Black

General Kirby: “Leave anything for us?”
John Matrix: “Just bodies.”
-from Commando

Criterion’s Black has been described in several places as “gun porn”, promising the smooth bored experience of ejecting brass coupled with the form fitting familiarity of a dozen action films rolled into a pretty face. The opening video entices players into the sultry world of oiled guns and polished black carbon steel when the game is left alone, idling away just waiting for someone to pick up the controls and rain death on the hapless foes waiting for them in a fictional East European venue. Known more for the Burnout series of titles and among developers for their Renderware platform, Criterion has taken the experience that they have earned from warping metal and smashing glass with cars to a title that makes gunplay an orgy of annihilation. So how does a developer go from road rage to Rambo?

Black was riddled on an Xbox and is also available on the PS2.

They Don’t Negotiate with Terrorists…They Blow Them Away!

Black is the nickname for the special ops that Keller, the guy whose boots that you are being put into, does best. Schooled in the cutting edges of psychological and conventional warfare, these operatives do the kind of things far outside of the public eye that allow the rest of us to sleep easier at night. They’re off the books, participating in the kind of operations whose methods would impeach administrations. Where Splinter Cell’s Third Echelon fulfill their objectives with a knife and a whispered word, the operatives in Black do the same thing with the bark of gunfire and the prodding nudge of a grenade burst.

The story is filled in between missions with live video feeds, split second montages of headline mockups, and photographs as a handcuffed Keller is being grilled by a government suit in a dark and smoky room. It seems that an operation had gone south in a bad way and Keller is being put out to dry. But he’s not going down without a fight and as he explains how it went down, the player gets to participate in the gun battles that had ultimately brought him to where he is sitting now.

Gunplay

The premise sounds pretty exciting, but the story really takes only shotgun role in the face of what it does best: shoot up and blow away bad guys along with anything else that might be around them. Criterion has put together a great looking engine to accomplish this, fashioned and tweaked to provide shooter fans the kind of FPS environment in which to do what they’ve always wanted to do in any number of Hollywood blockbuster action films. Concrete in many places deforms and explodes as bullets tear apart walls and partitions, bullets spark against metal, glass shatters everywhere from windows or building fronts when they blow apart, and cars and barrels burst apart when caught in the crossfire. While it doesn’t go to the extent that Red Faction does with its geo mod tech, Black’s environment still has more than a few surprises for players. It’s not perfect, though, and had it’s own share of issues.

Despite looking as good as it did and offering a variety of approaches to taking out obstacles like machine gun nests or RPG positions, it had ‘invisible wall’ syndrome in several areas that detracted a little from what I thought I was able to do. In one area that had you going from room to room in a building with giant holes in the floor, there was one point where I thought I could drop down to the next only a few feet below me only to be stopped by an invisible barrier. In certain areas, doors come down behind you giving me the impression of being an armed rat in a huge virtual maze. Enemies also had the weird tendency to clip through walls or floors in some cases where they had been blown back by explosions or ‘nades.

There are also some physics at work as enemies get blown back, crumple, or fall from high places which happens often. Although quite a few of the ‘death animations’ are recycled in the game, the overall effect still does a good job in making a satisfying end to the gunfight you may just have had. Add to this the chatter from friends and foes in the field, and the game goes a long way in providing an extremely frenetic experience born in the heat of a brutal firefight.

The game keeps a check on your progress, allowing you to start the game from the beginning of whatever mission you managed to get to last. There’s also a checkpoint system in place within each mission allowing you to start at a reasonable location in case you get hit with a severe case of lead poisoning. The checkpoints aren’t all that forgiving, though, and if you die just before you make the next one, you might find yourself having to repeat all of the gun battles that you had just slogged through.

Enemies will flow at you like lemmings hurling themselves into your bullets, coming out of shattered buildings and from machine gun nests to meet you. They’re smart enough to dodge, weave, and take cover, but they’re cannon fodder for the most part and do little more than provide targets. Running blindly into battle can get you killed quickly, forcing you to try and find ways to get the drop on certain situations, but sometimes it can be the only thing you’ll need to do to get to the next checkpoint. You’ll be gunning down hundreds of armed and masked men, some of whom will actually start sporting body armor and riot shields in later missions, and blowing up most of the things around them in the process to try and take them out. Explosive barrels, crates, and vehicles are scattered around every area tempting the player to blow even more stuff up.

Adding to this is an extensive customization system that allows you to map out your controls to an extreme degree, remapping most of the buttons and options to fit your needs. An option to use a custom soundtrack is also available, allowing you to use your whatever action tracks you may have ripped to the Xbox to follow you into action. Michael Giacchino’s score does a good job on its own, though, evoking the kind of pulse pounding music that defined his earlier work in titles such as Mercenaries and Call of Duty helping to promote the action film feel that Criterion is reaching for.

