Black First Look

Possibly the most impressive first-person shooter at E3 is a game you've never heard of before. Find out what about Black makes us stoop to making claims like that.

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Black is a first-person shooter currently in development at UK-based Criterion, the company responsible for the outstanding Burnout series of racing games and the purveyors of the RenderWare engine used in everything from Burnout 2 to Grand Theft Auto III. The company has no previous experience making first-person shooters, but as design director Alex Ward explains, the company views that as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Instead of strictly adhering to the conventions of the genre, as most first-person shooters do, the makers of Black are starting at ground zero by bearing in mind a few, key detail-oriented design philosophies. Namely, the makers are trying to ensure that the shooting aspect of their first-person shooter is exceptionally intense and satisfying, above all else.

But let's back up for a moment. Black is still very early in development for the PlayStation 2 (an Xbox version is also planned) and will not ship any earlier than late 2005. It will be a modern-day first-person shooter that features authentic weapons and locations. Its main character will be an American soldier who's battling other American opponents in Eastern Europe. Alex Ward cited television shows 24 and Alias as inspirations for the game's story, which should be a gritty and plausible techno-thriller. Expect Black to be a serious, mature-themed game. Criterion didn't talk about the specific features of the game, dismissing the entire notion of early talks about multiplayer options and things of that nature. Instead, it opted to focus on the game's core look and feel.

What they actually showed us behind closed doors at E3 was basically a shooting gallery, in which we had the opportunity to test out several weapons--including a pistol, an assault rifle, and a shotgun--against a few foes. No artificial intelligence had been implemented as yet, and the sequence was not predicated on any story elements. So what was so great about it? The deafeningly loud gunfire affected the environment in a manner far more spectacular than we've seen in any shooter to date. Criterion acknowledged that what its developers are attempting to do with Black is capture the sheer, gut-wrenching drama of intense Hollywood gunfights. That means as bullets all hit their marks, they do what you'd expect bullets to do--from having grown up watching action movies. They cause debris, dust, and smoke to spray every which way. They cause glass to shatter all over the place, and they sometimes ricochet and hit things that were not intended targets. The logic goes like this: In Black, missing one's target ought to be as thrilling as actually hitting it.

At any rate, we were able to blast all the masonry off of walls, crush the letters off of large signs, blow doors off of hinges, shatter car windshields and headlights, blow car tires, ricochet bullets off of steel gratings, and more. The aftermath destruction remained. As a result, bodies did not fade away, and shell casings littered the floor--along with all the bullet holes from errant fire. And the intensity of the visuals was met--if not exceeded--by the sound. Gunfire was exceptionally loud and clear. The sound of bullets striking all the various types of surfaces was pronounced and realistic. After gunfire ceased, we could hear the fire echoing way off in the distance for several long moments.

The result of all this? We had more fun playing what was simply a technology demo than we've had playing most of the other games we've tried so far at E3. It's just that simple. You get the feel of the action down right and build everything up around that. The Criterion developers take a straightforward, even humble, approach when talking about this. But from seeing their technology in action, we can add one important note: Their talents must be extraordinary. If other game developers could pull this type of thing off, they would.

The developers suggested that we can expect the game to be heavily plot-driven, with intelligent characters (that is to say, interesting characters who are fully integrated into the story) and an emphasis on communication (the developers cited the intensity of the radio chatter in Ace Combat 4 as an influence here). The developers mentioned that one specific level will take place during an air raid, which we figure ought to be pretty hectic. We did notice, from the demo, that some of the apparently realistic physics on display in the demo were, in fact, scripted sequences set up to be triggered by our fire. At any rate, though, the demonstration level was still very impressive indeed. Now all Criterion has to do is build a game around it. However, from what we've seen of the company's past work, we're fairly confident that they'll pull something off that's well worth playing. After all, it already is... Unfortunately, no screens or video on Black is available at this time, so you'll just have to take our word for what we've reported here (or not, if you like). We certainly hope to bring you more on this game as it develops.

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