By Golly, it's loud. Treyarch boss Mark Lamia has just wrapped up his presentation for Call of Duty: Black Ops, and I think my skull has been shattered by a giga-decibel sonic boom. Seriously, I keep rubbing my ear to see if I'm leaking any of that straw-coloured liquid that comes out when you fracture your bonce. About five minutes ago, when that helicopter swept in to take down that Vietnamese tower block, one of my eyes ruptured a bit.
Naturally, when we're actually playing the game for ourselves - in November of this year, if all goes to plan - we'll be able to turn the volume down. But maybe we shouldn't: after all, CoD has always worked best with all the dials cranked up to full, when the bullets are flying and half the world appears to be blowing up right in front of you. This is a franchise that's always delivered a special brand of it's-all-gone-to-Hell chaos, and Black Ops is already looking to be just as apocalyptic as its predecessors. The story follows a group of as-yet unrevealed military experts as they take part in secret, off-the-record military operations around the world; the exact time frame is yet to be revealed, but we know that the game will cover the 1960s and beyond - a span that allows Treyarch to delve into a whole range of tumultuous historical conflicts.
I know a lot of people found Modern Warfare 2 to be a bit one-note in its dedication to big bangs, and it's certainly fair to say that there weren't too many quiet moments after "Cliffhanger" - that sneaky mission in the snow. You might feel that you're not yet ready for another helping of military bedlam, but I can tell you right now that I was extremely impressed with the two levels that Treyarch showed off this week. The studio has a lot to compete with - particularly the success of MW2, and the public relations shitstorm that followed - but Lamia maintains that the team has simply been concentrating on making the best game possible. And on first impressions at least, the fruit of their efforts is looking pretty damn exciting.
The demo kicks off in a slightly unexpected fashion, on the sun-drenched deck of an aircraft carrier. The player character pulls down the visor on their flying helmet, heavy breathing echoing in our ears, and we follow our co-pilot over to a SR 71 Blackbird - a rather evil-looking high altitude reconnaissance plane. We climb the ladder up into the front seat, the cockpit closes in, and a wave of pre-flight radio chatter washes over us. And then we're off, roaring down the runway at unstoppable speed. Suddenly a prompt appears on screen, telling us to pull back on the left stick. Are we to assume complete control of the craft?
No, it would appear not - but what happens next is arguably even cooler. Following a quick fade-to-white transition, we find ourselves cruising high in the Earth's atmosphere. Our view dips towards a screen mounted in the Blackbird's HUD; there's a bit of fiddling with the switches and dials that flank the screen, and then we find ourselves looking at an overhead view of a Russian mountain range. We're told to scan the area until we find our squad, their heat signatures making them stand out brightly against the scenery. We've seen this kind of thing before with the AC-130 sections in the Modern Warfares, but today we won't be bombarding the enemy with shells: this is a secret black op, after all, and subtlety is the name of the game; the Blackbird is here to provide information about the movement of nearby hostiles. There's an enemy convoy heading towards our boys' position, and we're instructed to direct them to cover. We do so, using what appears to be a simplified RTS-style command system. The player guides the squad towards some kind of building (it's kind of hard to tell on the monitor), then they head North away from the road.