Now, let's talk about guns. As you might expect, there are a lot of firearms in MW2, and while I certainly don't have time to mention them all, it's worth discussing some of the ones that stand out so far. The FAMAS is one of the three weapons available from the get-go, a French assault rifle that effectively replaces the M-16 from the last game. It fires three-round bursts, is very accurate and serves as an extremely versatile tool - so I expect most people will choose this as their early favourite. Another popular choice will be the aforementioned Barrett sniper rifle - a gun that was previously only unlocked at rank 49. By default it comes equipped with a heartbeat detector - a screen clipped to the side of the gun that gives a vague indication of nearby hostiles and friendlies. To be honest, I suspect this add-on will work better with close range weapons, but the gun itself is hugely fun to use - especially when you headshot some fool and get the "One Shot, One Kill" challenge.
Riot shields are one example of the way this game departs from the more down-to-earth flavour of the first Modern Warfare. If you so choose, you can now swap your primary weapon for one of these bulletproof badboys: when it's active you will move slowly, your vision will be partially obscured and you won't be able to fire a weapon, but you'll also be largely invincible to standard fire - unless someone flanks you or chucks a grenade over your head. It's incredibly confusing and rather intimidating the first time you come up against someone with a shield, as you suddenly have to change all your tactics. I utterly failed on my first attempt to deal with such an opponent: I backed him into a corner, uselessly emptying a FAMAS clip at him, and eventually started swiping away with my knife. And when that failed, and my spirit was broken, my foe switched to his dual-wield machine pistols and blew me away.
I have absolutely no doubt that some people will hate the shield-bearers, but Infinity Ward is 100 per cent confident that they're a balanced part of the game. When the shield is up you can't attack, and when you go on the offensive you'll have to do so with a secondary weapon - but on the plus side, you'll have your back covered. While we're on the subject, there's now a huge variety of secondary armaments. You can still use pistols, which are once again the quickest guns to equip, but you can also take shotguns, machine pistols or grenade launchers. On a similar note, you can now take a whole bunch of things to battle in place of your grenades. There are throwing knives, semtex (essentially a sticky grenade) and, perhaps most unusually of all, tactical insertion markers. The latter allow you to spawn wherever you like on a map: set one up deep within enemy territory, and you'll be able to return to the frontlines almost immediately after a death.
Will features like these unbalance the carefully weighted brilliance of Modern Warfare's multiplayer? It's possible, but let's have some faith in Infinity Ward. These guys know what made the first game so good, and they've been playing seven shades out of their new baby. If they're going to allow people to choose their spawn point, or to equip an assault rifle with both a silencer AND a red-dot sight (yes, you can), we should believe that these options will work without being overpowered. It's too early to tell, of course, but on the basis of what I played on Tuesday night, I can certainly tell you this: the multiplayer in Modern Warfare 2 is utterly sublime.
Why is it so good? In precise terms, I really can't say. After the preview event a few of us weathered hacks were discussing the game and why it works so well, but we failed to pinpoint the single ingredient that makes the magic happen. Perhaps that's the point - it's a lot of things. It's the sheer effortless style with which it delivers the thrills - the oh-so-slick smoothness, the speed, the rattling gunfire. It's the detail of the level design - the favela map with its abandoned barber shop, colourful propaganda and a pair of rusty goalposts in a dusty yard. It's the utter rush when you launch a grenade into a clump of people and score three kills at once, or when you shoot through a wall and cap the guy crouching behind. It's the knot of tension that forms in your gut as you plant a suitcase bomb, the terror as three enemies rush your position, and the whoop-out-loud triumph as the explosives blow the four of you into oblivion.
On top of all this, in a quite different way, it's the realisation that competitive multiplayer is just one part of the deal. We've seen barely anything of this game yet: there's a full set of co-op missions, and on top of that, there's the entire single-player campaign. I mean, who doesn't remember the main story in CoD 4? That incredible bit with the nuke, the wonderfully dark AC-130 section, and the bloody drama of the whole end sequence? Hell, even the Ferris wheel section, the one battle that pissed everyone off, even that section was pretty memorable. I have no idea what awaits us this time around, but I know that I can't wait to find out. Will Modern Warfare 2 be the best game of 2009? Let's put it this way... you wouldn't want to bet against it.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is due out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on November 10.