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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Trigger happy.

"We think this is the best shooter that anyone's ever made."

Now there's a bold statement. But what else would you expect from Jeremy Chubb - after all, he is the producer of Black, the shooter in question. Together with lead designer Craig Sullivan and various other members of development studio Criterion, he's here in Bucharest to show us what it's all about.

Criterion is best known for giving us the Burnout titles, and much has been made of the fact that Black is supposed to do for the shooter genre what those games did for racers. Chubb is banging on about it again now, in fact - he's talking about how the focus for games like Gran Turismo was on realism and perfect driving skills, and how Burnout came along and smashed it all up the wall.

So when the team at Criterion turned their attention to shooters, Chubb says, they looked at other FPS games - and decided that there was already too much stealth, subterfuge and skulking around in lockers going on. Taking their inspiration from movies such as The Terminator and The Matrix, the team came up with two main objectives: to make a shooter which was, "Cooler, sexier and more exciting than anyone else's," and one which would give the player a real sense of total destruction. In essence, a game where "Everything you shoot gets blown to f***," as Chubb puts it.

To demonstrate this, Sullivan plays through one of the levels, which is set in an asylum. He reckons that the graphics and special effects on display illustrate the fact that they've truly pushed the PS2 to its technical limits - and we reckon he's right. Not that there's much time to note the finer details of the realistic lighting, particle effects and polygon counts, though; we're too busy trying to keep track of the action as Sullivan blasts his way through wave after wave of trigger happy enemies, pausing only to swap guns or blow up the odd wall, just for the fun of it.

Keller instinct

Who cares about classical architecture when you've got a big fat gun?

For those who care about this sort of thing, the hero of the game is a bloke called Keller. He's a member of the Black tactical operations squad, and has been dispatched to Eastern Europe to track down and do over a US terrorist. "It's all done in flashback," explains story writer Guy Miller.

"The conceit is that there's an interrogation going on between your character and an interrogator, and you're playing through the events that led up to the reason why he's being interrogated."

You also get to watch the interrogation play out in a series of cut-scenes, none of which are animated using game models ("because it always looks a bit rubbish," according to Chubb). In essence, Miller says, "It's the story of the obsessive pursuit of one man."

Chubb explains that although the route through the game is linear in terms of storyline, you do have a range of options when it comes to making your way through missions. "We don't want to make it too open; we don't want people to be able to go anywhere, and get lost and bored; we want to keep it tightly focused," he says.

"But at the same time, we want people to feel like there's some kind of freedom of choice within the game, that they're not just on rails and shooting pop-up targets. It's all very dynamic, the AI is very dynamic, characters will react differently to you each time you play through the level, and your routes through the level will vary."

That's partly down to the fact that there are various optional objectives which you can complete for extra credit. Take what are known as the Blackmail Objectives, for example - these are achieved by destroying laptops which could reveal sensitive information. But what kind of information, exactly? "Either oblique references to movies that have inspired the game, or references to real world CIA operations, or assorted White House and Pentagon naughtiness," Chubb says. "So you can find a lot in there if you're looking for it."

But what you won't find are tiresome old puzzles of the "find the blue key to open the blue door" variety, as Sullivan is keen to point out. "I find stuff like that quite old school and quite boring, so we decided quite early on that we'd just use shotguns to open doors by blasting off their hinges. That's an important thing - shotguns are essentially keys in the game as well."

Guns. Lots of guns

All together now, 'Follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park, listening to the wiiiiinds...'

Which ties in with what we're gathering is the main theme of Black: the guns are the stars of the show. The game features 15 in total, and they've all been specially selected to make up a healthy arsenal that will suit all tastes. But that wasn't always the plan, as Chubb explains: "Originally we had a plan to put about 50 in, but we just couldn't make them unique and different enough from each other.

"So the guns that we put in really had to earn a place in the game, and what we ended up with was a distilled down selection of everybody's favourite guns, done as best as we could do them and as differently as possible."

Time for Sullivan to take us through some of the weapons individually. First up is the Glock, one of only two handguns in the game - "They're not particularly long range, but they're very accurate so you should use those for things like head shots," he says.

There are also two types of SMG - the Mac 10 Elite, and the Uzi 9mm. These are best for use indoors: "They're really short range, room clearance weapons... If you're going through a building and someone pops up in your face, you just pull the trigger and it sprays a load of bullets in their general direction - you don't have to be accurate with it."

