The man we call Woods is looking a bit scary. He's unshaven, there's a green bandanna tied around his thick black hair, and there's a disturbed glint in his eye. He clutches his gun and glares behind him, to where a heavily-armed helicopter rests in the middle of a clearing. "You see that Hind?" he hisses. "We're gonna take it!"
I have no idea exactly why we're here, deep in the jungles of Laos. This is Black Ops, after all, and even at an event as huge as E3, Treyarch is keeping tight-lipped. But I do know this: I'm glad that Woods is on our side.
As the soundtrack swells with a dream-like ambient drone, peppered with the whoops and calls of tropical wildlife, our demonstrator strafes his way around the treeline. Woods launches his attack, we swoop in to flank the chopper's guards. The crew go down easily, and within seconds we're climbing into the rear seat of the stolen Mi24 Hind. "Okay, what's our loadout?" growls Woods. "UV-32 Rockets, 12mm Nose Cannon... these bastards were ready for World War III!"
I'm getting a distinct sense of deja-vu here, and it's not due to some LSD-fuelled flashback to my time in Vietnam. This is Payback - the mission that Treyarch showed as its contribution to Microsoft's E3 conference. In other words, it's something we've seen before, but hey, we're going to cover it anyway. Regardless of whether you're stoked or numbed by the prospect of another CoD, there's no doubt that Black Ops will be one of the biggest releases of 2010. Besides, Payback is supposed to be a demonstration of something new for Activision's series - fully controllable air combat - so it's certainly worth a second gander.
As before, the meat of the action kicks off with a bit of predatory chatter between Woods and Mason, the playable character in this particular mission. As with the previous levels we've seen, Mason gets a voice of his own. It's hard to get much sense of his character, but it's clear that Treyarch is trying to make its latest effort even more cinematic than Modern Warfare 2; from what we've seen so far, there certainly seems to be even more in the way of first-person cutscenes. Here the banter is simply a prelude to the main event, to the moment when Woods passes control of the Hind over to us, the player (or in this particular case, the Treyarch representative).
Now, we've obviously got to be careful about discussing the controls of a game we've not actually played yet, but from what I can tell you have no say over the chopper's altitude. There doesn't appear to be any lock-on system either: the targeting reticule remains fixed in the centre of the screen, and as you pull the triggers you send a stream of bullets and rockets at whatever you're currently aiming at. It's not a flight sim, in other words, but then we'd have been a bit stupid to expect one. It seems that you can both turn and strafe your craft, so it's not just a glorified on-rails section either. The important thing is that from a show-off point of view, it looks pretty damn exciting.
It's not hard to see why Treyarch picked this stage for Microsoft's gig. Aside from the novelty of the 'copter itself, the destruction is pretty spectacular, even on second viewing. In response to the Hind's attacks, a bridge explodes into a shower of dust and wooden planks. A direct hit on an oil pipeline summons several columns of oily, black smoke. Vapour trails from our missiles criss-cross the air, and when a stray rocket hits the murky green river beneath us, the blast sends a jet of water dozens of feet into the air. It sounds glorious too - weighty booms, the agitated bleeping of the cockpit, and Woods ranting instructions and calling out praise for each successful hit.
It's all thoroughly over the top, of course. Like the anachronistic Steyr Aug that appeared in the stealthy snow-drenched mission, it's a little bit weird that we're flying a Hind in the first place - the vehicle was only used in active service from 1972, and today's mission is set in 1968. It's a slip-up that will only bug the most obsessive of military purists, but it's tempting to see this as being symptomatic of Treyarch's broader approach to Black Ops: this is a game that recreates the feel of what we want from a Vietnam War shooter, rather than the reality. The very idea behind Payback - that two men steal a Hind and then use it to single-handedly take down an entire Communist base - is utterly ludicrous. Like Woods himself, it's a little nuts, but in the best possible way.
At the climax of the demo two other Hinds appear, prompting a desperate bout of balletic aerial duelling. Mason and Woods win out, but the craft becomes heavily damaged, with the cockpit screen turning into a mess of cracks and bullet-holes. The presentation ends with a loud explosion, sending the helicopter spinning out of control and down towards the river. Is this the end for our all-American heroes? It's possible, given the CoD series' track record for killing off protagonists, but something tells me that they'll live to fight and kill another day.
To be perfectly honest, I'm not that sold on the idea that a controllable chopper is a massive leap of innovation. What I will say, however, is that Payback as a whole was the best-looking slice of Black Ops we've seen yet. There's a genuinely epic feel to the scale of Treyarch's Laotian scenery, with neat touches like a large clump area of blackened forest - the result of a previous napalm strike, perhaps. Aside from details of this year's bound-to-be-immensely-popular multiplayer, what I really want to know is how all these set pieces fit together, and in particular how the overall pace will feel in comparison to the breathless pandemonium of Modern Warfare 2. There's loads of scope in Black Ops' Cold War setting, and Treyarch seems to be pushing hard for a varied selection of international settings, but it would nice if the over-arching story were a bit more coherent than Infinity Ward's last effort.
Call of Duty: Black Ops will be released on PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii on November 9.