Having followed Black's progress since Criterion first invited us to see its tech demo over a year ago it's been blindingly obvious that the Guildford-based developer had something very special in mind. A year on the team put together one of the most impressive technical demonstrations at E3 2005 which you can see our thoughts on here.
After this inspirational demo we composed ourselves enough to chat to Criterion's Alex Ward to ask a few quick questions about its attempt to do for the first person shooter what the Burnout series did for the racing genre.
Cocked, locked and ready to rock? Over to the man himself...
Eurogamer: Tell us what Black is about.
Alex Ward: The game is about a black military operation. You may have brushed alongside the world of black ops before but largely this world has been seen in terms of stealth gameplay - being covert, sneaking around. All of the action in Black is overt not covert.
Eurogamer: So how the hell are you pulling off that amount of detail on a PS2? Is this as hard as anyone's pushed the machine?
Alex Ward: We are lucky to have an exceptional coding team working on the game along with a talented art team. There is certainly a lot happening on-screen.
Eurogamer: How do you think it ranks against other shooters, first of all in terms of the tech, and then in terms of playability?
Alex Ward: Obviously, our game is still in development. What we have just shown is a work in progress, about 25 per cent complete as a development and about 50 per cent of the way there in terms of visuals. We're out to make a great shooting game and just like the other game we develop at Criterion Games, Burnout, we aim to deliver a game with strong technology and strong gameplay.
Eurogamer: Is this tech likely to emerge in other games?
Alex Ward: The core coding team are the founder members of the Burnout Team. A lot of what you see started in Burnout, specifically the second Burnout, Point of Impact.
Eurogamer: When we last saw Black, there was an elaborate storyboard with each level inspired by a different classic movie scene. How closely did you stick to that premise?
Alex Ward: Pretty closely. It's always useful to have strong compelling reference. It's no secret that we look at movies each and every day.
Eurogamer: Originally you were targeting a late 2005 release - what forced the delay, and when is the game likely to come out now?
Alex Ward: We got busy completing work on Burnout 3: Takedown. It was hard work. But pre-production on Black was running the whole time. The programming team got started at the end of 2004. We are looking at a release around February next year.
Eurogamer: Most publishers are shy of introducing new brands on well-established systems; what has EA's response to Black been, and how successful do you think it will be?
Alex Ward: EA has responded very enthusiastically and given us the resources we need to get on with the job. As to how successful it will be? That's not for me to decide, it's up to the audience. We'll just do our best and deliver strong software.
Eurogamer: What's the thinking behind not putting a multiplayer mode in there? You do realise you'll have to endure a tedious backlash from the vocal minority...
Alex Ward: Our focus is a strong single-player game. We're out to bring some innovation into this genre. We're out to do a few things very well. Not a lot of elements poorly. The first Halo title did not feature [online] multiplayer. It didn't seem to hurt them. It would be a good game if it were released next week. Players want good games at the end of the day.
Eurogamer: What do you say to those people that have "seen it all before"? What is Black doing that's new?
Alex Ward: If they have seen it all before then there's nothing we can do about that. What we're doing is trying to capture the tension and emotion and visceral excitement of a Hollywood shootout. Firing weapons is exciting stuff. Movies show shootouts all the time. They look amazing. Now look at games in this genre. They look nowhere near as exciting as we want them to be. The shooting is often poor and you simply don't feel as if someone is shooting back at you. Black is about putting shooting back in a genre which should be all about shooting.
Eurogamer: In terms of the narrative, Criterion's not exactly famous for its storylines: what have you done to address this and make sure Black isn't 'yet another pretty looking game with a hackneyed storyline and am-dram voiceovers'?
Alex Ward: Can you name a videogame where you respect the story work? It's tough isn't it. All I will say is that we've worked extremely hard to try and overcome some of the problems and frustrations that we all have with videogame storytelling.
Eurogamer: Are you planning a linear mission structure, or is the game pulling off any interesting tricks here?
Alex Ward: It's a mission-based game.
Eurogamer: In terms of the levels themselves, does the game offer freedom to wander around and take your own path or is it a pretty scripted affair?
Alex Ward: The levels are designed with freedom and choice in mind. It's good to be able to return to levels and replay them for mastery rather than just completion.
Eurogamer: Are the maps larger than what we'd normally expect from a console shooter?
Alex Ward: Maps is such a 'PC' term. You'll be talking about 'sheets' next! Shall I give you the POKES now?! [smiles] If we leave you worrying about the size of our maps, sheets, levels, or stages then we're not doing a good enough job in entertaining you.
Eurogamer: Tell us about the AI - are you making any bold claims here?
Alex Ward: No.
Eurogamer: Has EA commissioned a sequel for next gen already?
Alex Ward: No. We haven't made the first one yet.
Eurogamer: Alex Ward, thank you.
Electronic Arts is releasing Black in February 2006 on PS2 and Xbox. Check out our thoughts on the recent E3 demonstration of the game here, and revisit us in the months ahead as we get our first hands-on with Criterion's first person shooter.