"Black is about shooting stuff and blowing s**t up," screams Criterion's creative boss Alex Ward in a closed off room at E3. A few years ago, Ward told Eurogamer that Burnout was about "driving fast and crashing cars". Simplicity in concept, Ward explained then, was key to his brand of high impact console game. Criterion's not rubbish any more, Burnout's sold millions and a few minutes with Black last week left us terrified, so we're in no position to argue. Frankly, heaven forfend.
A man in a cell. With a gun. A .45 semi automatic pistol, by the looks of it. Ward postures, bristling at the end of the demo room as lead designer Craig Sullivan snarls over a PS2 pad. On-screen, a hand slaps a loaded clip home and cocks the hammer. It's time for action. "Very macho this, isn't it?" we think as we suck our pencil and glance nervously around walls covered with range targets.
"You've been shooting in Vegas, right?" howls Ward, eyes glistening. Nod. "We took the team to Nevada to show them what it really feels like to shoot a weapon." Sullivan opens fire, plaster flies from the cell's walls, smoke drifts across the camera with ethereal realism and the flat boom of the .45's fat shells pounds, accurate to the octave. Sullivan walks to the window. Soldiers cribbed straight from Counter-Strike shoot on sight, glass shatters and more smoke lifts from scuffed brick. There's no music. Music isn't manly enough. We close our mouth and flick our eyes down to find the words "technically astonishing" scribbled on the pad in our lap.
Ward looks like a child winning a playground fight. Sullivan pulls out what appears to be an AR15 (the assault rifle currently used by the US military, the gruesome, compacted evolution of the fabled M16) and runs around the cell pushing holes through walls and windows as shells clatter in vain against the building.
"Can you blow doors off hinges?" shouts Ward over Sullivan's random discharge. He switches to a riot shotgun. "YES. YOU. CAN." shrieks Ward as the door flaps away in a spray of splinters, a second blast sending it flying, a withering chorus of lead singing from the balcony ahead, a soldier ruptured by a solid wall of shot from Sullivan as he stumbles into the street, another collapsing the balcony as deafening automatic fire raises a scene reminiscent of the power machismo ladled into 80s Hollywood action. "Good gravy," we write.
A scowling, suited executive opens the door into the room, claiming he can't hear himself think next door. Ward and Sullivan look mortified, turning down the amp. Ward disappears while Sullivan walks around the small street shooting everything, car tyres, scaffolding, water towers, signs on walls piece by tiny piece. Ward re-enters, less than pleased. Then he sees Black in action and the glee floods his face.
"We haven't even got round to shooting helicopters out of the sky with rocket launchers and flamethrowers yet! Or hand grenades!" Fatigue pinches the corners of his eyes and he sighs. It's suddenly over. We're unsure whether he's tired from jetlag or coming down from mainline Black. He throws a glance at the screen like a battered clubber surveying a depleted dance floor at 4.30am. Eurogamer withdraws, convinced Black will be one of the hardest shooting uppers for PS2 and Xbox in late 2005, and wanders bewildered onto the show floor. We still haven't forgotten the sound of that .45.