Genre: Tactical FPS
Release Date: July 26, 2005
One of the darker moments in recent American history occurred in 1993 when then-President Bill Clinton sent Delta Force troops to Somalia on a mission to try and take out a local warlord. Sadly, things went wrong on a number of fronts, and we ended up losing 18 of our incredibly brave soldiers on a mission where two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. Shortly afterwards, heated public debate ensued over the reason for us being there, which eventually led to the United States pulling out its troops. In 1999, Mark Bowden wrote a book about the events of that dark day, which was later turned into the hit movie Black Hawk Down in 2001. After the success of the movie, Novalogic decided to make a game by the same name and released Delta Force: Black Hawk Down for the PC in 2003. Back then, the game was quite impressive with its graphics and large-scale battles. Finally two years later, Novalogic decided to bring the title to good ol' Xbox, but can the gameplay still hold up after two years?
Black Hawk Down takes place in Somalia, but it does not deal with the events of that fateful day, instead dealing with the events that lead up to the downing of the two Black Hawk helicopters. You play the role of a member of the Task Force Rangers on a series of missions which put you and your team of soldiers against Somali rebels. The single-player campaign features 16 missions with multiple objectives that take place in large environments. BHD's gameplay is a mix between a fast-paced, first-person shooter like Halo and a tactical shooter like Ghost Recon. Taking place in the first-person perspective, BHD tries to blend fast-paced action with realistic gameplay but doesn't quite pull it off. The realistic aspects manifest themselves in a few key areas. The hit detection is right on, and one well-placed shot can send you home in an oblong box. The same is true for your enemies as well; headshots will incapacitate them instantly. Your guns also fire and behave in a realistic manner. Each one has the same characteristics of its real life counter-part, right down to the different fire modes and rates of fire.
While there are areas of realism within, the combat for the most part is spray and pray. This happens to be one of the game's biggest strengths as well as one of its biggest weaknesses. On the plus side, the engine can support massive numbers of characters on the screen at one time, in the range of 50 or so. You often find yourself in seamless, never-ending massive battles with wave after wave of enemies coming after you from all angles, which makes for some great gun fights, but at the expense of using tactics. You pretty much go in and mow everyone down as fast as you can. Making things worse in this area is the game's many vehicles. Unlike Halo or Battlefield, Black Hawk Downs vehicles are not drivable, but instead are on a scripted rail-based system where you are simply along for the ride. This aspect of it is not as bad as it seems, due to the fact that you can man guns on the different vehicles, so you are always taking part in the action.
Despite this, the option to fully control and drive your vehicles would have been much better and much more fun. My other problem with the vehicles was the fact that the guns never run out of ammo or overheat so there is little skill involved in actually using them. Since they are machine guns, you pretty much just spray all over and you will have no problem clearing the field of view. You are basically invincible when manning one of these beasts. The exact opposite is the case when you are on foot, as it is quite easy to be taken out by an enemy in only one or two shots.
This leads us to our next issue with the game, which is the aiming system. It is extremely difficult to hit enemies that are at a distance; for whatever reason, they appear very tiny and are incredibly hard to see. Many times, you will not even see them until you get close up to them, and by then, it's often too late. I often mistook them for static objects in the environments until I saw bullets whizzing by my head.
Compounding this matter is the game's clunky controls. While you can perform different movements like crouching, walking and crawling just fine, other things like selecting a different fire mode for your gun is not done by the touch of a button but by accessing an in-game menu system. The biggest problem I had with the controls was with the zoom feature of the weapons. In most games, you have two buttons, one for zooming in with a gun and one for zooming out, or one button that, when pressed, brings up a few different distance levels. In BHD, this is not the case. To zoom in on a gun, you have to press and hold down the right thumbstick, which starts your zoom, at which point it slowly increases to its maximum rate. If you go past its max zoom, it starts over totally zoomed out, and the whole slow process begins again.
