Black Hands-On

Criterion finally hands us the controller as we rip through the E3 2005 demo of its visceral, ultraviolent first-person shooter.

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Back at the Electronic Entertainment Expo a couple of months ago, we gushed about the short but explosive demo we saw of a little old first-person shooter called Black, currently in production at UK development house Criterion Studios. Come to think of it, we gushed about Black at E3 2004, too. We've been talking about this game for a long time, really, and all that hype culminated today as Criterion finally let us play through a roughly 10-minute segment of Black, the first, and likely only, game ever to popularize the phrase "gun porn."

Get your hands on Black, and you'll understand exactly what gun porn means after just a couple of minutes of blowing away bad guys, demolishing cars and buildings, and basically wrecking everything in sight. The types of weapons you'll find in Black aren't going to knock your socks off from a conceptual standpoint--in our demo we used such notable old standbys as a pistol, shotgun, AK-47, submachine gun, and RPG (rocket-propelled grenade). But these archetypal FPS weapons take on new significance in Black, as they're among the most hard-hitting, solid-feeling guns we've ever shot in a game of this type, with extremely heavy sounds and realistic visual effects that make them feel that much more hyperreal. Maybe it sounds strange to describe the "feel" of an intangible weapon, but then, that speaks to the efficacy of Criterion's design, doesn't it?

It's not just the guns that make the action in Black so visceral. The game is loaded with environmental effects that are in place solely to enhance the explosive ambience of the firefights you'll constantly find yourself embroiled in. Shooting any kind of surface will produce clouds of dust, showers of sparks, flying debris--the air is soon thick with the result of your onslaught. In fact, the dust and smoke in the air can hang so thick after just a brief exchange that it's impossible to see your enemies, forcing you to either fire blindly or retreat to cover. Criterion says the design of the game has been evolving over the last months, and it's actually become more tactical over time, rather than the straight run-and-gun action the team originally envisioned. Don't get us wrong, you'll still be blowing away everything in sight; you'll just have to watch yourself so you don't get wasted.

Black is as much fun to watch as it is to play, and that fact owes in part to the broad interactivity of the levels--or at least, the one we've seen so far. This demo level contained such notable features as cars that could be destroyed in a plume of fire with a few well-placed shots; a multitiered building that could be collapsed with a grenade; and an old cannon outside a museum that crashed down in pieces to the street below. The nice thing about all these interactive elements is that every time we tripped one, it managed to take out a few enemies along with it.

Beyond the hardcore shooting, the mechanics in the Black demo were totally straightforward--kill all the enemies in your path, and progress through to the end of the level. But the dilapidated urban environment contained more than one viable path to the end, with different paths offering different things to blow up and varying degrees of difficulty. Purportedly, the final game will be full of these open-ended levels that will make for radically different experiences depending on how you approach your objectives.

The final game will also have a "black ops" mechanic that tracks your more-stylish kills. Black ops kills will include headshots, ricochet kills, and potentially kills that you pull off using environmental elements. After you finish a level, the game will tally up your black ops kills and black ops runs, the latter of which are just combo-style strings of black ops kills in short succession. The designers aren't sure yet how the black ops scoring will figure into the game, since the feature is still being designed, but considering how entertaining the core shooting action in Black is, any extra gameplay will serve as icing on the bloody cake.

Our demo of Black apparently lasted around 10 minutes, but unfortunately it went by in a flash, and it certainly left us wanting more. The absurdly destructive shooting action is hard to depict in words, but seeing it in action sells the experience immediately. It's a literal symphony of destruction, with all of the visual and aural elements adding up to create a uniquely intense experience. Black is scheduled for release on the PS2 and Xbox early in 2006, and we'll bring you more on the game, hopefully including some video, in the coming months.

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