Black

Platform(s): PlayStation 2, Xbox
Genre: Action
Publisher: EA
Developer: Criterion
Release Date: Feb. 28, 2006 (US), Feb. 24, 2006 (EU)

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PS2 Preview - 'Black'

by Joe Keiser on Feb. 4, 2006 @ 4:12 a.m. PST

You are Sergeant First-Class Jack Kellar, seasoned veteran of the US military and a leader of a BLACK ops team. Your squad have been sent into the heart of Eastern Europe on a dangerous mission, drawn in to the midst of a relentless combat zone to bring in a traitor. BLACK doesn't contain stealth sections and it doesn't contain complex squad based commands. It is crammed with beautifully crafted iconic firearms, advanced destructive environments and the most intense firefights every seen in a video game.

Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Criterion Games
Release Date: February 28, 2006

When your first-person shooter is associated with a phrase as evocative and charged as "gun porn," you'd better be bringing a lot to the table to back it up. It helps if you're Criterion, creators and masters of industry standard design kit Renderware and proud parents of Burnout 3, a game which refined car crashing into a kind of art form. All the same, gun porn. Can't the entire FPS genre be defined as a sort of gun porn?

Even in the brevity of the Black PS2 preview build, Criterion seems to acknowledge the purpose of the insinuation. It seems to say that, yes, while the genre originally started out as a kind of love story between a faceless grunt and his firearm, desires to innovate and be different pushed the genre away from its core. What it's all about, this build says, is shooting. Shooting everything. Doing nothing but shooting. Because isn't that supposed to be the whole point?

And so, as the build shows, Black is trying to bring the man-gun romance back to life in the genre. The relationships in the game become clear; there is a relationship between the player's characters and guns. All you can do is pick up guns, pull triggers, switch guns, reload, and maybe toss a grenade. That's it. There's no context-sensitive use button or any of that. You can only interact with guns. It's almost intimate.

So it's left to the guns to interact with the world. The only way to affect anything is to shoot it or blow it up. Want to open a door? No, there's no "open" button. Instead, blast it down with a shotgun. Want to clear a path? Screw physics engines – blow up everything in your way. Expelling your clip is the answer to everything, and for the most part, it feels right. It feels like a purification of the genre.

This beta build, though short, loads generously at the start, but it's clear why as soon as it starts up; this game is astounding to look at. You're dropped you into a decaying room; make any movements, and the decay is exacerbated by a torrent of gunfire. The whole thing is torn to ribbons around you in an exhilarating display, and the framerate holds up the whole time. The bullets sound like, well, bullets. Hundreds of them ringing around you, with your name on each of them. It's this first moment that says the current generation of consoles probably should have been given a few more years to grow, and that maybe they're being sent to an early grave. With games that look this good, we certainly don't need the advancements of the Xbox 360 to be wowed.

Controls are solid. The guns are solid too, which is fitting, since that's all you control, and every weapon in the build feels powerful, from the shotgun down to the tiny pistol. There is no "peppering with munitions" in Black; every time you pull a trigger, you are unleashing a hailstorm of exploding lead. There is no realism here, but this is how you want to feel behind the barrel of a gun – they nail that point pretty soundly, which goes a long way to justifying the "gun porn" moniker that Black is fostering.

And yet, for all the good in this game, and for the shortness of the build, there may be some cause for concern. See, the vision of the gunplay doesn't seem to be pure – there are times when you are up against several enemies at once, and while none of them ever seem particularly smart, they sure seem to take a lot of bullets to kill, and they can tear you apart with their gunfire somewhat easily. This is a problem – this game isn't supposed to be about their guns, it's supposed to be about my guns, and if my guns can't immediately tear them to ribbons, it doesn't matter how solid the guns seem to feel.

It's because of this seeming lack of power in the weapons, and the occasional overwhelming numbers of the enemy, that you may occasionally have to take extended cover, trading pot shots in a protracted battle with multiple shooters. This hurts the pacing of the game, as it genuinely feels like a moment you are behind a box, not shooting, is a moment wasted. Hopefully, the full retail version won't dip further into that well and enter the realm of stealth gaming. Gun porn isn't about hiding and waiting for the right moment, and it's not about finding an elevated sniping position and picking off soldiers with well-placed shots. It is about being Rambo. I want Black because I want to be Rambo.

While playing the Black preview build, you feel like Rambo for maybe a third of the time, and the rest is spent finding alternative pathways, ducking as three guys shoot at you, and generally avoiding bullets instead of putting bullets into everyone and everything. That's all well and good, but hopefully, the full game will have more moments where the player is the invincible gunman, cutting down people, vehicles, and buildings with an impenetrable swath of lead. It's well evident that the creators are good enough and the technology is strong enough to pull off this balance – now all we have to do is wait and see if it comes to fruition.


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