Blackwater Review

Awkward controls and a forgettable plot greatly overshadow Blackwater's few bright spots.

When your name is Sylvester Stallone and you decide to tell the story of a group of military mercenaries who save a country from an evil dictator, you call that project The Expendables, and you put together a dream team of action stars that includes Jason Statham and Jet Li. When you are a game developer with a similar vision, you partner with a real-life military organization and add Kinect support and online leaderboards. You try something unusual but greatly flawed, and call the game Blackwater.

Harri is a land of contrast. Contrast between 'brown' and 'beige.'
Harri is a land of contrast. Contrast between 'brown' and 'beige.'

Inspired by the military contracting group that was known by the same name until 2009 (but that now calls itself Xe Services LLC), the Blackwater video game is an on-rails shooter that places you in the shoes of four mercenaries who have been hired to bring democracy to the fictional North African country of Harri. Kinect support is substantial enough that you can play the entire game using this method. Unfortunately, the game demands more from you than perhaps it should. Though Blackwater takes place on rails, like the recent Resident Evil light-gun games, there are frequent stops along the way. Battles are often fought from behind crates, vehicles, or doorways. That means you are frequently forced to duck for cover, or you need to take quick steps to the side so that you put yourself out of harm's way as you reload. There are also sequences throughout each stage where you have to perform actions such as jumping across gaps or busting down doors. Kinect play can be exhausting if you don't take breaks, and it can be difficult to manage the required precision and speed even when you're energetic.

If you play with the Kinect control scheme, you'll likely feel a bit like Tom Cruise near the start of Minority Report. You stand facing the screen, and you hold out your left or right hand to direct the aiming reticle. If you want to fire on an enemy, you let the onscreen reticle hover over him for a moment, triggering a burst of gunfire. It's all too easy to fire on a nonthreatening target by accident as you swing your weapon around toward a primary target (helpfully highlighted in red so that you know it's a threat). The result: wasting ammo on civilians, and having to pause and reload while still being fired upon by enemies positioned above you or to the side.

The alternative to the Kinect is the standard Xbox 360 controller, but going that route is no less punishing. The right analog stick controls movement, but not consistently. Moving the stick left swings your perspective to the right most of the time, but occasionally the opposite is true. There's a setting in the options screen to invert the y-axis, but you're stuck with whatever potentially illogical controls the game deems most appropriate in a given situation. Until you adapt to that dynamic, it can lead to frequent instances when you're trying to duck behind a pile of crates to recover from getting hammered with enemy fire, but instead you roll out into the center of an area and soak up even more bullets.

Wave that reticle around like your life depends on it!
Wave that reticle around like your life depends on it!

Even on the easiest difficulty setting, the game isn't especially generous about how many hits you can take in rapid succession before you drop to the ground and someone calls for an evacuation. In some cases, you might be fighting through a garage or similar area, and step out from behind a vehicle, take a hit or two from an enemy you didn't notice, and then drop to the floor in a heap. Frustratingly, such moments are most likely to occur at the end of a mission. There are checkpoints throughout each stage, but they don't serve their usual purpose. Your time spent reaching a given checkpoint is noted and recorded, but you are taken back to the start of a stage if you fall in battle. As a result, you might need to replay a 30-minute section just because of a 15-second spot that gives you trouble.

Some of that forced repetition is likely intentional. Blackwater's campaign is short, and certain elements of the game seem specifically designed to pad its length. Worthless checkpoints are one such measure. Alternate routes are another. As you work through each stage, you can choose from two directions at key points. Differences are usually slight. You might circle left around a building instead of traveling right, for instance. The game keeps track of which routes you've taken and rewards you for exploring everything. There are also collectible items that you gather by shooting them. About half of them aren't noticeable until you're moving past them, forcing you to replay each stage a second or third time if you want to gather everything. Finally, you gain experience each time you play through a stage, and that experience unlocks automatic upgrades so that your characters can aim better or recover energy more quickly.

The problem with such measures is that they artificially extend a game that isn't very good in the first place. Better games provide characters and a story that propel you through the action, tough spots included. Blackwater fails on that score because its story is generic and badly presented. While character models for the main team are generally credible, dead eyes aside, the people you're trying to save feel like part of an attempt at parody. Poorly voiced dialogue with odd tonal inflection only worsens matters. The writers also tried to establish some personality for the team members, but too much dialogue is recycled. In combat, the chatter becomes ridiculous as men dash from location to location and call each other "old man" or "boss man" or "sire" and thank one another profusely between nearly every burst of gunfire. Almost nothing that anyone says sounds natural.

A sporty beard is a requirement for military contract work.
A sporty beard is a requirement for military contract work.

Should you tire of the single-player campaign, you can head to a competitive mode and challenge your friends. Up to eight people can take turns delivering their best performance in five arena challenges, which can turn into hour-long exercises if every player is reasonably skilled. You'll likely have the most fun with only one other player. It's difficult to imagine eight people gathering together for some Blackwater merriment. Given the number of quality shooters available on the Xbox 360 these days, Blackwater is in a tough spot. While the game could have brought something interesting to motion gaming, major control issues and uninspiring presentation add up to an experience that you should avoid.

The Good
Collectibles and alternate routes provide replay value
The Bad
Awkward controls
Unintentionally hilarious chatter between team members
Checkpoints with amnesia
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Blackwater More Info

  • First Released Oct 25, 2011
    • Xbox 360
    Blackwater is a first-of-its-kind shooter reinventing the modern combat shooter genre by letting you control your gameplay experience with either a traditional controller or the Kinect.
    Average Rating37 Rating(s)
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    Developed by:
    Zombie Studios
    Published by:
    505 Games
    Shooter, 3D, Action, First-Person
    Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
    Mild Language, Violence