Lovely. As for assault rifles, Black features the AK47, the G36 - "a very powerful and slightly longer range weapon" - and the M16, which has a higher firing rate and will shoot even further. Shotguns include the Remington 12, which is good for taking out enemies wearing body armour, and the Spaz 12.

And that's not all; there's a whole arsenal of other firearms which you won't get your hands on till you've finished the game - Sullivan, not wishing to spoil any surprises, won't tell us what they are. So with such a healthy selection, what seems to be the weapon of choice for those who've already had the chance to give Black a playtest?

"Usually the AK47, or one of the weapons you're rewarded with for finishing the game," apparently. Sullivan knows this because he frequently checks out players' Operator Profiles, which track which weapon you're using most as you play through the game. Your OP will also tell you how many bullets you've fired, and how many enemies you've shot, "Which is probably higher for this game than any other," Chubb chips in. Indeed, the press blurb claims Black has, "The largest body count of any videogame," would you believe, with, "Five times the number of enemies per level than conventional action games." Well now.

Blood sports

Not all the missions are set in burnt out buildings; expect lots of outdoor action too.

But while you can expect to see vast numbers of enemies falling at your feet, you won't find yourself covered in their blood, brains and assorted internal organs by the end of each level. In fact, there's no gore to be seen, which Chubb says was very much a conscious decision.

"We wanted [to create] this kind of hard, gritty world - so there's quite a lot of profanity, there's smoking in the cut-scenes, and we felt all of that was important to make it feel authentic and believable. But then we didn't think exploding heads and arms coming off people's bodies was really adding to it.

"We had some impacts which were like blood for a while, but it just didn't look cool. We didn't want people walking around levels and bludgeoning people to death - it just seemed gratuitous and pointless, it didn't really add to the game at all. We just wanted to get across the impact of firing machine guns, that sense of power and destruction."

That's not to say future instalments in the Black series will be quite as clean cut, however: "We might do it for the next game, it's not something we're particularly set on or not set on," Chubb says.

But as far as this first Black title goes, blood isn't the only thing Criterion decided to leave out - there's no multiplayer mode, online or otherwise. And according to the development team, that's not simply because they couldn't be arsed.

Chubb says that they wanted to "do something new and different and exciting" with the FPS genre, and to avoid falling into the age old trap of trying to do what's been done before - and failing.

Better than...?

Blowing up random bits of architecture is just as much fun as popping someone's head off in Black.

"There was a real temptation to look at Halo 2, which was probably the benchmark FPS, and say 'Well, they've got online multiplayer and vehicles and all this other stuff,' and trying to do all of that - but you just end up aping somebody else's game.

"I played a lot of Halo split-screen co-op and it was excellent, and I think people had a lot of fun with the second game's online mode. But ultimately they delivered a PC-style arena experience, and we don't see what we can add to that."

Chubb isn't a huge fan of online FPS play generally, by all accounts. "I don't really see how capture the flag is interesting or exciting to most people, and whenever I play those things it seems to be a bunch of American racist kids just swearing at me," he complains.

"Not to generalise or anything, Jez!" Sullivan chimes in with a chuckle. Chubb gets back on track with: "Maybe for future games [multiplayer] is something we'd consider, and we're certainly intrigued with what we can do online... But until we can do something really exciting and special, something you've never seen before, then we're not that up for it."

So, online aside, just what has Black got that makes it so special? "We were like, well, our thing is going to be shooting - Hollywood-style shootouts, machineguns done better than anyone else and so on," says Chubb, before cheekily adding: "Our weapons sh*t on Halo's."

That seems like a good note to end on - time now to find out what EA has lined up for the rest of our day in Bucharest. Turns out they've hired a bunch of real live stuntmen (with the likes of Blade Runner, Alien and assorted Bond films under their belts) to give us a taste of what it's like to be a real life Black Ops agent.

We won't bore you with all the details, but here are a few highlights: Learning how to do a somersault off a trampoline; firing a shedload of proper guns ("You may recognise this little puppy from Iraq" being the quote of the hour); almost running right into a wall of fire; crying like - well, a girl - at the prospect of jumping off what felt like a very high ledge, but doing it anyway and not dying; and having our hair ruffled by Sean Connery's stunt double. If Black is half as thrilling as all that, we're in for a treat.

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