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e3 preview: Black

Posted on 25 May 2005 | 8:38 am by A. LaMosca

While navigating the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at the EA booth, I noticed a stairway up to a second level, packed with media types waiting to get into what I expected was a behind-closed-doors peek at an upcoming game. I watched as several were herded into a room, and the rest were turned away. As those who didn't gain entry dispersed, I spotted a small, nondescript sign on the stairway that read "Black."

Could this be the upcoming Criterion title of the same name, I wondered? The one for which the developers had released only a single screenshot in the previous year, hinting that it promised to "put the shooting back in first person shooters?" A chat with the Criterion employee manning the door confirmed that it was. I struck up a conversation with the guy, and, quite unexpectedly, managed to talk my way into the next presentation.

Before showing actual gameplay, Criterion explained that Black is the developer's attempt bring innovation to the FPS genre, primarily by allowing the player to use the environment as a weapon. Taking cues from Hollywood action blockbusters like Die Hard and the Matrix, the development team (which features members from the first two Burnout titles) aims to provide the player with a destructible playground in which weapons provide the means for devastating, over-the-top interaction with environments and enemies. They're billing the game as "gun porn."

The PS2 demo I saw, in which a member of the Criterion team played through a portion of a level set in what appeared to be a besieged European city, was very impressive. The gameplay was familiar first-person shooter fare, with the player backed up by an AI-controlled squad. All the modern FPS bells and whistles were present, including convincing rag-doll and environmental physics, an arsenal of powerful conventional weapons, incredible particle effects, and intelligent enemies behind every corner. The gameplay I saw was incredibly intense, with the player encountering a constant hail of bullets and shrapnel.

Several scenes really caught my attention, including one where a grenade lobbed into a building's upper floors blew out the structure's front windows, sending glass, debris, and bodies flying outward and into the street. In another, the player used a rocket launcher to take out several floors of a partially destroyed building, causing enemies and portions of the structure to collapse downward into a pile of rubble. Cars exploded, statues toppled, doors were blown off hinges, and telephone booths were torn apart like they were soda cans. The demo culminated in a scene where the player sent an RPG into a tanker truck, resulting in an absolutely spectacular explosion.

Though the game is slated for a fourth-quarter 2005 release, many details are still under wraps. Criterion did state that at this time there are no plans for multiplayer, and the game won't give the player access to any drivable vehicles. The demo graphics, which already look very good, were reportedly at 50% quality. Provided that Criterion can put together a compelling premise and maintain the demo's thrills throughout the entire game, Black might be one of the most engaging FPS titles of the current console generation. It's currently scheduled for release in February 2006, for both Xbox and PS2.

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