Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Criterion Games
Release Date: February 28, 2006
It’s such a shame when a perfectly good little game can be overwhelmed by its hype. This happens pretty often actually, and you can feel free to add Black to the list of titles that would have been perfectly satisfying and impressive if people just kept their overexcited mouths shut about it. As it stands, I can’t imagine anyone who plays Black not being disappointed with it.
Black is a game about guns, and nothing but guns. It has an airy plot about a black-ops unit and their hyper-violent counter-terrorist activities, but it’s really non-existent when you’re not in a cutscene. That’s likely the whole point, though - Black is a game that wants you to strike with bullets primarily and exclusively, until the rhythm of the shot and the flash of the nuzzle puts you into a trance; it hardly seems fair to weigh down the glassy-eyed gunman with a story.
So Black doesn’t do that – it focuses on the gunplay, and seems to bring all the requisite tools to the table to pull it off with panache. The rumors are true - Black is a one the Playstation 2’s greatest technical achievements, and might be the prettiest shooter you can play on a standard-definition TV, period. Every area is massive and seamless, and the game on a whole has almost no load time whatsoever. This is especially impressive because each of these levels is painted with detailed textures and intricate architecture, and the draw distance is far enough away so that you won’t often notice any pop-in. Enemies and allies share this attention to detail; they look good and animate believably.
And the special effects are gorgeous – smoke billows realistically, bullet holes are drawn in the hundreds, and the fire and explosion graphics are second to none on the console. Sound effects are also pretty incredible – it’s been a couple hours since I finished the game and I can still feel the pounding beat of each gun in my head. The presentation is superb, so there’s almost nothing to pull you out of the experience.
What necessary problems exist due to hardware limitations are well-hidden with smart attention to level design. The destructible buildings actually aren’t really – you can’t just destroy anything you want, some walls continue to be impervious – but in the showcase firefights, enough of those areas take damage so that by the end, the whole place looks like a wasteland. There’s some slowdown in these heated scenes, though. I guess I can’t really excuse that, but the game is really pretty.
But for all of the strong presentation and high production values that keeps you in the experience, it’s the experience itself that is questionable. Controls felt a little bit sluggish no matter what I tried, but that was more of an occasional frustration than a crushing blow to the gameplay. It just stood that, for all its boasting about being a paean to the genre, about being a love letter to guns, that it doesn’t stand out from the rest of the first-person shooters out there – most of which are primarily gun-focused. The fact that this purification down to gunplay means there’s no extraneous use button, or jump button, or anything that doesn’t in some way interact with the gun your character is holding, means the game has no choice but to throw all of its weight into the main-event firefights that comprise the majority of the play time.
What there is to do in the downtime between them is not overly compelling – a little bit of shooting here, a little bit of searching there, mostly just to get yourself back up to code for the next big scene. Then it’s back into the fray for another fifteen minute battle royale, and by the end of it you may be sweaty-palmed and white-knuckled. You may also yawn a been-there, done-that yawn, because that’s really all the game has to offer. After the first couple hours perhaps you might have hoped for something a little different.
But it’s actually over not too long after those first few hours, and with only eight large but linear levels and no multiplayer at all, Black is certainly not the height of shooter value for dollar. The lack of levels isn’t the real shame, because the game is repetitive enough that you’re not crying for more by the end of it (though if you do want more, there are multiple difficulty settings, and some of them are blisteringly hard), but no multiplayer really hurts the package. Perhaps “gun porn” is meant to be enjoyed alone, the same as, well, normal porn? However, I can’t help but feel like hearing the sound of four automatic weapons, being blinded by four nuzzle flashes in a split-screen mode, would do nothing but enhance the experience. I suppose I’ll never know for sure.
It’s possible that, despite all of the technical success Black achieves in the face of increasing hardware adversity, it still didn’t quite make it far enough. Black is a gorgeous game that emotes forcefully and repeatedly, until you’re either overwhelmed with its power – and then it keeps doing it until you’re bored, and then it ends. Perhaps with more power in the engine, Black could have made its environments a little more destructible, or perhaps created more ways to interact with the environment using your gun. Or perhaps there’s not a lot you can do with a gun, in which case maybe the core philosophy driving Black is flawed. Without doing these things though, Black simply does not do enough to differentiate it from most other offerings in a genre glutted on every hardware format. It comes off as slightly above average, and not really worth the money in the face of its competition.
That’s sad, because the game has heart and good intentions. In fact, its simple design makes it a good shooter for people who don’t often dabble in the genre or complete newcomers, and its over-the-top presentation makes it a nice little snack game for those that are crazy about looking through the eyes of a gunman. But then the newbies will graduate to deeper, better games and the hardcore will shelve it when they can’t play it with their friends, and both will be disappointed by how short it is even as they are nonplussed by its gameplay – and they’ll be especially so if they caught any of the pre-release murmurings at all. The combination makes it a solid choice for a rental, but there’s many better purchase values out there.
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