But the stars of the title are the guns and the game has plenty of some of the best looking and sounding weapons in any game. Criterion did their homework and every weapon in the game shows the fruit of what they’ve brought back with them in their research and field tests. Sniper rifles, Magnum revolvers, and uzis and assault rifles round out the arsenal of destruction that you’ll be using against everyone ahead of you. Some weapons can even be fitted with a silencer for when you want to sneak in a few shots to take down as many as you can before all hell breaks loose. The small submachine guns and automatic rifles can even be set to fire in single, burst, or full automatic. Even an RPG is thrown in for those times when you need to make an explosive point and the effects on each one are done extremely well to make them the icons of the battlefield. You also have grenades along with the rest of your arsenal and while they’re powerful enough to clear out rooms, you might find that they can also be used to set off even larger explosions later…the kind that put holes in buildings. Although you can’t cook your ‘nades, you can even turn them into aerial bombs by shooting them before they land or to get them to go off quickly before the enemy scatters when one ends up at their feet.

You’re limited in being able to only carry two weapons at a time which does make you think of what to carry into the next area. For example, if you find a sniper rifle leaning against a wall, odds are good that the courtyard just a few feet away will have enemies waiting for you in high rise windows or posted on watchtowers and platforms. Dual wielding fans will miss the feature, but the weapons themselves more than make up for that second pistol that you might want to carry.

When guns aren’t enough, you’ll also have compatriots that follow you in as part of certain missions, lending some of their fire to help cover you. They do a decent job of acting as decoys given that they’re nearly immortal, but they don’t do much else. Most of the gunplay that will get you out of one frying pan and into another will be on your shoulders alone. It does give you a slight feeling of being part of a team, but many situations will have you going solo into the war torn ruins ahead.

I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed

Black is fast, brutal, and filled with enough broken glass to fill the hunger for most action junkies out there. But as fun as the game is in the first few hours, after the excitement of the flash and fire that you paint the screen with dies down into a gun battle every ten steps, it’s simple approach to gunplay starts to feel repetitive. There are also occasions where you have to face off against legions of foes both above and in front of you in special ‘kill rooms’, but these exciting moments are few and far between.

Looking past the flashy gunplay and environmental effects that the engine supplies, I often felt that I was still playing a pretty typical action shooter as I repeated the experience of drilling soldiers that will eventually wear more body armor than an Abrams tank, asking you to keep shooting even more bullets into them. Almost as if to emphasize this last, your bullets ‘glint’ when they hit these guys as there’s no blood in the game. While I’m not expecting this to be the next Soldier of Fortune, given the corpses that you leave behind it just felt odd that this little piece of political correctedness should even exist in a game like Black.

While it does have some kind of story attached to it, it’s so brief and thin and it really doesn’t do anything but provide some logic for those looking for it in the chaos that it creates. I really want to say something about the ending other than it sets it up for a sequel, but to say anymore would ruin it. Let’s just say that it was just like the rest of the story. Short and brief. And while you can’t skip the cuts when you first play through the game, if you decide to replay any of the missions or start a new one, you’ll now be able to almost as if it were some kind of reward to making it through in the first place.

There’s also no jump available which I thought was strange. While it may prevent players from hopping out of the enemy’s fire like rabid rabbits, the additional lack of a mantling feature didn’t help the somewhat linear feeling that you might experience as low walls and crates gently prod you in the directions that you should head towards. As soon as you walk down those busted steps, I hope that you have what you need to take on the next few challenges ahead and didn’t leave any bonuses behind. Keller apparently lacks any ability to clamber over anything higher than his knees.

The longevity of the game and the bonuses that it has to reward the player with may disappoint those looking for more replayability in a title whose single player experience can last anywhere from six to ten hours. There are ‘secondary objectives’ in each mission that players can try to attain, although these end up being more like a scavenger hunt than in actually pursuing a branching opportunity to do something such as destroy an enemy convoy or assassinate a particular bad guy on your way to your next objective. These objectives entail finding or destroying certain items, many of which are inspired by some of the covert action films. Movie buffs will probably chuckle at the references to films such as “Blue Thunder” or “Sneakers” that these objectives were inspired by. While you have a quota of these ‘secondary objectives’ to fulfill, the harder difficulty levels raise the number of how many you must successfully complete in addition to other challenges.

A “Hard” difficulty is available to start with, “Black Ops” unlocked after you finish the game on “Hard”, both raising the number of secondary objectives you must complete as well as removing completely the number of health packs that you can carry to bandage yourself with when you’re dying. “Silver Weapons” that never run out of ammo (but strangely require you to still reload them) make themselves available after you finish the title on “Normal” or “Hard”. But despite these challenging additions, the game doesn’t have any multiplayer which may disappoint quite a few players looking to send their friends flying from exploding gas tanks.

Climax

While it might not redefine the FPS genre for some players, as Criterion’s first shooter it’s still a solid title that has proven that they can smash up Eastern European inspired locales just as easily as fancy sports cars. It’s certainly a tour de force that shows off some fantastic looking gunplay, though, as Black easily has its moments of unbridled excitement. But without a lot of compelling replayability and a rather short experience that can get repetitive at times, you may want to rent this one first to decide whether or not you want to add it to your personal FPS arsenal.

– World 1-1

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