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.