Pleasant surprise: Modern Warfare 2 makes a pretty decent arcade racer. That's what it feels like anyway, when you're blasting through the tundra on a jouncing skidoo, driven on by the constant barrage of time extends as you zip past one checkpoint after another, with the cartoony three-tone starting buzzer still sounding in your ears. There are jumps to chain together, a racing line to unearth, and trees to dodge as you rush towards the finish flag, and when the camera shakes and the audio roars, it's all pretty exciting stuff.
Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward's creative strategist, gets so drawn in that he throws himself from side-to-side in his seat as he plays (of course, that's possibly just a brilliantly calculated piece of Derren Brown-styled mind trickery, designed to provoke any nearby preview writers into scribbling down, "You know, Modern Warfare 2 really is a visceral slice of action gaming!"), and if you start to lag behind, you can even shoot your rival racer in the face so they get blood in their eyes and steer themselves off a cliff. I think they borrowed that move from Mario Kart on the Wii.
All of which is to say that I'd stupidly assumed I understood Modern Warfare 2's new Special Ops mode: I assumed it would be a polished, but rather predictable arrangement of discrete mini-missions tailored for two-player co-op. What I hadn't guessed, though - and what Tom didn't manage to uncover with his, ooh, two minutes with the game back at Cologne - was that, individually, each of those mini-missions would be so inventive in breaking Infinity Ward's latest down into chunks, until parts of it start to feel like... well, like an arcade racer, for example.
Meanwhile, other parts of it feel like Left 4 Dead. Racing over, Bowling takes us into another Spec Ops gametype called Elimination. We're on the edge of a lake: scrubby trees clump together in artful thickets, mountains turn the horizon into a craggy squiggle, and a cluster of wooden cabins lurks by the shoreline. It's all rather pretty, really - if it wasn't for the bullets whizzing through the air, I'd probably be thinking about filling a thermos with latte and nipping off for a hike.
But hiking's not the order of the day. With Elimination, shooting exactly 40 Russian terrorists dead is the order of the day, in a game mode that randomises spawns and pacing, and pads out the regular grunts you'll be taking down with a range of special classes, including Ghillie-suited snipers who will try and keep their distance unless successfully flanked. And Juggernauts. They're tanks, essentially, who stagger towards you sucking up clip after clip wearing thick, rounded armour which, to me at least, looks like the kind of thing a boiled egg might wear while heading off for his first spacewalk.
Elimination's a brilliantly panicky inclusion: a brutal challenge for one player, and a riot of ad-libbed strategy for two, and, on this occasion, the bulk of the fighting quickly centres on one split-level cabin in the middle of the map, where some nasty terrorist types have been making explosives, by the looks of it, although the building's occupants have also been busy impaling teddy bears on a bedroom doorknob, and leaving a sex doll floating about in the dirty bathtub, so maybe they're actually arts post-grads.
Throw in other treats like Stealth modes, which see you picking your way through a gauntlet of baddies unseen as you head for an extraction point, and Spec Ops promises to be dazzling. It's a blast of quick-fire unpredictability and leaderboard-chasing in a package you could have assumed was happy to simply build on established foundations.
None of which is to say that, after COD4, such an approach would have been too much of a problem. In fact, a brief look at the game's more traditional inclusions is enough to remind you why so many of Infinity Ward's competitors have retreated to January and February next year to huddle together for safety. Multiplayer - with its kill streaks, death streaks, and dazzling rooftop mazes - looks like a smart evolution of the original, although as the HUD fills up and the game gets ever more chatty regarding Achievements and unlocks, it's possible the whole thing will be even more overwhelming for newcomers.
A fresh glimpse at the single-player campaign suggests the team is bringing a new level of skill to its work. "There's a hundred little changes you might notice, and a hundred you won't," says Bowling, as he loads up a mission set inside a favela - a slum, I had to look it up - in Rio De Janeiro. "This stuff ranges from lighting effects and things like blood-splattering patterns, to little details involving how much more responsive the environment is and how much more is moving around at any time."
He's not kidding: the level of detailing in the campaign missions can be a little overwhelming. As new protagonist Sanderson lurches through the traffic jams of downtown Rio to spy on some kind of underworld meeting, he can soak up atmospheric touches like a plastic Hula girl model on the dashboard of the car he's in. Later, he can admire lumpy chunks of brain that splatter the windshield when the meeting goes haywire, some of which belong, rather disconcertingly, to Sanderson's driver.
After that, it's down to business: out of the car, and into the grim alleyways of the shanty to pursue the fleeing baddies on foot. Trashcans and tenements, chicken wire and old tyres: it's hardly a first for a videogame, but the sense of activity going on around Sanderson is unsurpassed. Good old Soap is on the radio, barking orders and providing a nice layer of cockney backchat, while enemies scatter away from gunfire and take up positions on overhead walkways.
Throughout, Infinity Ward lays on the claustrophobia with a series of great false scares, one of which, featuring a barking dog snapping away beyond a chain link fence, provides such a shock that I almost spit coffee all over my notepad, which would have been something of a tragedy, as it was the last one in my secret stash, and Paperchase has stopped bloody making the only kind I like.
In amongst the chaos, the frantic chase, and Soap's impossible orders to capture the target alive, there's always just enough time to spot the various things Infinity Ward is getting right - the space within each encounter to tackle every enemy a variety of ways, or animation details like the underhanded grenade fling, or the way Sanderson's hands casually knock one clip out of the gun as they replace it with the next - and when it's all over and the mission's run its course, I look down to discover that what felt like 30 seconds of single-player has actually been five or 10 minutes.
For most of us, the wait to find out what happens next is nearly over. For Bowling and the rest of Infinity Ward, however, this is a much-needed lull in the schedule: with release approaching, the team that went from COD4 straight into Modern Warfare 2 without skipping a beat is getting something of a holiday.
It will all be fairly short-lived, however. "When the game does get out to the public, it all starts up again," smiles Bowling. "We'll be playing every night, watching the lobbies, checking Twitter and hearing the feedback, as well as going directly to our community and just asking: what do you think? What do you want?
"Based on that feedback, the entire team will go back and start creating post-launch content: the things people want more of. In our heads we might think we'll just be releasing more stuff for standard multiplayer, but the Spec Ops could turn into something no-one expected it to be, and people could be saying, 'We love this stuff: we want more Stealth missions, we want more Elimination missions!' You can be sure we'll be focusing our attention on what people actually want."
All of which means that, in some small way, this Christmas, a nice little chunk of one of gaming's biggest franchises rests in your hands.
Modern Warfare 2 is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 10th November.