Despite these problems with the game, if you are able to overlook them, then you can have a good time with the single-player campaign. The level design is very well done, and BHD features some very expansive maps that offer a good variety of different areas to explore. The massive battles, while somewhat simple from a gameplay standpoint due to the mechanics, can be quite challenging and fun. This is one of the few console games where you can take on a large number of enemies, which makes you feel like you're actually in a war. There is also a pretty good story going on too, but sadly, they really don't bring it out like other titles in the genre such as Brothers in Arms, which did an amazing job of not only telling a story but making you feel for the characters in it. Black Hawk Down really doesn't ever reach that level, and it's pretty disappointing because there is a great storyline here that's just asking to be fully fleshed out.
Even with some of the problems in the single-player game, BHD's biggest draw by far is its massive multiplayer component, being the first Xbox game to support up to 50 players on Xbox Live. While PC gamers are used to numbers like that, they have been all but unheard of on consoles up to this point. Surprisingly, Black Hawk Down handles this large number very well; I never experienced any lag or slowdown on full servers, which is quite impressive. To pull this off, Novalogic actually hosts a bunch of Xbox servers on a high-speed network. Gamers can also host their own games but are limited to 32-player games. In any case, Novalogic has done a great job with the hosting, as every time I played, I found no less than 10 official servers spanning all of the different game types.
Speaking of game types, BHD features a good variety of multiplayer modes which include the standard Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag as well as Team King of the Hill, Search and Destroy, Attack and Defend and last but not least Flag Ball! There is a good number of very well-designed large maps, and with the possibility of downloadable content and the possibility of porting user-made maps from the PC, there is quite a bit of room to grow here.
The thing that really makes the multiplayer shine is the class-based system, much like the Battlefield games. Instead of just picking up guns as you go and shooting down enemies, in BHD, you can select different classes such as Gunner or Medic, and instead of ranking players based on number of kills, you are ranked on a point system. You get more points for using advanced tactics such as knife kills or headshots.
However, Black Hawk Down's multiplayer is not without some flaws. Vehicles are in the multiplayer levels too, but just like in the single player, you can only ride in them and can't drive them. They also can't be damaged or destroyed, but you can be shot and killed in them, after which the vehicles continue to drive on the same paths until they land or reach the pick-up spot. With games like Halo 2 that allow you full control over many different vehicles to great success, BHD ends up feeling pretty dated in this area. Also, the aiming and control problems that are present in the single-player game also show up here in the multiplayer section. Due to the size of the levels, you tend to have a lot of well-positioned snipers on each map. The bad thing is, due to how difficult it is to see people at distances because they are so tiny, you often get picked off by people you can't even see. This can be very frustrating, but if you can get past that and the clunky controls, the multiplayer can be a very enjoyable experience.
Visually, BHD is a decent-looking game. The levels are simply massive and are lined with trees and tall grass, with small towns dotting the countryside as well as large cities with buildings to explore. Making the maps feel even larger is a draw distance that seems to go on forever with no fog to obscure the surroundings. The models are fairly low on polygons, which keeps them from looking very realistic, and the animation is pretty weak, but that is the price you pay for rendering so many models on the screen at one time. In this case, this actually helps make up for the lower detail on the character models.
The special effects, such as explosions, are again nothing special, but they don't look bad by any means. The textures on the levels are mostly pretty good with some decent detail on them, but there are some that could be sharper or use more detail. The current generation of consoles is simply not powerful enough to allow developers to have both large numbers of people on the screen at the same time and large, detailed environments.
Overall, I kept wanting and trying to really love this game, but time and time again, one of the game's flaws would keep me from reaching that level of gaming bliss. Despite that, I did enjoy the game and have a good time with it. It's not as if the game has many flaws, but the ones that are there do directly affect the gameplay. I could easily have overlooked all of the other flaws if you could just see people at a distance better and more clearly. It's extremely annoying to be constantly taken out by enemies you can't even see, not because they are hiding behind something but simply due to the fact that they are so tiny they become one with the environment. In the end, due to its problems, it's hard for me to recommend this game as just a single-player game for all of those people without Xbox Live. There are far better single-player military shooters out there for the Xbox, such as Brothers in Arms, that simply offer a better single-player experience than BHD does. For those of you with Xbox Live who enjoy military shooters, you should definitely take a look at Black Hawk Down. It's not perfect by any means, but if you can look past the flaws, you can have a great time playing this title online.
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