The developers at Treyarch must be feeling immense pressure right now. They have to be, when one considers the environment Call of Duty: Black Ops is about to land in. To start with it's the latest instalment in what has now become a world-conquering franchise. Its predecessor broke international sales records and also placed itself firmly on the mainstream's radar with the "No Russian" level. Talk to 10 people who have no interest in videogames and it's likely that, along with GTA, Pac-Man, Mario and Sonic, they'll have heard of Call of Duty.
Second there's the pressure to compete, not just with Modern Warfare 2 but with some of the genre's biggest franchises in the run-up to Christmas. By the time Black Ops trundles out of the gate in November, both Halo: Reach and Medal of Honor will be jostling for position at the cash register. Last year, MW2's closest competitors quietly and considerately removed themselves from the festive retail window. This year no one's being that polite.
Finally, there are the expectations of Activision. With Infinity Ward going dark after losing key personnel, Black Ops is Treyarch's ticket to the big leagues and the developer knows that it doesn't just need to hit one out of the park - it needs to put it into orbit. For better or worse, the game's multiplayer mode will play a key part in whether it's able to do this.
While MW2 was rightfully criticised for the length and lunacy of its campaign mode, its multiplayer is looked at by many as the gold standard in military-themed FPS shooters. Treyarch needs to go one better than that, so let's get the obvious question out of the way first: how does Black Ops's multiplayer stack up next to Modern Warfare 2's online battleground?
As it turns out, very respectably. The core gameplay is based on a modified version of the World at War engine, so you should feel right at home. The controls are customisable and the intuitive target-lock makes a return, so yes, you can still quick-scope with sniper rifles. The HUD is very similar to other COD games. Two notable differences are the addition of demarcated squares on the map (handy for telling team-mates where the enemies are) and the fact that the screen isn't caked in blood when you get shot, so you can actually see what you're doing.
Players still have a ton of customisation on offer in terms of killstreaks, perks, equipment, skins and an arsenal of weapons, which are period specific to the Cold War. Players can create classes which utilise any number of combinations of these different aspects and the more they play online, the more XP they earn, which results in promotions and unlocking more content.
The match types are familiar, as is the construction of the maps, if not their outward appearance. The four environments available at tonight's preview event tick all the usual COD boxes - multiple entries to each room, narrow stretches between buildings, plenty of balconies and high points to snipe from - but all are varied enough to offer different tactical advantages to players.
"Cracked" is set in a rundown shantytown in Vietnam, "Summit" takes place in a military facility on a mountaintop and "Radiation" is basically a nuclear power station. The best of the four is "Launch", where the action plays out in a missile facility as a missile is about to take off; at one point in the battle, the room myself and two opponents were in was engulfed in flames as the rocket fired its boosters.
So far, so Call of Duty. Still, Treyarch has some tricks up its sleeve and the most impressive of these is how Black Ops will satisfy multiplayer veterans while managing to attract players who previously had no interest in online play.
To lure in the uninitiated, Treyarch has included a mode called Combat Training. Here players square off against computer-controlled bots in online match-types using multiplayer maps. It's a good way to give novices a crash course in COD's online mode; they can play solo or with friends (in local or online co-op) and they toggle the difficulty of the AI from accessibly easy to insanely hard. It still may be no substitute for the real thing - we don't know if the AI camps, for example - and it uses a completely independent rank progression, but it's certainly a way to make the experience of jumping into your first online match less intimidating.
COD fans will probably have little use for Combat Training though - beyond testing the difficulty of the AI or for when the internet goes down - and are more likely to concentrate on Black Ops' new content. The loadout screen offers a couple of new and interesting additions; apart from the new weapons, there's some new equipment such as motion sensors and camera spikes, both of which can be used remotely to pick out opponents on the map.