5.2

In attempting to revolutionize the FPS genre, "Black" neglects one of the most important aspects of games: fun.

With a fancy advertising campaign and the healthy pedigree of an experienced team of designers behind it, Criterion's "Black" entered the market with a great deal of aplomb. The trailers showcased guns being rendered in loving -- in fact, almost pornographic -- detail, and the gameplay appeared to be taken straight from top-of-the-line Hollywood action movies. It seemed as though "Black" was all set to revolutionize the first-person shooter genre much in the same way Criterion's other baby, "Burnout 3," revolutionized racing games.

The problem with "Black," however, is that unlike "Burnout 3," it doesn't bring anything particularly interesting or compelling to the table, and for better or worse, much like my last date, it's a swell ride except for the fact that it's all over really a bit too soon. The story, in this case, is so tangential to the action that it needs to be mentioned merely in passing. From poorly filmed and minimalistic cutscenes, one can understand that the plot revolves around one stereotypically named Jack Kellar, a special forces operative tasked with bringing down Lennox, a rogue Black Ops commando. If you aren't yawning by this point, it's time to cut back on the caffeine. The fun does not end there, however, as our hero goes gallivanting through such thrilling locales as a blasted city of vaguely eastern-European aesthetics, a cemetary, a dock, and a concentration camp. In short, if you've ever played anything with the words "Medal" and "Honor" with it, you'll have a distinct feeling of deja vu washing over you.

As banal as the plot is, the gameplay further trivializes it by not providing much of an exciting counterpoint to the droning babble of military techno-jargon the cutscenes present. The guns themselves, supposedly the stars of the show, although superbly modeled, are unexciting even when the infinite-ammo upgrade becomes available. They simply feel, sound, and look underwhelming when compared to some of the guns from other recent first-person shooters, and considering it frequently takes anywhere from five to fifty rounds to kill an enemy (the exact number of shots must be determined by some kind of weird in-game roulette), the game suffers for it. The option to score headshots has been left in by the designers, but it seems to be even more of an afterthough than the plot, largely because of how difficult they are to pull off. You're honestly just better off emptying the mag into an enemy rather than lining up for a headshot for thirty minutes, especially considering the ample supply of ammunition strewn about.

The artificial intelligence in "Black" is a strange aspect to pin down, because at certain times it seems to be absolutely brilliant, and yet at other times it is absolutely bone-headed. Enemies will coordinate attacks, lay down covering fire, and flush you from cover with RPGs. In other instances, notably in close-quarters battle, they will blithely run past you -- or into an oncoming barrage of bullets. The unevenness of the AI takes you out of the moment, and ultimately robs you of the challenge that is meant to be presented by hunting and killing intelligent foes.

The absence of multiplayer is conspicuously absent from the mix, adding even less to the potential replayability of the title. For a game that claims to focus on guns as much as "Black," a basic multiplayer suite with (at the very least) some kind of deathmatch and capture the flag would be the barest of requirements. Considering the mutliplayer advances made by Halo 2, even that would be bare-bones, and the fact that all multiplayer is absent from the game, period, is simply inexcusable.

Just so there is no impression that the game is all about negativity, let me touch on a few positive points. The visuals, while not on par with the likes of Halo 2, are nevertheless compelling, complete with abundant volumetric fog and cleverly designed atmospheric lighting effects. The game's eight missions, despite some design quirks, are fairly impressive-looking, and feature plenty of destructible environments (although their destructability is not as complete and utter as the previews and trailers would have you believe). Most things explode, and some things explode real nice. Soldiers also tend to take cover behind combustible things quite frequently, so as to give you even more of an opportunity to watch the makeshift fireworks. The pacing of the game never truly slows down, except for a couple of spots when optional stealth sequences are introduced.

Overall, "Black" appears to come from the school of half-baked gaming design. There are elements in this game that, if fully implemented, would have propelled this game to absolute greatness as a fast, fun, if not overly innovative, shooter. Yet for every good decision, such as an abundance of guns, ammo, and enemies, the designers tempered the game with an absolutely bone-headed one, such as hard-to-kill enemies and underpowered weapons. If you have bested Halo 2 and Project Snowblind, and simply MUST satisfy your first-person shooter jones, then by all means, pick this one up. It will satisfy your sweet tooth for five, maybe six hours, depending on what kind of difficulty setting you choose from the outset. After that initial run-through of the game, however, there will be little to entice you to give it another run. Don't get this one unless you can get it for less than $10.

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