Over the years, there have been games that have made splashy debuts, but after repeated viewing, their luster seems to fade. Criterion's Black seemed, in many ways, to be a prime candidate for such a fate. After seeing an eye-popping demo at E3, followed by flashy glimpses in the ensuing months, we had a positive impression of the title, which promised first-person gun-based insanity on the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox. However, could such a thing be achieved outside of slickly produced trailers and short movie clips? Or, even more importantly, how on earth could such an experience be sustained while keeping the meatiness of the game intact? These and other questions loomed in our minds as we played through a near-final version of the game.
The integration of Black's story into the game experience has given it an entirely different feel than our initial impressions. Though the tale weaves in and out of the foreground, courtesy of cinematics, it adds context to the action that suits what's going on quite well. The darker story, and the somewhat disjointed way it unfolds over the course of the levels, is cool and appears to be falling somewhere between a noir film and a straightforward action movie, which isn't a bad thing. Thankfully, the story components are kept lean, and therefore effective, which is good, considering it doesn't appear that you can skip the cinemas.
Black's gameplay has been tweaked slightly since we last played, and some timing and movement issues have been refined. At its core, the game is one sharp-handling console shooter with a back-to-basics approach to its mechanics that keeps things simple and accessible. We're pleased by how the simple mechanics for shooting and grenade-throwing are designed so that you can get creative and use the environment. For example, we brought down chunks of a building onto the enemies below who were firing at us, and we blew the interior of a building to all hell in order to deal with pesky snipers. There's an almost improvisational quality, often seen in shooters, which is especially satisfying. We've come to appreciate the various side objectives that are peppered throughout each level. The simple tasks, which range from easy single-objective discoveries to multipart chores that require you to destroy objects, are basic but rewarding as you explore the slick levels. We're actually quite taken with the cool nooks and crannies we found as we poked around.
The artificial intelligence in Black, arguably one of the most important elements of a good shooter, is hit or miss in the version of the game we played. In some cases, our foes have been agonizingly smart about saving their skin and diving out of harm's way, but that behavior hasn't always been consistent. On the one hand, it has made life a little easier during some of the insanely hectic levels, but, being the masochists that we are, we're hoping the AI will be tightened up more and kept consistent. The presentation has made one more modest leap since we last saw the game in motion. The visuals have gotten a layer of polish that's resulted in some very impressive lighting and particle effects. While these classes of effects are often subtle ones in most games, Black is far more "in your face" with its business, which is hardly surprising. The lighting runs the gamut from subtle effects, such as the illumination that comes from natural sources like the sun, moon, and fires, to the more dramatic strobelike effects that pop as you tear through levels with guns blazin'. Modeling has been sharpened up in a few places, with the majority of the polish being focused on the game's sexy stars, which are the guns, of course. The sleek, black- and metal-hued babies have been carefully primped with a host of fine details. You'll see everything from the subtle sway of pins to the jerking motion of tumblers re-created in such a way so that it falls somewhere between realism and the showy motions of an action movie. This sensibility holds true for the copious amounts of damage you can inflict on the environment, which has become one of the important aspects of the game. You can destroy or at least shoot up just about anything you see.
The Criterion crew has mentioned an eclectic laundry list of movies that have served as key inspirations for the action in Black, and you can see that influence in the game's destruction. Rather than ensure that everything that's destroyed falls apart in a totally realistic fashion, Black's destruction is equal parts good physics and the showiness of a Michael Bay or a Jerry Bruckheimer production. The entire visual package is tied up with a nice high and smooth frame rate that seems to be pretty consistent. There are a few instances of stuttering, but they're not too distracting. Lastly, the sweet gameplay action features a modest helping of trimmings in the form of a handful of live-action cinematics shot in a gritty noir form that complements the storyline. Finally, the audio remains an immersive gem with a smart mix of teammate chatter set against the rolling thunder of gunfire and explosions.
So far, we're impressed to see how Black is turning out. Criterion's smart pacing gives the experience a nice, well-rounded feeling that mixes very slow and mellow moments where nothing happens with overwhelming action moments that have you trying to desperately stay alive. The experience feels like good stuff, although we're curious to see if the promising opening levels maintain the tight pacing throughout the whole game. We're also curious to see just how long the experience is going to be, as the game seemed to be pretty manageable when we played through it on the normal level. Look for our full review of Black shortly, when it ships for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox.