judicious iterations are one of the things that Infinity Ward excels at. A recent chance to mess about with a handful of Modern Warfare 2's new multiplayer maps suggests a game that balances continuity with strategic expansion, and a developer that is absolutely certain it knows what it's doing.
Customisation appears to be the main thrust, and the theme is expressed in a number of ways. A new system for Killstreaks leads the charge, with the game allowing players the ability to unlock new varieties as well as pick and choose which ones to take into battle. There's still a fairly rigid structure in place - if a particular reward requires nine kills to access it you can't suddenly reassign it to a five kill slot, unbalancing the game in the process - but this time there are multiple Killstreak types available to you at every juncture.
And, as you'll be choosing a load-out of just three, it will be important to decide between a cluster of relatively tame low-body count 'Streaks, or a collection of much deadlier weapons which will need prolonged bursts of seamless murder to unlock. Whichever you go for there are a few potential classics amongst the new options, ranging from Care Package, an aerial drop marker which allows you to call in ammo or random goodies from a passing chopper (possibly bringing the crate down violently on top of an unsuspecting enemy while you're at it), to a player-controlled predator missile attack. This leaves you vulnerable as you call it in via a laptop, but can be unusually deadly whenever opposition team members cluster together during objective-based games.
In turn, Killstreak choices feed into the expanded Create a Class options, which, besides including new weapons and attachments for primary and secondary slots (early favourites are the weighty, potentially unwieldy, .44 Magnum, presumably shipped in from World at War, and the ATA4, a portable rocket launcher which needs no more introduction) now has space for one item of miscellaneous equipment, and a selectable “Deathstreak”.
The latter is a simple piece of yin-yang game balancing, giving players who die a lot a gentle advantage in the form of perks. These range from respawns with a slightly longer health bar to the ability to steal the class loadout of whoever just plugged you.
The equipment slot, however, is more of a game changer. Straightforward items like throwing knives or a Semtex grenade may provide nothing more than a touch of unruly colour to familiar offensive options but a tricksier offering, such as the 'Tactical Insertion' flares that can be placed around the map and turned into spawn points, is going to take some getting used to. It has the disconcerting power to bend rules which have so far been inflexible, in this case potentially putting enemies straight back into your territory seconds after you've just killed them.
Most of the new equipment balances strengths with weaknesses - portable blast shields stop you from taking damage, for instance, but they also slow you down and stop you from shooting back. But when you put the right gadget together with the perfect Killstreak loadout, you get a depth of potential tactics that simply wasn't there before.
Alongside unveiling its customisation options, Infinity Ward is finally lifting the lid on two new game modes. CTF builds on World at War's blueprint but adds a few crucial seconds to the time it takes to steal the enemy's flag - thereby upping your vulnerability at the worst moment while ensuring that if you race in without backup and a decent game plan, you're toast.
Demolition, meanwhile, places two potential bomb sites on the map and divides teams into attackers and defenders. The former are tasked with infiltrating the enemy and setting explosives. Both games are turn-based (a necessity for CTF, as Infinity Ward hasn't built any symmetrical maps), and both scale well, effortlessly accommodating well-organised teams with good lines of communication yet without diminishing the ramshackle fun of being thrown together with an ad hoc collections of idiots.
Elsewhere three new maps suggest that, after the dusty greys and browns of COD4, Modern Warfare 2 is shaping up to be a more colourful game. Favela is the most traditional of the new offerings, a ravaged Brazilian town with shattered alleyways and piles of handy rubble where a familiar kind of street fighting is the order of the day. Matches play fast and bloody as bodies pile up against the stamped tin walls. In close quarters, it's up to your ears alone to alert you to incoming dangers.
Airy where Favela is claustrophobic and cramped, the second map, Afghan, is nestled within a brutal mountain range, a ring of craggy rock encircling an open space where a large aircraft has come down in pieces. Scrubby paths and forgotten bunkers litter the outer edges of the map, but the rusting hulk in the central area is both a natural congregation point for less cautious players and a source of unusual cover options: a combination that makes for some unpredictable encounters.
The third map unveiled marks a bit of a departure for the series -the usual shanty towns and factories have been rejected in favour of a distinctly posh urban cityscape, albeit one that's been comprehensively blown to pieces. Putting aside what it has to say about the kind of adventures Soap and Co will be getting into this time around, Highrise can be a hard location to get your bearings in initially.
Spawning inside of partially destroyed office buildings and penthouses, before exiting via a missing wall to find yourself in a Mirror's Edge world of cranes and lofty rooftops makes this one of the more incongruous COD maps. It's also one of the most complex in terms of blending internal and external spaces. The golden evening light ensures that it's a visual highlight, however, and, once you start to learn the strange rhythms it's a blast to play.
The waiting's almost over, then, but with further modes and maps still to be revealed, perks and Killstreaks to be finalised and no word yet on a strategy for DLC, there's a lot that remains unknown about Infinity Ward's sequel. One thing's immediately clear, however: from the familiar kick of recoil to the ominous flitter-flatter of an approaching chopper, the core of the experience remains gloriously intact.
This is still a game where you can kill or be killed with a patronising efficiency, still a game with the poise and winning arrogance to provide the better players with shiny new toys as its primary means of encouraging the weaker elements to improve. New and old hands alike will find plenty to enjoy here, while those who refused to migrate when World of War came along finally have a new game to play.