We've been tracking Criterion's Black since the game appeared as one of the coolest tech demos we've seen in years, at E3 2004. The game, developed by UK-based Criterion Games of Burnout fame, has made us jump in all the right places in the ensuing months as we've seen more of it, and left us intrigued as to just what it's going to be about. While Criterion has methodically doled out glimpses of the game over the past year, information has been tough to come by. The veil was finally lifted last week, when Criterion's Alex Ward hosted an event that offered a look at a new level on the PS2 and Xbox, and finally gave up the goods on what Black is all about.
Before we discuss the level, we'll hit you up with the game's story. You'll play as Sergeant First-Class Jack Kellar, a black ops agent who appears to be having a pretty rough time of it. When you catch up with Mr. Keller, you'll find that he's in an interrogation room being asked, in a rather intense manner, about a mission that appears to have gone wrong. This actually serves as the framing device for the game's levels, which are essentially flashbacks to said mission, prior to things going wrong. The story is presented in a very noir fashion, with live-action cinematics used for the interrogation scenes. Ward gave us a sampling of the cinematics at the demo, and asked that we not go into too much detail on them so as not to ruin the story; we can say, however, that we found them to be an interesting change of pace from the standard prerendered and in-engine cinemas we typically see. Ward's other reason for asking those in attendance to keep things low-key was that there are so few cinematics in the game.
As far as the level goes, the Tivliz Asylum level finds you being instructed to go have words with a rather unsavory fellow who's holed up in an abandoned asylum. Your mission objectives, much like in other shooters, will be fluid and change as you make your way through the level. The major modifier of your tasks is the difficulty setting you choose when playing. The version of the game we played featured four settings--three of which, easy, normal, and hard, were immediately selectable, while the last, black ops, was not. The difficulty setting will affect several factors in the game, including your objectives. For example, easy tasks you with only a primary objective and throws copious health packs at you while you play, whereas normal throws primary and secondary objectives at you, offers normal health packs, and, more importantly, lets you unlock new weapons to use.
When we were in the level, we noticed the various changes that had gone on since the last time we played the game. The mechanics had been considerably beefed up; the last time we played felt bare-bones by comparison. The core mechanics were still the same--the game handles just like a first-person shooter--but featured some nice bells and whistles. It was possible to pick up and equip a suppressor to keep your killing nice and stealthy. Every weapon had its own unique melee attack, which helped keep that pistol-whipping fresh, as well as different firing options. The health-pack system, which we also explored on the easy setting (for research purposes only, we swear), was an interesting wrinkle. Basically, the game will offer two types of health packs, instant use and ones you carry. The instant-use packs restore a small amount of your health, while the ones you carry can be held in reserve and used to restore your health while playing. You may think that this feature could make things easier while playing--guess again. Anyone under the illusion that the health-pack system will let you perform Rambo-esque runs through enemies should guess again. Your restored health can slip away in the blink of an eye if enough enemies are on you, so it should be viewed as a useful assist, not anything to be relied on. A refined dying effect scales back sound and color, and offers a slick slow-mo filter as you get closer to death, which looks very cool, although you will dread seeing it as you play.
After clearing the outside area, which included taking out some RPG-wielding fools and searching around for some of the secondary objectives, we made our way inside the asylum. The interior section offered a distinctly different style of gameplay: The artificial intelligence-controlled squad members followed you outside, hung back, and let you tackle the interior section solo--a conscious decision made by the team, according to Ward; they felt it would amp up the tension, and it does. The building's insides were a twisting assortment of large rooms, stairwells, and tons of enemies. While the gameplay covered familiar ground--kill anything that moves and keep heading down--there were also some really nice sequences. Our running favorite was an "it's about freaking time" moment that happened when we discovered we were able to blast chunks out of walls and doors that impeded our progress--this certainly ranks as one of the things we wished we could do in other games, but couldn't. The climax of the level was an insane shootout in the bowels of the asylum that pit us against a fearsome array of foes.
The visuals impressed on both the PS2 and Xbox platforms. The asylum level presented an expansive experience that went from a massive firefight in the exterior to the bowels of the rundown asylum from the level's title. The journey highlighted the sheer amount of interactivity on hand--you're able to blow the bejesus out of just about anything you see. The exterior level offered a good sense of space and scale that felt reasonably expansive, although you were bordered in some by obstacles that help steer you in the right direction. Blasting chunks out of walls and doors that impeded our progress paid off handsomely, with massive chunks of debris flung around and finer particles kicking up. The interiors also showed off some slick lighting effects, which lent the level a good amount of atmosphere. The color palette used in the level made some interesting choices for the different hues of objects and rooms that we liked. We also came across a few areas where windows shattered in spectacular fashion. On the technical side of things, the game ran exceptionally smooth, with only minor inconsistencies when the screen was flooded with bullets and debris. Both platforms had a minor load a little more than halfway through the stage, as you descend into the building. The differences between the two platforms were mostly negligible and subtle. Lighting and texture detail were sharper on the Xbox, although we reckon the PS2 game will surprise a lot of people with its impressive performance.
The audio in the game appears as though it may well eclipse its visuals for the sheer visceral kick it offers. As Criterion has stated before, the stars of Black are the arsenal of weapons you'll use to shoot everything up around you. To drive that point home, the audio for the weapons is outstanding, allowing each firearm to let out stylized but mostly authentic roars when fired. The closest thing we've heard to capturing the same type of sound is the gunfire heard in films, which is hardly surprising, given the team's inspirations. Complementing the centerpiece of gunfire in the experience is the harried chatter you'll hear over your radio and the yelling you'll hear in the heat of battle, be it one of your squad pointing out trouble on the battlefield, or one of your enemies reacting to a grenade you've thrown in their midst. The whole mix is a good deal more intimidating than in the last few times we've tried the game out, and may freak some out initially. There's a lot to sort out as you're going about your business, and audio cues come in very handy, after you train yourself to make sense of the well-orchestrated cacophony. Speaking of orchestras, we must call out Black's soundtrack, which is handled by seasoned composer Michael Giacchino. The music we heard was exceptionally good and used sparingly, which proved to be an effective way of sucking you into the experience.
Based on what we played, Black is looking like an appealing offering from Criterion that plays to the company's established strengths. We still haven't seen anything completely revolutionary here, but we expect that, much like the Burnout series, Black will offer a polished experience that's big on fun, and more of an evolution of the shooting genre than a completely new take. Given how satisfying the single-player levels we've played so far are, we're disappointed that the game doesn't have a multiplayer component. The only element we're curious to find out about is just how long the game is going to be and what kind of replay value it's going to have. But the inclusion of selectable difficulties and unlockable content is a step in the right direction. Black is currently slated to ship this February for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Look for more on the game in the coming weeks.