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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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Who needs next-gen?

Ever since we first clapped eyes on the tech demo for Black about a year ago it was glaringly obvious this would be a game to watch. A game where the central concept was about "being able to have fun with a gun in an empty room," where "the gun is the star," and one that was "going to do for shooters what Burnout did for racing games". Or in other words, the most insane levels of destruction your eyes have ever seen outside of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. When Criterion's Alex Ward talks about recreating the famous lobby destruction scene in The Matrix you nod politely. And then you see it for yourself and your eyes don't even blink for about four minutes.

Although the game was being shown off behind closed doors at E3 for a second year running, Criterion did at least make an effort to put on a show. Based upstairs on the sprawling multi-million dollar EA stand, the room itself was a recreation of the innards of its infamous tech demo room, complete with pitted grey concrete-effect tiles strewn with bullet holes and a floor awash with spent cartridges. "We had some fun before you got here," grins Ward. You could certainly feel the enthusiasm pouring out of the team as they surveyed the room for the reaction from the assembled hacks, even though this was probably the 100th time they'd had to play through the exact same demonstration. With Ward booming out a confident display of what the team is aiming for and EA's Jeremy Chubb providing able support in front of the chaotic action spewing forth from the big screen, the room was awash with helpless grins. A bit like the instinctive reaction we got from playing Burnout 2 for the first time, you might say.

None more Black

While most game previews would probably resort to retelling the game storyline at this point, Criterion's not playing ball just yet. To date EA hasn't even issued a press release, never mind issued teaser videos and suchlike. All we know so far is what Ward's prepared to let us in on, that it's 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," he told us at E3, but refused to elaborate any further, preferring to keep things under wraps for the time being.

But one thing Ward freely admits is that Black distils the team's best memories of their favourite movies. In fact, the last time out we got a sneak peak at the storyboarding process down at Criterion's HQ, each of the game's levels were explicitly designed to play out like your best memories of the best action sequences they could think of. Not a bad basis for an action game, you might reason.

Black background

One thing that's clear is that Criterion is going to finally break with its 'action-only' tradition and furnish Black with the requisite back-story and cast and spin a narrative around the game. Ward asserts that Criterion is making more than the cursory effort their contemporaries usually manage: "Can you name a videogame where you respect the story work?" he ponders. "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." Although the Guildford-based developer is hardly renowned for sweating too much over narrative over the past six, seven years, it's heartening to know it's going all out to make it not just about the action.

But what action. Playing through the sixth level of the game (which it claims is only 50 per cent complete in visual terms and 25 per cent in development terms) we got to see probably the most refined example of how to push the current generation machines - so much so that it made the prospect of moving to the next generation seem more than a little unnecessary at this point. The sheer amount of destruction possible within Black made Criterion's bold claim of being able to have fun in an empty room look like the biggest understatement of the year. It doesn't just recreate the lobby scene of The Matrix, but puts the whole process in the hands of the player with a whole suite of graphical and physics effects that would have most high-end PCs groaning at the prospect. If any developer ever moans about the PS2 ever again, just point them in the direction of Black. This is what can be achieved with raw talent.

Mere words cannot possibly hope to neatly sum up the degree of intense destruction that plays out before your eyes. Everything from the smallest tiles on a wall, to the supporting structures of an entire building can be blasted out and turned into rubble. Most memorably during the course of the presentation, a group of enemies firing on you from the third floor of a ruined building (with the front having already been cast asunder) have the rug literally pulled out from beneath then when the concrete pillars supporting their floor are taken out by an RPG, sending them and tons of dust and rubble tumbling in on itself as every floor of the remainder of the building collapses in on itself in protest, crushing anyone else firing at you beneath. Think of the shattered levels in all those WWII games, but with the ability to keep piling on the destruction. To use a horribly overused word, it is simply awesome.

Sign of the times

But while that may well seem like a Red Faction-style pre-determined area that you can shoot out (and we're sure the level design must dictate certain limits or else you'd surely end up blocking yourself in), there really does appear to be no limit to what you can blow to smithereens. Large neon signs bolted to the side of a building can be shot out piece by piece before the whole thing eventually crashes to the ground, every window of every building can be shattered spectacularly, and every vehicle's fuel tank can be ignited, sending cars and HGVs shooting into the sky in a ball of fire and debris. It's sheer chaos on a relentless and quite staggering scale. After five minutes of just watching this spectacle you feel like you need a rest.

But Criterion keeps on piling on the destruction - and all this just from one level. Next up we got to see just how effective lobbing a grenade through an open window could be. As you might expect by now, the explosion doesn't just kill the occupants and cause a bit of smoke, but blow all the windows out and send a blizzard of glass shards and assorted debris, smoke and dust raining down on your parade. The particle effects and level of detail have to be seen to be believed, and play out with no hint of frame rate loss. Elsewhere we got to see another building collapse spectacularly by, again, taking out the 15-foot high support columns. It makes you consider the level architecture from an entirely different mindset with the simple knowledge that everything can be taken apart spectacularly. Even the hungriest appetite for destruction will be sated - and then some.

Particularly interesting

Even the basic shooting interactions appear to have been thought through on a microscopic level, with every shot capable of kicking up enormous amounts of particle effects; smoke, dust, sparks, spent ammo cases, you name it - not to mention the overwhelming amount of noise your actions make. On that subject, it's fair to say Criterion made the most of the audio set up at E3; if there was a game at E3 that made as big an impression on our ear drums then we didn't find it.

Every shot resonates like you're actually there with a gun in your hand. As Ward himself has noted regularly during the development of Black: "Shooting guns in real life is a lot of fun; we wanted to replicate that". Indeed, anyone who has fired a gun for real will know exactly what he's getting at here as the room shakes with a force that would worry household pets and curious neighbours. Our advice is get some soundproofing installed before it ships next February, as you're not going to want to play this with the sound down. As the demo session of Black came to a conclusion we were treated to one of the most extensive explosions seen outside of a blockbuster movie as a big tanker was ripped apart by a typically bombastic rocket launcher missile, and the screen shakes in protest for several seconds to give an even greater impression of visual feedback. If you want subtlety from your videogames, best give Black a miss. You might need to renew your health insurance policies to take into account blast damage from videogames.

Need For Black: Most Wanted

On the other hand, if you're even vaguely interested in first-person shooters or action games (or bored of them and need your faith restored) we'd strongly advise you to place Black right at the very top of your Most Wanted list. If Criterion doesn't deliver on its promises to shake up the shooter we'd be very surprised indeed.

Electronic Arts is releasing Black on PS2 and Xbox in February 2006. Check back in the coming months for our thoughts on Criterion's incredible shoot-'em-up.