Guns. That is really what this game is all about. Developed by Criterion Studios, the folks behind the incredible Burnout series of games, this game spells a vast departure from the norm. Criterion said that the concept for this game came from a trip to a shooting range. After playing Black, I can assure you that some high caliber weapons and metric tons of ammunition were involved in that trip.
The game storyline starts off with you in an interrogation room. You are getting grilled regarding the details of your recent mission that resulted in massive casualties and incredible city-wide damage. Your mission was not sanctioned by the military, and you have a lot of damage to answer for. The game kicks off as you recount the events that lead you here. With such a cliché and trite storyline, does Black have what it takes to elevate first person shooters to the next level, or is this game just a short rollercoaster ride of destruction and devastation?
The graphics in Black are some of the best we’ve seen for the previous generation of consoles. It is a great cap on the capabilities of the PS2, although it does occasionally push it just a little bit past the edge causing some frame issues. We’ve come a long way since Fantavision folks. The graphic environment is less about what it looks like when you arrive, and more about what it looks like when you leave. Clock towers, building columns, walls, ceilings, trucks, cars, tanks, fuel trucks – you name it, you can blow it apart. The game features more going on than almost any other title to date. The sheer number of bullets and debris particles flying around any given scene has to be seen to be believed.
You can tell the folks at Criterion are movie buffs. You’ll have instant recognition with some of the areas in the game. There is a prison scene like the one in The Rock, there is a black marble columned building lobby like the one in The Matrix, there is a tower like the one in Saving Private Ryan that you can blast apart with a rocket launcher. It is awesome when you take out some of these objects. For example, when you hit the base of the clock tower it topples over as the support structures underneath crumble inward. Each time your bullets go wayward and they impact a wall, permanent pitting occurs. Similarly, you get a tight grouping of smaller holes when a shotgun blast tears into plaster. The amount of debris stacks up well as glass and marble chunks fill the air.
Since this game is all about the guns, the models on each weapon are painstakingly rendered. Unfortunately, the same level of detail and variety didn’t go into the animation system. The death animations are few and slightly awkward, something you might not notice if there weren’t so many enemies to kill. When you blast a car that was being used for cover and you kill 4 or 5 guys simultaneously, and they all die with the same animation, it tends to be noticeable. You could argue that all of this could have been ironed out with an extra month or two in the cooker, Black is still one of the best looking games around, regardless of platform.The game shines graphically, there is no doubt. A game with this much going on has to have a solid audio component to really sell the destruction and devastation. Criterion worked hard on the audio track with a great thumping background track and a fantastic set of special effect noises. The music stays in the background, but as the insanity of the field increases, the music builds. As your health drops the music again intensifies culminating in a slow-motion washed out effect as you approach death. Bullet impacts and ricochets, bullets whizzing past your head, the crumbling of walls, and the screeching of steel as rockets tear through vehicles is just intense. The level of detail is intense – each surface sounds different when hit. There is some great uses of the Doppler Effect when you fire a weapon inside an enclosed area – the sounds are somewhat absorbed by the environment. When you fire the same weapon in the open or in a tunnel you’ll get echo effects or a sharper crack, respectively. Explosion and fire rages long after impact and crackles as the fires continue to add to the chaos of the battle. The only thing that felt overdone was the acting in the cutscenes. Hammy at best. At least they were short and I could get back to the run and gun. In a game this straightforward, it should come as no surprise that you can toggle the ability to crouch off completely. Like the overall gameplay, Black’s controls are a mixed bag. You can create your own custom configuration, which is great – it should be an option in EVERY game. The aiming, however, is painfully inaccurate. I’m not sure if it is the PS2 controller, or the game, but a lot of the time I found myself fighting the controls for an accurate shot. Given how much damage it takes to kill some of the enemies, accuracy counts. To compensate, I just simply laid down a lot more ammunition. It got the job done, but don’t expect pin-point accuracy here.
As I mentioned before, Black is a rollercoaster ride the whole way through. From the second you enter the game you are battling enemies in every direction. Odds are (as evidenced by my end-game stats) that you’ll end up facing upwards of 3000 enemies throughout the 7 to 8 hours of gameplay. When you check how many bullets were required to end that many bad guys and you see that it easily clears 30,000 bullets, you have to know that this game is almost like holding the trigger on a machine gun that never runs dry.
The levels are set up as flashbacks by the cinematics between the 8 areas. Each area has a primary objective, and often several secondary objectives. These can be as simple as picking up some clipboards to gather Blackmail material or Intel. You can also perform Recon for upcoming missions, or discover hidden caches of weapons. There is also a destruction objective you can meet for blowing up a specific item within the level. Obviously, with such a heavy focus on firepower, the missions are not exactly ‘varied’, but it doesn’t seem that variety was the objective.
There is one thing that would normally be in the graphics section that I feel belongs in the gameplay section for Black. Every time you reload any of the weapons in the game, the screen blurs and pours all focus into your weapon. Essentially, everything but the weapon becomes blurry, as if to say “LOOK! I’m the focus of the game! Look at me!” Yes…we get it, but it is incredibly irritating and ultimately pointless.
This is the shortest gameplay section I’ve ever written for a game, but for Black that makes sense. There is a lot going for Black, but the gameplay is essentially run-and-gun to the exclusion of almost all else. The game ultimately delivers, but like most bright candles, it burns half as long. For those of us with Widescreen displays, I should mention that Black delivers nicely.
There are only eight levels in Black, and all told it will probably take you roughly 6 to 7 hours to beat the game. There is an easy, normal, hard, and a Black Ops difficulty level in Black. The higher difficulty levels ramp up the challenge quite a bit, with the primary factor being that you can’t carry health kits like you can on Easy and Normal. You have to unlock the Black Ops mode by beating the game, which also unlocks weapons with unlimited ammo. On Easy and Normal I could literally run through the first few levels with only the shotgun, never taking cover. Literally zero challenge. Later levels are far more difficult and will have to resting to recover your energy frequently. The ability to blow things up turns from being a gimmick at that point to being a completely necessary gameplay element. Sometimes your only option is to rip the landscape apart to reach your enemies.
There are a few things missing in Black that you would find in other games in this genre. There are no other modes or multiplayer to prolong the game. If you wanted to be able to take the mayhem and destruction into the online world, or try your hand at a time-attack mode, you’ll sadly be left wanting until Criterion gets around to a sequel. In short, it is a Hell of a ride the first run through, but it just doesn’t have a lot of staying power.Black is a game that is a step towards revolutionary, but ends up being evolutionary. We’ve seen destructible environments before, but never to this degree. Unfortunately, with gameplay this shallow, it doesn’t bring the genre to a new level. The potential is there, but there just isn’t enough material to ultimately deliver. The run-and-gun gameplay is fun the first run through, but the replay value is fairly low. It is an excellent first attempt at this genre for Criterion – I have high hopes for their next title. As for Black, proceed with caution. You may wish to pick this up as a rental or look for a sale.