It's easy to forget when you spend so much of the year jetting around seeing games in development - especially when some of the games look a bit 6/10 - that being invited to meet games developers and talk to them about their work in progress is a tremendous privilege.
We haven't forgotten though, which is one reason why last month we gathered a handful of competition winners from Eurogamer, VG247 and Rock, Paper, Shotgun and flew them to Stockholm to visit DICE and see Battlefield 3 (a game which definitely does not look very 6/10). The other reason was because we wanted to shoot some readers repeatedly in the face.
Sadly we didn't get to do that - the multiplayer component of Battlefield 3 was being saved for public shows like this week's Eurogamer Expo - but we did get to try out the co-operative mission shown off during Gamescom a week previously, and we also got to check out Operation Guillotine, a D-Day-esque assault on Tehran from deep in the single-player campaign.
"The new co-op experience of Battlefield is impressive," reports reader Colin Gallacher, who was already firmly on the DICE bandwagon before he came out to Sweden, having "loved nearly every minute" of the PC alpha. "You could tell the co-op wasn't just tacked on in a meaningless way. The teamwork moments were well thought out and the spotting targets beforehand was useful."
The level we get to play through sees us clearing a series of rooms and corridors in a warehouse at night, before escorting a convoy of Humvees through nearby streets and getting into elaborate firefights with foes on the ground and in elevated positions, using infrared sights and powerful rifles to spot and dispatch distant enemy pixels.
Although we're playing on PS3, fellow PC gamer Chris Hockey is also pretty taken with the co-op setup. "I loved the fact that it actually felt like a co-op level, rather than just a single-player level that happens to have two players in it," he reports afterwards.
"It's also pleasing to be given the freedom to choose our own style of play. Rather than using a limited weapon choice to create a sniping or shotgun level, we had the equipment available to play exactly as we wanted. Although in my case, of course, that meant the freedom to play badly."
Another of our competition winners was Joe O'Connor, who has a similar take. "Although I was playing the level with someone who wasn't very well versed in FPS games, the co-op level pushed really hard towards making you work as a team, right from the very first connection with the enemies. I like that."
Operation Guillotine, meanwhile, of which you can read a detailed account elsewhere on the site, drew uncharacteristic criticism. "Pretty disappointing," was Colin's verdict. "No dinosaurs and it wasn't set in Scotland? I've already cancelled my pre-order."
Once we explained that dinosaurs are extinct and Scotland isn't in Zone 1 so no one cares, however, Colin changes his mind. "The night-time setting of Tehran really set it apart from other games I've seen," he says. The level begins overlooking the city before racing downhill into walls of tracer fire and bodies being thrown this way and that by the impact of mortars.
Despite that, Chris Hockey was impressed by something else - a sense of restraint. "The sound was fabulous, and the lighting belied the fact it was being played on console," he notes. "It also felt like a battle played out in a realistic manner and depicted large-scale warfare without being grandiose or over the top."
Colin is also a fan of the sound. "It's clear that DICE has spent an incredible amount of time and focus on the sound of Battlefield 3," he says. "As with its previous games the sound is impeccable, explosions have a deafening boom and the gunfire sounds scarily powerful." Apparently DICE goes out with the Swedish armed forces on manoeuvres to capture some of the noises, which is pretty incredible. (I mean, who knew Sweden had an army?)
For Joe O'Connor, however, it's the way the non-player characters behave in Operation Guillotine that sticks in the mind. "In the charge down a hill into Tehran, surrounded by squad-mates, one of the chaps next to us was caught in a mortar blast and blown a good few feet into our path," he remembers.
"What with how he landed, and how the NPC was struggling to get up, I really wanted him to be okay. The animation was incredibly human, and that's a really hard thing to get right. It really helped sell the feeling of being there, of being surrounded by real people in a real war, and was a nice compliment to the rest of the physicality they built up, such as being helped over a fence by a fellow soldier, or helped to fire a flare into the sky."
Joe wasn't completely sold though. "What I didn't like was one of the scripted moments they'd put in, where an attempt to break open a door was rudely interrupted by an enemy kicking it open from the other side, and the player going briefly into slow-motion as he pumped the shotgun into the enemy.
"Never have I been so rudely pulled out of a game I'd been utterly absorbed in. It was almost as if DICE didn't have enough faith in the dynamic engine they'd created, and felt a need to put something dramatic in at just that moment."
