Black is an explosion-filled first-person shooter from Criterion Games, the company responsible for bringing explosions to driving games with the Burnout series. Like the Burnout games, Black packs in a lot of firepower. It seems like something's blowing up every minute or two, and this helps the game make an absolutely killer first impression. The action, however, doesn't hold up for long. Black quickly falls into a rut that not even amazing-looking blast effects can save it from.
Black's story puts you in the shoes of a soldier named Keller. You begin the game with a cutscene that shows Keller in chains, being grilled by a slimy government type. Every single full-motion video cutscene in the game returns to this interrogation, which sets up each of the eight missions as flashbacks covering the previous four days. Over time, you learn that your objective was to take out some sort of arms-dealing terrorist outfit known as the Seventh Wave, and its leader, an off-the-farm ex-operative known as Lennox. But beyond lots of shadowy, Black Ops-style talk, there's not much to the story. That includes the final confrontation (or lack thereof) and ending, which is almost painfully disappointing in its brevity. One could say, given the game's attempts at re-creating the short-on-story, long-on-muzzle-flash activities you'd find in a typical action movie, that the way the game focuses on the gunplay fits, but even action classics like Commando have at least some closure.
Instead, the focus is on the gameplay, and Black makes a stunning first impression. The graphics are terrific, and yes, lots of stuff blows up. You always feel like you've got plenty to shoot at, and a steady flow of ammunition popping out of every soldier you nail means you don't have to worry too much about running out of shots. Grenades aren't especially satisfying until you realize that you can shoot them to make them blow up faster. Considering that the artificial intelligence bolts away from grenades whenever they're tossed, this is essential to making them useful, especially when you're up against shielded enemies. You can zoom in with any weapon, which is handy for getting headshots, but in many cases, it's easier to just run up and empty an entire magazine into a soldier. The game doesn't require much finesse, instead opting for brute-force tactics most of the time, with some occasional--and optional--stealth moments thrown in. This is where your ability to reliably score headshots comes in handy. It would be easier to overlook the game's weak narrative if the action remained satisfying from start to finish, but the gunplay in Black doesn't offer much variety. Since the game's explosions are its strong point, the developers set up a lot of scenarios where there are enemy soldiers standing near something combustible, letting you put two and two together to get them all at once. For a while, this is pretty exciting. But this happens so often that it starts to seem forced. But there are just enough cool moments throughout the game, like shooting your way through a pair of minefields or fighting your way out of a shower room that had to be inspired by The Rock, to make it worth playing through.
Also, for a game that's supposed to put a focus on the guns themselves (the title screen consists of slow, focused animations of the guns firing and reloading), they sure don't feel very different from one another. The key differences between the weapons are range and recoil. Since the game sets up a lot of cases where you're hanging back and trying to shoot someone in the head, recoil isn't much of a factor, because you're squeezing off one shot at a time. And the range factor, combined with a two-weapon carry limit, means you're probably never going to willingly pick up a Mac 10 or an Uzi, because they simply can't reach those long-distance targets like the G36C, MP5, AK-47, or M16 can. This also makes the shotgun fairly useless, since you'll rarely get close enough to a target to make use of its high-powered close-range spread. You'll also find a sniper rifle and a rocket launcher, but these weapons pop up in only a few different spots and seem like they're there only to get you past the specific spot. The RPG practically acts as a key to open locked doors in one spot--you'll find it and have just enough ammo to blow open a series of blockades to further your progress.
While shooting your enemies full of holes always has its charm, they don't put up too much of a fight. Your foes are dangerous only when you're confined in a tight area and there are masses of them firing on you. On the normal difficulty, the basic trooper has trouble even getting that right. Furthermore, there are a ton of situations that stick out. You'll find yourself shooting through windows to hit headshots on foes, then you'll round the corner to discover another solider standing right next to the one you hit, still oblivious to the fact that anything has gone awry. You can break windows right behind an enemy--they might as well be deaf. Patrolling guards don't stop to ask questions should they encounter a pile of dead bodies. Even when active, they all tend to scamper around from one piece of cover to the next, only to duck down and leave their heads exposed. And on the other side of the fight, you occasionally partner up with some AI-controlled soldiers who don't keep up with you very well, and in a spot or two they get caught running in circles. Between that and the small number of different enemies you'll face over the course of the game, your opposition is disappointing, at best. Considering how well the game does when it comes time to blow up a truck, it's surprising that you never get to face off against a tank or other heavy weapon.
In addition to your primary objectives--which don't get much deeper than simply making your way through the level--you'll have to complete at least some secondary objectives to finish levels on the normal, hard, or unlockable black ops difficulty settings. But these objectives are really just loosely hidden objects in the level that you either need to collect or blow up, so they're never involved. However, the objects you find are usually pretty funny. The game is full of a bunch of references to other fiction based on shadowy government stuff, so you'll find objects that can be traced back to movies like Sneakers and WarGames and TV shows like Knight Rider. You'll also find some real "ripped from today's headlines" sort of stuff, like photos of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, information on the New York City subway system, photos of President Bush's Texas ranch, and so on. You won't actually see the items in question, though; you'll just see a message on the screen about what you've found or destroyed. If you've ever wanted to prevent the rendering secrets from the Burnout series from falling into enemy hands, fear not. You'll get your chance.
The eight levels in Black don't take long to complete. Experienced first-person shooter players will be able to blow through the game in six or seven hours the first time. The harder difficulty settings are, as you might expect, more difficult, though the primary difference is that you can't carry any health kits with you on these settings, so you won't be able to heal on command if things get rough. While you'll unlock black ops mode for beating the game on hard, as well as silver versions of the weapons, which have unlimited ammunition for use in any setting you beat the game on, there aren't any additional modes or multiplayer, and there isn't any serious replay value here. After playing through the game once on normal, it's tough to get excited about a second run-through on hard, let alone a third on black ops.
Black stands out as a solid graphical showpiece for both the Xbox and PlayStation 2. The game has great lighting, with realistic sunsets and glares. Of course, the explosions are the star of the show. The gun models look pretty good and have authentic-looking animations for reloading, which is a nice touch. The environments, mostly an array of catwalk-filled disused factories, look sharp. The game runs at a smooth frame rate on the Xbox. Though the PS2 version doesn't bog down very often, it happens enough to be noticeable. Also, while it's great that plenty of things can blow up, there are too many cases where you can see seams around and in objects that can blow up, which really ruins the effect. It's almost like a Scooby-Doo cartoon, since you can tell ahead of time which items in the background can and will animate. Considering the game is already rated M and has more than its fair share of cursing, it's downright silly that the game doesn't have any blood. Even with all that said, though, this is still one of the best-looking shooters on the Xbox and PS2.
Black is designed to sound like a big-time Hollywood action movie from top to bottom, and it does this pretty well. The soundtrack plays a big part here, as it's full of the sort of big-time orchestral music that you'd expect from The Rock or another modern big-budget action movie. The sound effects go a long way toward making the guns sound like they're doing damage. Along with the gunfire noise, the sound of bullets hitting cement pillars and other objects is pretty cool, too. There's a smattering of voice acting in the game, mostly in the form of radio chatter, most of which is too loud, especially in the second level, where you sound like you're shouting into the radio, even though you're trying to keep quiet and there are enemies directly below you. Though in the grand scheme of things, that's only a minor problem in a game that otherwise sounds fantastic.
Overall, Black's strong first impression is bogged down by its repetitive and often-standard gameplay, weak enemy AI, and short length. There are some good ideas here, and the technology is cool, but you can't help but think that there's still a bunch of untapped potential throughout the game.