Does Black live up to the title "Gun Porn"?
The story of Black is like that of any Hollywood action flick. You play as a Black Operative, named Keller, in an organization so secretive that even the president doesn’t know it exists. Your job is to fix the mistakes of missions gone awry and save the world from disasters that they didn’t know of. The latest mission sends you to Europe to go after a rogue Black Op who is now with a terrorist cell called 7th Wave. Your mission doesn’t go as planned and you find yourself arrested and being interrogated by your own people. The game starts with Keller being interrogated as he tells his interrogator what exactly happened. The story is actually told through live action cutscenes instead of prerendered cinemas. Now some may be worried about this since the track record of fmv’s hasn’t been that good as of late (e.g. Marvel Nemesis, Need For Speed: Most Wanted). The cut scene’s are actually very stylish and have high production value. There are nice filter and editing effects used which convey the seriousness of the situation. The look of the cut scenes is similar to a Tony Scott film or TV shows like 24 and Alias. The use of live action actually is more engaging since it’s like you’re watching a high quality film or TV show and then you get to play the good parts. The story is pretty easy to follow, but don’t be expecting much of a resolution as the game leaves the door open for a sequel.
Black has the same core philosophy as Burnout, provide Hollywood style action and make it fun to play. Criterion’s love of action films is more evident that it was in the Burnout games. Several parts of the game clearly have inspiration from films like The Matrix, The Rock and Die Hard. The core gameplay of Black is simple, you go to areas and shoot bad guys but the unique thing about the game is how you go about obliterating them. Unlike other fps games where the environment is not fully interactive, Black for the most part, provides a truly interactive experience. If you see a truck and say to yourself, “Hey I wonder if I can blow that truck up and take out some enemies”, well you can and much more. You can also shoot through walls, ricochet bullets off hard surfaces, and take out entire buildings. Yes, you can equip a rocket launcher and take out a good portion if not all, of a building, good times are ahead.
Those who are veterans of the fps genre may find Black similar to 2001’s Red Fraction. Red Fraction was the first title to feature heavily destructible environments, but Black takes it to the next level. While Black doesn’t allow you to damage every surface, it provides a deeper and more satisfying experience than Red Faction The amount of destruction that you and your enemies are capable of is simply staggering. During firefights debris is flying, cars are exploding and bodies are flying, it’s simply amazing. The intensity that the game provides is truly unique and immerses you into the game. Firefights will often have so much debris flying that it’s hard to see things. This leads to some confusion but in a good way since you don’t know what’s coming up next. Due to the intensity of battles you will often find yourself hiding behind cover. But what do you do when your cover has been shot up with bullets? Well you can simply blow up the enemies cover and then kill them. Or you can shoot a canister hanging from the ceiling and watch your foes burst into flames. The possibilities of destruction in Black are endless. Unlike other games, the destruction doesn’t feel scripted; everything flows naturally because you have the freedom to destroy what you want. If you want to blow up the barrel under the bridge you can, or you could just snipe the enemy. If you see a door you could walk up to it and open it the old fashion way, or you could equip your shotgun, blow the door of its hinges and catch an enemy unawares. Now some may think that the interactivity is a gimmick but it really isn’t. The game provides what would happen if you really had a gun of immense power and was going on a rampage. Shooting stuff up good doesn’t get old thanks in part to different scenarios and your fabulous guns.
The star of the game is the weapons. The amount of time and detail gone into designing these weapons is amazing. Black’s guns are like the cars in Gran Turismo, they’re so beautiful that you’ll just want to stare at them. Weapons in the game include a pistol, rocket launcher, AK-47, revolver, shotgun, and grenades. Each weapon resembles their real world counterpart with a few aesthetic details added. Some guns make have a few ridges or grooves on them which allow dynamic lighting on the guns. This adds some character to the weapons since each one will visually look different. The thing Black does that some fps games have failed is that it feels like you are actually shooting the guns. If you shoot the revolver at someone you’ll see their body fly back 8 feet. Using the AK-47 on an enemy will result in their body moving in a violent dance of death. The shooting and reloading animations are simply fantastic. Rest assured though that the animations aren’t long and complex like in Killzone. Black actually does something different with their reload animations that’s never been done before. Whenever you reload the foreground becomes blurred out while your weapon is in focus. This technique is used to convey the importance of reloading during battle. The blurred effect look is very convincing and successfully pulls off what Criterion was going for. This effect also establishes a chance for the player to appreciate how detailed the guns have been modeled. Black by far features some of the best bullets ever seen in a game. Never before have bullets look so convincing both when exiting and entering a gun. When you reload your revolver you’ll see the seven silver bullets in your clip glisten in the sunlight. The total number of guns you can carry is two. This may feel limiting at first but after awhile you’ll get used to it. The limited gun options also add a small dose of strategy since you’ll have to decide whether you should drop your AK for the Shotgun. When it comes to guns, Black provides true bliss for those enthusiasts out there.
Black has a diverse range of settings. Levels range from city streets, industrial areas, forests, and a graveyard. The way Black places the order of these areas is the interesting thing. In one level you’ll be in a city blowing up buildings but then in the next you’ll be in a forest trying to cross the border. This change of settings is a good way to keep things varied so you don’t grow tired of playing in the same style of environment. It also changes the pace of the game since some levels are all out action but others are mellower. The different environments also provide different things to destroy since you won’t be blowing up cars in the forest level. This helps to keep the game from being monotonous and keeps things fresh. The levels themselves are quite linear so you’ll be following the path the game wants you to. There is only one level where there is more than one path for you to take.