From this narrator's perspective, it was one of the most Modern Warfare-esque moments of the whole level, although, to be fair, the other example was a man stumbling out of a doorway on fire, which was a static script set off by a dynamic event - us throwing a grenade through a window - and really did hit the mark.
After checking out the co-op and campaign, the competition winners got to sit down with executive producer Patrick Bach for well over half an hour to talk about the game, and after a slow start we got into an interesting discussion about everything from the state of the beta to Bach's take on storytelling in games, specifically the way that Battlefield 3 doesn't let you shoot civilians - something which upset a few people at the time.
Joe thinks he made his point well though. "As a producer he doesn't want the image the random person on the street has of Battlefield 3 to be some idiot on YouTube gunning down a whole mess of civilians. He seems to want it to be of huge battles between jets and tanks and infantry. It's a fine distinction - people are still dying - but it's one I think he has a right to make.
"I've actually been quite annoyed with people I've read in comment threads saying, 'Why doesn't he let me play how I want to play?' They should just grow the hell up. It's that sort of attitude which is going to stop gaming from reaching its potential. At this stage in its development it still needs room to breathe, and it's not going to get it if very mainstream games try to branch out when it's unnecessary. Let the indies test the waters in the way that smaller films did back in the thirties and forties. The big games with 'issues' will come in time.
"We need a whole generation of gamers, for the sort of people who read the Daily Mail to not be terrified of this new-fangled medium, before we'll really get our Apocalypse Now, our game which truly explores the horrors of war."
Chris Hockey also thought Bach comes across well in person. "Patrick struck me as incredibly thoughtful about his game and its place in the market. I wish everyone who posted an, 'OMG this sucks,' post about an aspect of the game that they're not happy with could have a chance to experience a roundtable interview. As gamers I think we sometimes forget that actual people make these games for us."
Colin Gallacher, meanwhile, draws attention to Bach's comments about the competition between Battlefield and Modern Warfare, specifically the fact that DICE plays down the comparisons (something that Infinity Ward's Robert Bowling also frequently does on the other side for Call of Duty).
"Something interesting to point out to the masses is that they don't see themselves competing with the Call of Duty franchise," notes Colin. "They are creating their own game regardless of what other competition they have to battle." It's almost as if this whole Battlefield vs. Call of Duty thing is a marketing invention. "Also they have an incredible bakery nearby."
"I was really impressed at his determination to make the game he wanted to make - not to the exclusion of player feedback, but without pandering to excessive demands," Chris added.
Sadly, after a mere day impeding development at the studio, we were kicked out of the building and sent home - itself an amazing journey involving cancelled flights, provincial Swedish hotels and dubious injuries. Once we're settled back in the UK, I ask the guys whether their impression of Battlefield 3 changed as a consequence of the trip.
"Although I'll still be buying it on PC, I'm no longer worried that it won't be a top-notch console experience," says Chris Hockey. "Likewise, having seen Bach's vehement defence of the PC SKU as the lead version, I'm not particularly worried that having to produce a multi-platform game will have diluted the PC version."
"Meeting the lovely people at DICE showed me that a lot of time, effort and care had gone into the game and that they really believed in what they were creating," says Colin Gallacher.
As for Joe - "I'm a bit of an evangelist for it now, in a lot of ways," he says. "The guys we met at DICE were so passionate about their game, about how they weren't competing with the people their publishers wanted to compete with, just to make their game the best it could possibly be, that I couldn't help but be won over.
"I don't think it's a beautiful game any more, because 'beautiful' implies something clean, or natural. Battlefield 3 is just war, on a computer, and I'm not sure that can be reasonably called 'beautiful', filled as it is with fire, dust and blood. It'll look and feel incredibly realistic, though, and that's something I can't wait to get my hands on again, although next time my sniper rifle will probably be much more successful with a keyboard and mouse under my hands.
"Also, and this is significant to me, I think I've found the multiplayer game that'll finally drag me away from Team Fortress 2, which up till now has repeatedly dragged me back. I'm kind of glad I'm going to be away for three of the weeks until it comes out, because it's one of the few games I really want to play right about now."
If you also fancy playing it right about now, check it out at the Eurogamer Expo, or in the imminent multiplayer beta. The game itself is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 28th October in Europe. Oh, and we do hope to take more readers out to developers again in the future, because these guys were lovely. Although we'd still shoot them in the face at the drop of a hat, obviously.