Having not previously joined up with Gearbox's award-winning fraternity of Spielbergean flankers, I landed in France for my UbiDays briefing with intel rather than brutal experience ringing in my ears. Oli Clare's point-by-point dissection of 2005's Earned In Blood had given me an idea of what to look for, and my report back to him reads like a point-by-point rebuttal of his lingering doubts.
What's with all the bullet-proof wood, he asked? What indeed, retorts the next-gen tech underpinning Hell's Highway, as developer Randy Pitchford hoses a group of ignorant Germans bedded down behind a picket fence. "I don't remember seeing this in a game before," he says, as the wood frays, splits and disintegrates convincingly under the weight of lead. "Now you learned something valuable today," says military advisor Colonel John Antal; "do not hide behind a wooden fence when somebody's shooting at you." Not in this one, anyway.
Why couldn't the troops in your unit clamber over low walls? Now they can. When you're not firing with the right-trigger, FPS-style, you're directing units with the left-trigger icon system you're familiar with, and you can add a jump button input to have them leap over a waist-high stone wall rather than circling it. Why wouldn't they go prone before? Well, now they do. Why were grenades so hard to hurl? Hard to say if this has changed, since Pitchford's not giving us that pad (and we reckon Antal could probably take us if we moved for it), but it'll be worth persevering: a grenade rolled under a cart brings the camera in for close-up, slows down the action and then erupts, carrying wood and limp German bodies away in arcs of unscripted victory. Pitchford giggles. He keeps doing something on-screen and then pausing to add, "Details." God is in them, of course, and he - or whoever's programming is behind what happens when a pineapple goes boom - is ripping wood apart more credibly than we've ever seen in a game.
With apologies to Oliver, we have no answer to whether you can always put a slug through things in sight, but as for his concern that our World War II education is being distorted by this German army's obsession with loading the Normandy countryside with crates, barrels and oil drums - judging by the town of Son, through which the returning Sergeant Baker and his hardened squad are fighting in our demo, they didn't get round to stocking up Holland. Here the cover's more convincing - low stone walls, crumbling masonry, hastily-deployed sandbags, farming equipment and, of course, picket fences. Fine, there were a few barrels, too. But then Holland was home to a lot of explosives in September 1944, when the 101st Airborne - Baker's company - took part in Operation Market Garden. Ultimately, the fifth bridge they approached was blown before they could reach it. The bridge at Son.
How those events tally with what happens on Hell's Highway is unknown, but just as Colonel Antal insists the game is the most realistic simulation of battle tactics around, Pitchford hypes up the scenario. "Sgt. Baker in the first game learned to be a squad-leader... Now he's learning what it means to be a squad-leader; how to deal with it; the sacrifice you have to make," he says. As Baker enters a house in a cut-scene, he finds some round-rimmed glasses, which give him a sepia-tinted flashback of a dead comrade - Benjamin Legget from the first game. "There's a deep character story here - it's about the burden of a squad-leader. The memory of this dead man haunts Baker. Will it drive him insane or can he come to grips with it and move forward?" With technology more firmly on Gearbox's side this time, there's a range of subtle ideas at work to engage the player in combat. "Brotherhood moments" - when the youngster slips, and the team leader grabs him to his feet at a canter - will blend naturally into situations, and while they may only have a minimal effect on gameplay conditions, they're not about that; they're minute acts of instinctive AI heroism that feed into a more involving whole.
Your squad's clever enough to do a lot of things on its own. Approaching Germans with their backs to you, a hush falls on the group. "Notice the whispering again," says Pitchford. (Thank god he's not whispering - UbiDays is like a sewing circle of wind tunnels.) "I didn't press a button for stealth - these guys are trained soldiers, they know what to do. They know when to be quiet." When they engage, they give up the stealth. "No value in being quiet any more," Pitchford adds.
Tactically the game's evolving too. The two teams under Baker's control here are Assault and Bazooka, led by Jasper, whose weapon is called "Stella". He's even written it on the side - try to get that to look convincing at less than 720p. Pinned down by a machinegun nest in a church tower, Baker moves the Bazooka team into an advanced position, draws fire from the nest by taking pot-shots at it, and then watches as a fiery thrust from Stella rips the bottom of the tower open. Sandbags dangle down like guts tumbling out of someone's stomach. "My bullets don't go through sandbags; they just stick in the sand," Pitchford says, illustrating this as he advances down a narrow road with minimal flanking potential. Stella looks set for a decent workout - and other teams likely to come under your control will have machinegunners, mortars and radios for calling in off-site artillery support.
You still rely on suppression (with that telltale red icon that becomes white when the enemy's fully suppressed), fire-and-manoeuvre tactics and of course flanking to take down the enemy, but tellingly we only see this once or twice in our 30-minute demo. Wood's not the only casualty of your firepower now, either, which seems to have opened up the game to a broader range of approaches. Armed with an MG42 machinegun ripped from a German emplacement, Pitchford's able to shoot it from the hip, or mount it anywhere on a bipod. Doing so, he sheers the head off a statue and cuts down retreating Nazis as they leg it into a herb garden seeking cover.
There are subtler technological tweaks and aesthetic changes at work, too. Shell casings spout from the side of your gun in a stream of smoke, and a depth-of-field effect gives you a sort of warrior's tunnel-vision when you're under fire. Pitchford uses this to illustrate how the game emphasises safe haven when you're in trouble. With no health-bar, the screen goes red when you're being shot at. "That means risk, danger - that's a threat," he says, although we sort of got that. Lower down the screen though, a stone wall is normally coloured. Dive over it and you're safe. Another thing we like is what happens when Baker reaches a transition point. "He's a reconnaissance squad-leader, so he needs to check his map every now and then to find out where he is, what's going on, and report back to headquarters," says Antal, who's been surprisingly quiet after all his yelling at the previous evening's press conference. The map's an actual paper map in Baker's hands, rather than something that draws you out of the world - you can see your units, any remaining enemies, and objectives.
It should all look more or less the same across PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 when it emerges later this year, says Pitchford. It's currently aiming for November. Whether it convinces my own brothers in arms - messrs. Clare and Reed - is another question, but I'm up for it. When I finally retreat across the Channel as UbiDays winds down, it's a game that sticks in the mind more than the rest I've seen. Although given that my return journey is a sticky six hours of broken trains and shouting teenagers, that might just be the "Hell's Highway" moniker. We shall see.
Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway is due out on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, hopefully this November.