Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Criterion Games
Release Date: February 28, 2006
Like You're Really Going to Use the Suppressor Anyway
It takes conviction, in post-Hot Coffee 2006, to release a first-person shooter with unapologetically elementary action, but with such a refined sheen that to complain about the mindlessness of the shooting is to risk being labeled a philistine. That's what Burnout creators Criterion Games have attempted with BLACK. From BLACK's perspective, such things as logic, intricate tactics, and hostiles who die with fewer than 50 bullets to the gut are for Oprah book-clubbers who might not appreciate the distilled genius of, say, The Transporter or, well, Transporter 2. No, BLACK is for people who could write dissertations on The Transporter.
BLACK's thin story has two simple purposes. One is to enable your rampage, in the guise of BLACK operative Keller, through eastern European locales on the hunt for Lennox, Seventh Wave terrorist mastermind. A bit of a rogue himself, Keller alternately receives and takes upon himself license to cut down everyone in his path, light up every vehicle hostiles use for cover and blast the windows out of every building in which they try to take refuge. As another character puts it, Keller just doesn't get the concept of collateral damage.
The other, less fortunate, contribution of BLACK's story is to dilute the action with repetitive, between-mission interrogation scenes and a profoundly disappointing – both narratively and pyrotechnically – conclusion. The checkpoint system doesn't allow in-mission saves, exacerbating the "that's it?" feeling if it takes a couple of repeat play-throughs of the entire final level to prevail. Even on normal difficulty, the final firefight can pose a challenge, especially compared to the relatively smooth-going of the Tivliz Asylum, Vratska Dockyard and other preceding missions.
Given the decay and dilapidation throughout most of BLACK's environments, it's difficult to fault Keller for his lack of daintiness with regard to blowing up machinery and structures already in varying states of being destroyed. Derelict cars (that explode when you shoot them), buses (that, oddly, don't), half-disassembled fighter jets and easily mulched walls populate the levels, more or less begging to eat your bullets. So many crates, gas tanks and other industrial litter stands in your way that you're tempted to take cover, even though the game doesn't always demand that you play hardcore defense. Crouching behind a seemingly solid container, however, often is an imperfect tactic, as much of the battlefield cover is built of explosive stuff. It's far more satisfying anyway to lure hostiles near a red barrel and blast it yourself, which ups the challenge by packing in more smoke, sparks and fireballs to obscure your line of sight.
If you somehow haven't fully apprehended BLACK's aggressive, showoff approach by the time you complete the first mission, the transition to the Treneska Border Crossing level makes it plain. The contrast between the ragged, daytime cityscape and the nighttime forest signals that what you're in for is an exercise in stylization, not a complex combat experience. BLACK is no less rewarding for that, though, as its environments, more often than not, are designed successfully for maximum visual and explosive impact. A cemetery full of brittle headstones livens up a sniping segment. The tri-level Graznei Bridge, with the street level blasted through in several spots and catwalks lacing the upper and lower levels, invites death from above and below as well as straight ahead, and piles a mine field on top of that. Chain-reaction explosions frequently cascade across building facades, set off by a single grenade toss or a well-placed RPG round.
It is a minor letdown when you happen upon a ladder that doesn't reach the ground, preventing you from taking out a watchtower gunner in a more personal fashion. BLACK makes it up to you somewhat by providing large, convenient, flammable gas tanks at the structure's base, letting you toast from afar those enemies you can't pistol-whip up close. Frequent mangled staircases impede backtracking to claim health packs you left behind, and illogical invisible walls spring up from time to time, forcing you to take the stairs when someone's already blasted a hole in the floor you'd much rather jump through. The main gripe with the environments, though, is that, despite the flying debris and crumbling columns, interaction with the world too often boils down to shotgunning doors off their hinges or tearing through drywall to get at health packs.
Amid all the destructive potential, BLACK assigns gameplay goals that are the essence of simplicity. At first this feels disappointing, but after an hour or so, you realize that too much micromanagement would be a distraction from what the game's really all about. Most primary objectives require you to cross Naszran Town, fight your way into the Spetriniv Gulag and complete other variations on getting from point A to point B. The normal difficulty setting requires a handful of secondary objectives, too. These involve securing or destroying blueprints, aerial photos and other intelligence, often handily stuck to the wall in red packages and occasionally cracking wise (keep an eye out for piece of intel Oliver Stone would like to get his hands on). Whatever the ostensible assignment, however, killing is the meat of every mission, and BLACK loads your arsenal with assault rifles, SPAS 12 shotguns, sniper rifles, RPGs and some heavy M249s, among others, toward that goal. Finding new and bigger weapons is worth the fight, but in the end, it's style, not weapons variety, that keeps you committed.
Fellow operatives accompany you on some missions, but trying to use them strategically is an exercise in impatience. You can climb high above the action on Graznei Bridge to take out RPGs on the catwalks, but holding position in the hope that your companions will advance on the level below doesn't yield satisfying results. Serious progress only happens when you're actively increasing the body count yourself.
Enemies aren't so bright either, though they are sometimes aggressive and are always thick-skinned. The lowliest ranks can absorb pounds of lead in their armor before hitting the ground. Add a ballistic shield to some of the later enemies, and you have a few seriously resilient foes that are best dispatched with a grenade (which they're just as likely to squat on top of as they are to shield themselves from effectively). It makes sense in a way – BLACK is about bullets, after all – but sometimes it's worth wrestling with the imprecise aiming to nail the headshot, even if it is just for a change of pace.
The moments in BLACK when the visuals don't threaten to overwhelm are few and far between, though they are disappointingly concentrated in the final level. Mostly, though, the graphic treatment is as aggressive as the gunslinging, filtering thick sunlight through a Burnout-ish shimmer even in asylums, foundries and other stereotypical monuments of eastern European drabness. There's always dense smoke, sparks, particles from a shotgun blast to a tree trunk or other effect to maintain the visual immersion. The sound design is nearly as stylized as the visuals, with a rumble to most explosions that achieves a thunderous scale and shattering-glass effects that continue long after you'd think the glass would be done shattering. The score, like the interrogation scenes, occasionally reaches for unearned drama and seems almost unnecessary considering all the gunfire, explosions and other aural delights that are far more in keeping with BLACK's spirit.
Keep Your Head on a Swivel
The challenge BLACK presents is not to outwit enemies, but rather to stay interested in dispatching them with extra style. While it may not appeal to fans of more narrative or tactically oriented shooters, it hits the spot for those for whom there is no such thing as style over substance. It offers neither the dramatic core of a Halo nor the intellectual exercise of a Ghost Recon, and complaints about its brevity are justifiable. On the other hand, for flamboyantly violent, second-to-second gunfighting in a visually engaging world – and for the pleasure of making scraps of much of it – BLACK is a consistently absorbing achievement on the Xbox.
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