Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 - multiplayer impressions direct from Call of Duty XP

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The PC was nowhere to be seen at last night's press preview of Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer – tricksy Uncle Microsoft's clever placement of a dollar-stuffed envelope behind the U-bend in the Activision executive toilet paid off yet again. No PC, no PS3, just rampant 360 love.

The PC was to be seen however, very occasionally, slightly off-centre in the hearts of Infinity Ward – who again reiterated a renewed dedication to dedicated servers, despite company policy seemingly being to steer clear of any boast or exploration of MW3's technical prowess. Eager to distract attention from an elephant in the room tattooed with 'Battlefield 3' on its flank and 'Frostbite 2' along the trunk, the order of the day was refinement and intelligent growth of gameplay systems rather than conspicuously absent technological wonderment.

Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer update is one of balance, consideration and intelligent rechanneling of existing systems. There is no revolution here, but that doesn't mean familiar and – some might think – sacrosanct mainstays haven't been up-ended, divided, multiplied or simply been given their marching orders.

One Man Army and its cheeky mid-game class swap? Out. Those epic Last Stand pistol shots from the floor? Gone. Shotguns as secondary weapons? Game-ending Nukes? Goodbye and good luck. That bloody awful Commando perk that gave a soldier's knife arm the reach of an orang-utan? Let's pretend that never happened…

Perhaps the biggest change comes through a Kill Streak shuffle. With hindsight the totting up of kills without dying providing explosive rewards only truly worked well in TDM – exotic modes where massacres didn't necessarily mean good teamplay never quite gelled with the system. Weaker players would continually die streakless through the bombardment of others, and objective grabs simply didn't always require multiple vanquished enemies.

Points towards death-machine rewards can now come from capturing objectives, flags and good teamplay, then, rather than simple examples of man's inhumanity to man. What's more rewards are now all subdivided into three potential Strike Packages: the streaks for each of which are built up differently. Assault will be familiar – you build a streak of kills without dying, and earn your chosen offensive rewards. Beyond this, the ways you earn your pocket money gets a little more unfamiliar…

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Choose the Support Strike Package and you won't lose the points you've amassed when you're inevitably riddled with bullets – meaning that you can happily run into the danger-zone for the benefit of your team. Support Strike rewards are those that benefit your whole side – UAV, SAM turrets, Recon and the like – meaning that Objective-based game modes will have far less lone wolves operating with their growing killstreak arsenal in mind and not necessarily the team's well-being.

Well. Kind of. Those with truly astounding skill may well plump for the Specialist Strike Package – which ropes you off from the rest of your team, denying you all those wonderful toys, but showers you with a chosen order of perks as you murder your way through the map. Get a streak of eight points and you'll get every perk available, but take a bullet and you'll drop to the foot of the ladder. Meanwhile, of course, your team-mates will be running around earning strafe runs of attack helicopters, controllable heli-drones, turrets that take out incoming missile-fire, drops of juggernaut armour, bomb-disposal robots draped with machine-guns and countless other new streak bonuses – so the cards are very much stacked against you.

I took to the streets of Paris, a German shopping centre and a fictional underground stop called Middleton Station (other COD-english stations IW have dreamt up include Wrong Shoes St. and Felafel Lane) and can report these systems work, and work well. One of MW3's new game mode's, it seems, will be oddly familiar if you've been around the block in terms of Quake and UT mods – as indeed will the mutator-esque game mode creator that will come with the package.

Kill Confirm sees dog-tags fall from crumpled bodies as you take them down. Collect the tags and you confirm the kill and earn your side an extra 50 points - collect the tags of a fallen ally and you deny your rivals those same points. With kill-stealing avoided by a generous donation for both parties if someone else collects your prey's tag (and a sudden urge to throw grenades wherever you see your buddies fall) it's a neat twist on TDM that'll certainly go towards broadening the casual play-list.

After the 'buy everything, try everything' ethos of Black Ops MW3 is also, thankfully, rewarding specialisation – going so far as levelling up your weapons the more you use them; at intervals letting you improve their kick, range, number of attachments, stability and the like. Add into this a selection of bonuses you can select when you prestige, a far higher top-level and unlocks of challenge-sets and certain perks far extremely late into the levelling progression and you start to realise that this is very much a MP update built to satisfy MW3s legions of dedicated acolytes. Activision are tying their aficionados closer to the war machine than ever before.

Call of Duty Elite is clearly the dual assault in this particular pincer movement – its premium service now confirmed as a $5 per month affair that over time will provide twenty smaller care packages of DLC (that'll be stacked together in the now familiar, later and pricier bundles for non-premium users) alongside ranked clan support, refereed competitions with real prizes, expert strategy analysis and weekly videos made by (people who work for) Ridley Scott and comedy-types Will Arnett and Jason Bateman.

Facebook integration (so now you can play Search and Destroy with that girl you used to fancy from College!), grouping, stat-whoring, heat-map playback and the ability to fiddle with your load-out on an app during your daily commute are all free, however, which even the most seasoned of Acti-sceptics will have trouble in sneering at whole-heartedly.

For all its bluster, silliness and exploding helicopters – the systems that lie deep within Call of Duty are complicated and occasionally tangled affairs. Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer is very much Infinity Ward (and friends) getting their house in order – streamlining, affording for different play-styles, smiling on players of mixed abilities and generally making their game a more pleasant (if slightly more complicated) place to point loaded guns at people. It is not a revolution in multiplayer, nor is it the PC-love haven that is Battlefield 3, but it is nevertheless a well-thought iteration designed to ensure that the COD Empire's world domination will endure throughout the ages. Look upon its works, ye mighty, and despair…