Getting my hands on a not-quite complete version of the new Brothers in Arms game - a sorely underrated and oft-neglected tactical FPS series - has been one of the most refreshing and galvanising experiences so far this year.
It feels great to be reminded of how dependably excellent Gearbox's take on the World War II shooter is, and it has left me keen to retread Hell's Highway at release.
The reason for this burst of enthusiasm seems to be down to the fact that so few developers have tried to mimic what Gearbox have done. Indeed, the BiA series has kept a relatively low profile since the first release in 2005, and I'm almost glad of that. Brothers in Arms' way of doing things is a pleasant surprise every time I revisit it. Gears of War might have used hard cover and teamwork, but the subtle-yet-intense blend of small-arms tactics and perpetual flanking manoeuvres keep the BiA games in a theatre of their own.
What's more, this is the true sequel to the original, which continues the Matt Baker storyline, rather than the offshoot of the second game. Now we'll get to see what becomes of the scar-jawed hero in the savage fighting that followed Operation Market Garden.
So it's fortunate for my temper that the really-rather-realistic formula hasn't been tampered with for this latest game, and you remain in charge of two fire teams as you make your way across the various environments that the game delivers. The improvements, however, are spilling out of every pixel. The most obvious is the Unreal 3.0 engine and the rendering of farms, towns, and villages that you are fighting your way through. They're wondrously detailed, and the violence suitably visceral. Only the weird focus-blur effect really seemed to get in the way of the game looking as good as any WWII game has looked to date.
Gearbox evidently understand both the necessity for grabbing us by the eyeballs, and the practical process of making levels that are surprising and fun. The opening sections of Hell's Highway throw a huge array of challenges at your small team: the escalation from killing a couple of German patrols, up to tooth-and-nail urban combat against mechanised infantry is shockingly fast. If the entire game is able to keep up this kind of pace then we are indeed in for a special thrill.
Your team-mates and adversaries are much improved too, with far better death-avoidance and path-finding, which allows them to side-step death both when you do something too clever, or something too stupid. They're a little more realistic too - your hiding chums will whisper to each other behind cover, rather than give away their position. It's subtle stuff, but it really makes a difference to the fidelity of your disbelief-suspension.
On a more practical basis, the game finally has a useful map. This time it pauses the game and lets you look over a clear top-down hand-drawn map, which shows where the objectives are, where the scouted enemy positions are, and where your chums are. It's really useful - y'know, exactly like the previous weird zoom-map thing wasn't.
Perhaps what's most exciting, however, is that you'll be able to play through the campaign mode co-operatively. Our fondness for playing a game with a chum is well documented, but the skirmish missions in previous Brothers in Arms title, Earned in Blood, were some of the best co-op experiences we've had in years. The notion of playing through an entire linked game of a dozen or so missions - rather than a handful of isolated skirmishes - fills us with a special kind of brotherly joy. It looks like it'll be just like Gears Of War, only without the incredible musculature.