Version tested: Xbox 360
What's in a name? Infinity Ward's choice of title for Modern Warfare 2's first map pack is telling. It implies an injection of content designed to revitalise an ailing economy of players, stirring up dulling passions and reversing waning success. Despite what community manager Rob Bowling may say, Activision must be concerned by the speed at which rival Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has been closing the gap between the two games in recent weeks, both in terms of sales and online engagement. So is this a stimulus package to overwhelm the competition? Perhaps it wasn't originally planned that way, but today, the hope must be there.
Then, of course, there are the financial undertones: the implication that a Stimulus Package is somehow a gesture of generosity for the Modern Warfare faithful in lean times. But many players would contend that at 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20 / €14.40) - a quarter of the price of the full game itself - this pack of five maps (only three of which are new to the series) represents anything but value for the penny-pinched.
And what of the wider context to this add-on? Infinity Ward is now a headless goliath, its two founders and studio bosses fired by parent company and arch-villain-du-jour Activision in a messy, public manner last month. What of the staff left behind to craft and polish these environments, those men and women who no doubt feel split loyalties under their new, and probably unwelcome, management? They will be unsure of their futures, made insecure by the way their leaders were taken out back and shot, and at the same time prevented from expressing discontent in public by enough legal threats to sink a Langdell.
It's enough to make you wonder if the severe technical hiccup in getting the map pack out to players on Tuesday afternoon was deliberate sabotage - or, at the very least, someone's punchline to the map pack's choice of name, a gift to gleeful headline writers: the Stimulus Package didn't work! The Stimulus Package didn't work!
Regardless, a few hours of frenzied Twittering and title-update-dissemination later, the Stimulus Package did work, in the most immediate sense at least. Five maps: three entirely new, two plucked from the previous Modern Warfare, each playable with the full range of game types. In the multiplayer shopping list of playlists, Stimulus - as it's now known - enjoys its own separate entry, allowing you to dive in with the new maps exclusively, leaving the familiar 16 bundled with the game to one side.
The first, Storm, is an abandoned warehouse district caught in the birth pains of a storm, the sound of gunfire mixing with the pitter-patter of determined rainfall. Perfect for games of Sabotage and Search and Destroy, a main warehouse area is surrounded by messy, industrial loading bays and driveways. Empty wooden pallets, stacked like impromptu staircases, allow players to hop up onto the haulage containers piled loosely at the feet of a crane that dominates the skyline.
The wire-fenced backdrop is bleak in the same way every Modern Warfare 2 map is, being a playground for brutality and fierce twitch competition, but the failing light gives Storm a melancholy edge, enemies sinking into its muted colour palette even as they dip behind the trucks that punctuate the area.
Bailout, by contrast, is a bright American apartment complex, one newly built if the "FOR RENT" banner is anything to go by. But with walls pitted with bullet holes, and giant blast bites taken about of supporting walls, these houses will remain unsold. The long connecting corridors and expansive communal area overlooking an empty swimming pool provide long, satisfying sight lines.
But there's little scope to set up camp here, as every look-out point has its own flank weakness, giving the flow of combat a cyclical, washing-machine style and ensuring players stay on the move. Nevertheless, the three-storey block of flats allows for tense cross-court shootouts, while inside, you peek around arcade and pinball machines in search of a headshot.
Salvage is the weakest of the three new maps, as the frequent voting down by players two days in testifies. A frozen salvage yard, here's another area with a large crane as its defining feature, this one backed up by a corrugated wall adorned with tyres, bonnets and other assorted car parts. Around this central area, stacks of used vehicles form aluminium corridors, shepherding players around the area's icy borders.
There are few camp points here outside of a derelict filling station and a few segments of concrete tubing, presumably intended for a pipeline that will never be. As a result, the map forces fast and frenetic movement around itself, lest a puff of misty breath give your position away.
Two of Modern Warfare's most popular maps complete the set. Overgrown is a large, overrun rural area of Russia, perfect for snipers in ghillie suits who can blend in with the thick shrubbery that envelops the area. Meanwhile, Crash is a Middle Eastern city centre, based around a downed Sea Knight helicopter in the town square, which provides a swivel point for the action. Probably the best map in the Modern Warfare canon for team games, its addition is more than welcome, familiarity somehow not breeding contempt for the majority of players.
There's no denying Infinity Ward's huge skill in map design, and even a couple of days in, it's clear that the three new maps will bed in well with their older siblings. So, to the question of value. You'll need to play for an hour or so in the Stimulus-exclusive playlists before you've seen all of the maps, and many more than that before you'll have tried each of the game modes across all of them, let alone begun to form workable strategies for each.
So, while on paper this is an expensive set, it seems a little churlish to set about Infinity Ward for its pricing. You'll already know whether the set is worth the money to you, and for those who are investing scores of hours into the game every week, the Stimulus Package will live up to its name, revitalising the game once again by providing new scope to learn, master and dominate.
But these are only new playgrounds to mess about in: the systems and wider structure remain the same, along with some of the balancing problems that exist there. For players hoping for a more radical overhaul of Modern Warfare 2's admittedly distinguished multiplayer, this will not be stimulus enough.
7 / 10