The Burnout series is known for its visual prowess and Criterion pulls it off in Black. The visuals are sharp and amazing for the PS2 hardware. There is no aliasing and hardly any slowdown which is surprising considering the action happening. The locales are loaded with detailed and unique production design. The city level actually looks like a war torn European country such as Kosovo, complete with dilapidated buildings etched with bullet holes. Each setting has its own color palette so the player won’t grow bored of seeing the same industrial tones. The locales are further enhanced by dynamic lighting and explosions. The explosions are detailed and have a nice movie look to them similar to the truck scene from The Matrix Reloaded. There are also nice visual effects such as motion blur and blooming. Particle effects are also a key effect in Black. The amounts of particles on screen whether its dirt, sparks, or splintering wood is quite a visual treat. The particles help immerse the player in the game since it’s a key factor to the power of the guns. Black also has some amazing smoke trails from the rocket launchers. The shape and density of the smoke almost looks like an effect from a next gen title. Character models are nicely detailed and varied. Soldiers have different uniforms ranging from camouflage and swat gear. After shooting an enemy a piece from the soldier’s uniform will fall off. This is a nice effect but it would have been nice if there was a bit more damage modeling to the characters. The death animations are done quite effectively and are further enhanced by rag doll physics which help sell the power of the guns. You will be truly be convinced after you see an enemy move in pain and then slump over a railing and plummet to the ground.
One of the most important aspects of fps games and any games for that matter is the enemy A.I. If you have no competition then you may not enjoy the game, but if the enemies are too hard then you won’t be having a good time. Finding the delicate balance between fun and skill is hard thing to do. Black for the most part finds the finds this balance, but at times is too easy. Enemies will find cover and will mow you down if you’re reckless but they don’t reach the level of intelligence as found in titles such as F.E.A.R. Enemies won’t notice anything after you’ve shot the comrade that was standing next to them, which makes the game a bit easy. There are times when the enemies will just stand there waiting for you to shoot at them which makes them easy targets. There are four classes of enemies to keep the action varied. Each class has different weapons and armor, which helps keep the game from being repetitive since you won’t be seeing the same foes with the same weapons. In certain missions you are accompanied by squad mates. These characters help the immersion and feel of the game since they’re shouting at you but for the most part that’s all they’re good for. Your allies aren’t the best marksmen and you can’t give any commands to help the situation. Most of the time your comrades will be running along you and firing at nothing. One good thing is that your squad mates don’t physically get in your way, so you don’t need to worry about being blocked in an area.
Criterion immersed players with the audio in Burnout and they do it once again ten fold in Black. First off, the game is best played with a 5.1 sound system. Playing Black without a sound system is like playing the XBOX 360 on a standard definition TV, you will still have fun playing the game but you won’t be getting the full experience. The sound design in the game conveys that you’re on some battlefield with mayhem surrounding you. Explosions sound massive and will give you that “Oh my god” feeling. The guns are loud and sound violent just like in real life. The blast of your shotgun sounds like a bomb being dropped on whatever you’re pointing at. Hearing bullets whizzing by barely missing you adds to the immersion and intensity of the game. The game also has a lot of enemy voice over. Hearing loud angry foreign voices will pump you up and scare you at the same time since you don’t know what’s coming next. The in game chatter between you and your squad mates is well acted and doesn’t get annoying. The score for Black is also exceptional. The score is composed by Michael Giacchino, best known for his work in the Medal of Honor series and film and TV work such as The Incredibles, Lost and Alias. The score is all orchestral and is on par with any Hollywood score and Mr. Giacchino’s previous work. There is a nice espionage like theme in the game but the music is only really noticeable in the non action parts of the game.
The controls for Black are quite sharp. Moving your gun is easy and feels like there is some weight to it. Black doesn’t give the player the option to change the sensitivity of the controls, so that may disappoint players who like to tinker with the settings. There is also no sprint action in the game so you can’t go on a full speed rampage. The lack of the sprint buttons sometimes makes the pace of the game a tad bit slow. Black also lacks a jump button. While this is not necessarily important, it does make the game feel a bit confining. Black does get the important aspect of having the analog movement being tight and not loose like some titles.
One of the problems with Black is its length. When playing on the preset difficulty, the game can be finished in about 8 hour or less. There is a harder difficulty unlocked once you finish the game but it really isn’t that much of a difference. There are a few bonuses such as silver plated weapons but nothing that special. The only reason for going back to the game would be to let off some steam or to master a level. Black also has no multiplayer modes, both online and off, which hampers its replay factor. Multiplayer modes are usually one of the most popular aspects of fps games, so the hardcore players are surely to be disappointed. Another issue with the game is that sometimes the game gets a bit tedious and easy. When you constantly go around shooting guys who just happen to be standing next to an explosive barrel, things may get a bit old. There also isn’t a lot of variety in the missions. Basically the goal of each mission is to take out all the enemies and sometimes you’ve given the task of blowing up a particular structure. While it’s still entertaining, Black is best played in multiple sessions.
Overall, Black presents an enjoyable and well polished experience. The game focuses on the important aspects of an fps game instead of trivial things like being able to throw garbage at guards. The time and effort gone into designing the guns and environments is evident and immerses the player into the world Criterion created. The game has a few flaws like questionable A.I, lack of mission variety, and despite lacking any form of multiplayer modes and short play time, the game is still enjoyable. Black is a fun game for action fans who always wanted to be their own Rambo or Harry Tasker. Black gives the player the chance to live in their own Hollywood action film and it’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.