“Go In All Guns Blazing”. That’s the tag line on Black’s packaging, and, more importantly, it’s the overriding mantra from start to finish. Levels may well be structured around a serious live action storyline that sees your Black Ops character (Kellar) explaining what went wrong across (the game’s) series of missions, and which ultimately led him—handcuffed—into the interrogation room he’s in for the duration of the game; but that in itself plays perfectly against Black’s relentless ‘gung ho’ approach.
As Kellar, you are frequently told to hold position during missions, to wait for reinforcements or further orders, but to do so leaves you in level limbo. As the player, you ‘must’ continue in order to complete the mission, and Kellar will happily announce that he’s “Goin’ in” against direct instruction. These instances of insubordination, of course, count against Kellar as he argues against bigger accusations between missions. Is his ‘all guns blazing’ attitude a mask for darker motives, or is he merely overly heroic and, as such, a well-chosen patsy?
At the end of the day, character motivation holds little sway on Black’s central gameplay, and it’s unlikely that you’ll truly care while twisting the controller in anticipation of the next mission. And, for all the implied seriousness, Black is unfailingly pure in the simplest of its gaming achievements: it is fun.
When it comes to first-person shooters, there’s a multitude of differing titles that individually offer something special to discerning genre fans, while also remaining true to the same basic premise of progressive blasting. Whether that may be the involving narrative and unsurpassed atmospherics of Half-Life, the glitzy eye-candy and universe-saving thrills of Halo, or the gritty and heart-pounding realism of Call of Duty, there’s always some form of concentrated attraction in an ever-expanding marketplace. And many other (lesser) FPS titles have recently struggled, fought, and largely failed to emulate the successful formulas laid down by the aforementioned games.
However, with Black, EA and Criterion have created a product where gamers are spared the grating frustrations of yet another ‘by the numbers’ copycat shooter, and are instead thrust into a fast-paced FPS roller coaster that successfully redefines established standards, strives for new ground in graphic innovation and gameplay originality, and subsequently stands alone as a refreshingly different experience.
With Black, Criterion have addressed that nagging thought harboured by many gamers while in the heat of FPS battle; that little voice in the back of the mind that repeatedly points out the game’s limitations in terms of physicality. For example, in other games, when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, the simple act of seeking shelter behind handily placed packing boxes, concrete support pillars, or stacked barrels almost always provides complete covering safety.
Not so in Black. Terrorist groups don’t necessarily have food supplies in their packing boxes, so those individuals found crouching behind them often find themselves the victims of exploding contents. Concrete cover in the form of struts, posts, pillars, and even headstones, can be blasted away to uncover those behind, or even crush them with the resulting debris. And certain barrels, specifically the red oil drums, certainly don’t react kindly to waves of scorching hot lead.
Ultimately, Criterion’s outrageous attention to detail makes for a frantic and in-depth gameplay experience that, while not as engrossing as the likes of Half-Life and Halo, adds new definition to the genre. The various angles of in-game destruction open to players are simple in implementation, yet always thoroughly satisfying in executed effect. Aesthetically, the entire game is virtually devoid of the colour red, and when players spy a flash of it, it’s almost always an open invitation to blow stuff up; be it oil barrels, boxes of explosives, gas canisters, or even huge flammable containers. What’s more, the explosions are not merely for show (though each one is breathtaking to behold), but can be used tactically to clear enemy emplacements, obstacles, nearby vehicles, and onrushing or covered foes, all of which further adds to the game’s immersion.
As Criterion is only too proud to boast, every environment encountered in Black sustains noticeable, realistic, and permanent damage: every bullet impact, grenade explosion and burst of shrapnel is accurately registered on surfaces, which scar, splinter, and buckle accordingly. The game never fails to deliver on its action promises, and that’s where FPS purists bemoaning the rather shoehorned narrative and linear structuring may well have misread Black’s intent.
In terms of presentation, you’re unlikely to have seen a better-looking title on the PS2. Black exudes class from its opening cinematic-inspired introduction, claustrophobic live-action segments and quick-cut information montages, through to the fully rendered weaponry sequences that play behind the menus.
