Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Criterion Games
Release Date: February 28, 2006
Black seems to be arriving at a very interesting time in the lifespan of the original Xbox console. On one hand, there's no doubt that the title will hit the shelves long after its parent consoles have all been deemed at the end of their supported life, all things being equal. With the release of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 looming on the horizon, a game such as Black could have easily waited and taken advantage of the power of next-gen hardware. On the other hand, if the final release of Black is anything like the preview build we got to run through, the title will easily leave its mark on the first-person shooter genre, the hardware it's based upon being a totally irrelevant factor.
Black is essentially what you get when you combine the idea of a Special Forces unit and the types of missions that they undertake with the visceral intensity of a big-budget Hollywood action movie. Not much is known about the storyline at this point, past the fact that the player's character is indeed a part of a Special Forces unit, and that the unit tends to use more overt actions than covert. Rather than purely relying upon sneaking around against a larger force (although that is an option), Black not only encourages the player to engage in gunfights with almost reckless abandon, but it does so with a style that makes most of them feel like set-piece acts of flair.
The preview build we received tasked the player with making his way through a wooded area and passing through a relatively heavily staffed encampment deep inside of a forest. Starting off with a mere Glock, we first played the silent card, affixing a silencer to the barrel and killing lone soldiers with single shots to the head. After grabbing the downed men's AKs, it was only a matter of time before louder shots were fired, and that's where the fun really began.
Combat in Black is a loud affair that really doesn't pull any punches, though it must be said that it also isn't the most realistic. Generally, the guns are all very loud and distinctly separate from whatever the rest of the game's audio is playing at the time, and the combination of the two greatly lend to the intensity of exchanging gunfire with your opponents. What really sets Black's gunfights apart from other titles though is the fact that the environment itself really shows wear and tear as the battle rages.
In most games, when a gunfight erupts, you take cover behind any windowsill, doorway, or tree stump you can find. Those are usually static objects that just sit there and get bullet hole decals of varying graphical quality pasted onto them as they protect you from harm. In Black, that windowsill is first going to lose its glass, and then its wooden struts that form the frame, until finally, you're watching the frame and then chunks of the wall rip free under the withering gunfire. That doorway will be pristine looking at first but will look more like a rhino tried to ram through it afterwards, and that tree stump is going to lose chunks of wood real fast.
It's not that interactive environments haven't been done before, bur rather, they have never been done with the intensity that Black sets forth. Not only does gunfire take chunks out of nearly anything that you'd think it would, but oftentimes, the player will find something along the lines of gas cans of fuel trucks just waiting to be set off. Is that guy with the AK in the little shack giving you a hard time? Detonate the big gas tank next to the building and watch as every window in the place blows outward, chunks of the wall and ceiling fly off into the night, and smoke and flame billow out from all of these new exits. Even a mere hand grenade thrown into a window blows out every window in a spectacularly Hollywood-styled fashion.
In reality, upon loading the preview up for the first time, the first thought was "Wow, this is on the Xbox?" The graphics engine not only has the effects of damage and particle effects to show off, but beams of light also look spectacular, whether they are coming down from the forest canopy, a floodlight, or the inside of a structurally challenged building where missing boards cast light down to the floor below.
Explosions are very well done and incorporate a vibrant display of yellows, whites, and even some blues when the blast is caused by gasoline or similar flammable liquids. The models of the guns are ridiculously detailed and fluidly animated, though not entirely on a path of realism. For instance, the AK ejects its empty shell casings out to the left so as to fly across the screen; it's not accurate to the gun, but the effect is pretty cool. Regardless, the effect of the gunfights themselves causing so much damage and kicking up so much dust and particles from the things around you easily takes the cake, although taken as a whole, it seems Criterion is really pushing the Xbox as hard as it possibly can.
There are many things that the preview build didn't touch on, such as a lot of Black's weaponry (only the Glock handgun, AK-47 rifle, SPAS-12 shotgun, and frag grenades were available), but the final game has been described as "gun porn" for the lead-flinger aficionado due to the array of meticulously detailed weaponry. Most of the game's plot is still unknown past the general premise, though Criterion seems to know what they're doing in that regard, if the scraps of details are any indication. It is known that the final build of Black will not contain any multiplayer component whatsoever, and while such a mode would extend the enjoyment of the title if done correctly, the single-player aspect more than makes up for it. At the very least, if it's any indication of the final product, playing the limited build has yet to get old.
It's really quite simple; if the preview build is remotely representative of the final product, Black will be not only one of the defining first-person shooters of the last generation of consoles, but it also shows that the Xbox and even the aging PlayStation 2 are still capable of putting forth excellent graphics. It doesn't hurt matters at all that the title is a blast to play, no small share due to the thrill of getting into a gunfight and just throwing yourself into the chaos, destruction, and debris that firefights in Black easily lend themselves to. If the thought of intense gun battles piques your interest at all, keep an eye on Black as it nears its ship date, as it's shaping up to essentially be a taste of next-gen gaming on last-gen's hardware.
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