Spot the difference. Gameplay: riding along in a chopper using a minigun to shoot at giant worms, hybrid human soldiers and an octopus monster on a bridge, and then running around in a squad with a tough-talking black guy and a cynical Middle-Eastern woman who tuts when the boys kick down doors. Description: an attempt to present a variety of perspectives on US foreign policy, the role of the military-industrial complex, the concept of special forces fighting an insurgency on American soil, and the belief that America "creates its own enemies", drawing on the lessons learned developing Deus Ex, with a writing team whose credits also include Thief 3 and BioShock.
Written down, it sounds like Predator 2 stumbling into Syriana. A journalist friend I bump into before interviewing Harvey Smith, creative director on Blacksite, jokes that his editor had told him to ask "why Harvey Smith is making a rubbish action game". Neither of us does, I don't think, but coming out of it the answer seems to be: because he reckons he can say what he wants to say and make a "pure shooter" at the same time. In fact, he seems utterly blasť about the juxtaposition.
The pure-shooter part is what you probably expect, especially if you've played the Xbox Live demo. What we're shown is an FPS game that enhances traditional run-and-gun gameplay by grafting on various elements: a one-button command control that directs your squad to take up cover positions, attack the enemy, plant explosives, kick down doors and go wherever you point and click; a squad-morale system that pumps the unit full of health and aggression when you take a strong lead, resulting in team-mates who race into the breach and melee-attack enemy soldiers if you've been directing them authoritatively and gunning down enemies, but who cower behind cover when you don't, blindfiring instead of engaging; and a destructible environment that lets you to shatter the enemy's cover with grenades, and shoot statues into 12 separate pieces.
These concepts together in concert overwhelm the perception of Blacksite as some sort of dumb shooter made by jobbing developers, or at least they try to. What's tricky about Blacksite is that, right now, what we've played is only formative on the baser level. There's a scenario where you fight waves of Iraqi soldiers while on tour outside Tikrit, capping them with sniper rifles, and then blasting them repeatedly with assault rifles. My tape of the presentation is a deafening chorus of machineguns punctuated by NPC smacktalk and Smith and his colleague Ricardo Bare shouting useful comments over the top. Another episode has you shooting at "octopus dog" aliens that will spit projectiles at you in the final build. The last is the chopper run, which climaxes with a shootout in the grounds of a radio base involving "javelin" rocket launchers (paint targets and then back off and fire round corners) and lots of circle-strafing.
But when you talk to Smith about it, the game takes a better shape. We talk about the squad-command stuff and he admits that a lot of people use it like a weapon. "We find that players do two things over and over once they learn the sort of vernacular of how to use the game: they send people further down the hall to see if it's safe, or down the street, and then if a fight kicks off they take up a more tactical location; and then once they get used to it they also send the squad to attack an enemy, and then they try and sneak around behind the enemy." But when I point out that it would be hard to empathise with your squad-mates if they're just tools for feeling the way, he counters: "what I learned from Deus Ex was that repeat exposure to characters and seeing them suffer is how you care about them". We then have an interesting discussion about your friends' backgrounds and how they play off against each other.
A lot of their design decisions make sense, or are that particular sort of common sense that a lot of games never get round to. Their enemy AI will take up cover positions, but they understand the difference between valid cover and compromised positions, so they move off if you blow holes in the wall they're crouched behind. Recognising the limitations of console hardware, they bias the destructible environment programming toward objects that influence gameplay. When there's an opportunity to split the squad up, it's not just a foil for branching co-op ala Gears of War, but an opportunity to change the dynamic of the group, which also affects the sorts of conversations they have with you as you move through an area.
They also recognise the inherent problem with their squad-morale system. As Smith says, if you make two or three mistakes and morale dips, it starts to create a cascade. "Now we're game designers, so we anticipated the cascade and we do some things to correct it - you know, we don't want to create a positive feedback loop - but it is still an interesting challenge to tune it." In dealing with story elements, they prefer in-engine cinematics to cut-scenes ("Half-Life 2" is mentioned a few times in reference to this), and they never take you out of the first-person perspective. In fact, one of the examples they show is a tense chat with an embittered trailer-park gas-station owner, as you wander around the inside of a small hangar, where the exposition's interrupted as he walks past a window and an enemy smashes its fist through the pane.
The question is whether the contradiction ends up bending toward the desirable whole that's sketched out for us by the developer, and despite our hands-on time the answer's still elusive. Combat is frantic, but slightly flat - perhaps because certain elements are still missing. Certainly Smith wants to use the next 90 days for polish, and he's determined to avoid a repeat of the situations he encountered working at Origin, Ion Storm and Looking Glass, where one gamer saw an incredible immersive world, and another shot a guy, noticed that the bloke standing next to him had no idea he had, and dismissed the whole game in an instant. Right now, you can set off a grenade here and an enemy over there doesn't notice, and if that's the ball-game for Smith, then perhaps it's safe to take the other things that aren't quite there yet on trust.
Or not. But it's worth keeping an eye open for the second demo they're preparing for Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and PC, and we're certainly keen to play the final game to see how it develops. We're also told to expect full-length campaign co-op, and multiplayer modes beyond the usual deathmatch/team deathmatch/capture-the-flag tryst. "Human vs. Reborn" is an unknown quantity, but Siege will be a sort of capture-and-hold scenario where you can apparently capture enemies as you play.
Overall then it's enthusiasm, but also caution. Maybe the best example is the battle with the octopus monster. You're swooping back and forth in a helicopter as this gigantic office-block of a multi-limbed enemy straddles the bridge across a valley, firing into its face, until inevitably it's taken out by a climax of sidewinders. As it tumbles, it clings onto the bridge - and life - desperately, even as it slips inexorably toward inevitable death, crushed beneath tons of rubble hundreds of metres below, and you believe in that creature; everything about it tells you it's there and it knows it's about to die. But really, all you did to kill it was hold down the right trigger and point hopefully in its direction. All at once Blacksite is the things the developers say and the games we've all played before. So there's a gap for the game to jump. Finding out if it does seems like a worthwhile pursuit, but mainly because of the personnel. Join us again in a few months for the answer.
Blacksite is due out later this year on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. We were playing the Xbox 360 version.