In-game visuals are crammed with top-notch particle effects, rich atmospheric lighting, and massively detailed and expansive environments. Available weaponry is vast, though initially limited, and it steadily increases at a pleasing rate (though you can only ever carry two pieces) and all of it is thrilling to handle—even the Uzi and MP5, the staple underpowered whipping boys of FPS games. Reloading instigates a new visual touch because the equipped weapon pulls into sharp focus while Kellar concentrates on slamming home more ammo, and the rest of the screen blurs as his attention is drawn away. This promotes a degree of caution concerning where and when to reload, as usually defined enemies instantly become meaningless blobs for a few vital seconds. The sheer weight of destructive force available to the player is formidable and the graphics never show any signs of chop or slowdown as multiple explosions and massive shockwaves rip through environments. It must also be pointed out that players will actively seek stashes of fragmentation grenades, because lobbing one into a room, or beneath a vehicle, or toward fuel drums produces a visual effect that disgraces the standard seen in the likes of Call of Duty 2.
Unsurprisingly Black’s orchestrated musical score is indicative of the overall package, and it swings effortlessly between subtle ambiance and thundering moments of bullet-riddled, heart-pounding atmosphere. The score is never over used, though, and Criterion has even been wise enough to leave it out altogether during certain sections, opting to centre the game’s impending action around whistling winds, distant battle echoes, and other accompanying environmental effects.
Naturally, this only serves to boost the impact of the musical elements when they do arise. Gunfire, reverb, explosions, NPC chatter, and death yells are all totally convincing and no single element stands out by way of exception. Worthy of note are the game’s jaw-dropping explosions, and nothing in the game quite equals the joyous moment directly following an RPG strike against a giant fuel tank and the expletive-inducing mushroom of fire and deep rumble of rolling sound.
Hard of hearing gamers are sure to enjoy Black’s pulsing energy but, sadly, the game fails to offer any form of subtitled accompaniment to Kellar’s interrogations or the actual in-game action. Unfortunately, girl gamers looking for a Jo Dark-styled female character option are limited to a central protagonist in Kellar who’s about as testosterone-fueled and male as they come—but one or two NPC females pop up within Kellar’s assigned squads and are certainly not shy when it comes to knocking off the safety catch and sharing the pain.
Regardless of the unhidden drooling thus far, there’s no such thing as ‘the perfect game’, and Black occasionally falls foul to the most dreaded of FPS flaws: dodgy artificial intelligence. There are instances when usually alert, effective, and hardened enemies will happily wander across your eye line with no due care and attention, or leap from cover in an abrupt dance of death, at which point players will be momentarily jarred from the general sense of enjoyment while emptying a whole magazine at the poor idiotic fools. And there are those moments when enemies in one particular area are conveniently oblivious to the sounds of battle taking place not 50 metres from them.
Perhaps more guilty of this A.I. glitch are your accompanying squad mates, who blindly ignore close-quarter enemies in favour of navigating a staircase or seeking fresh cover, which can leave players to deal with frantically unbalanced exchanges of gunfire. Black is also rather thin on the ground in terms of structural gameplay variety. There are plenty of weapons to choose from, plenty of primary and secondary objectives, and plenty of differing environments to explore, but the overall driving motivation of the game is move forward, move forward, move forward…and kill anything that dares cross your path. Yet, despite the intermittently obtrusive A.I. glitches, and the overly familiar two-dimensional structure of the game, Black still emerges as nothing less than pleasurably entertaining.
Some gamers may wish for a considered amalgamation of all the best bits seen in FPS releases of note: the compelling depth of Half-Life mixed with the mind-blowing visual style of Halo and the concentrated realism of Call of Duty. Sadly, Black is not that game. And, as such, some may see it as little more than an FPS wet dream and an exaggerated foray into mindless destruction without evolving motivation. But, as a gaming experience, it’s not mindless; no, it’s cleverly crafted to realise its goals without ever stretching beyond its ambition, which is to be a fun-filled representation of all that is good (and has been so neglected in recent shooter iterations). It is rousing and highly charged fun from the moment you embark on the first mission, and it never ceases to be so. Black is, quite simply, a white-knuckle FPS orgasm.
Review by Stevie (via Thumb Bandits).
U-Haul Review Status:
Black by Criterion Games was released way back in 2006 for original Xbox and PS2. Black was an awesome game as this review attests. If you want to have an original Xbox “white-knuckle FPS orgasm” go get it, hire that U-Haul and move this baby on in.
Black came out of nowhere and threw the FPS genre into a frenzy, kind of like “crazy Jenny Schecter” when she came back from her tazer shooting, shroom munching roadtrip. The main difference between the two is that Black is loads of fun, “crazy Jenny Schecter”… not so much.