Review by BigCj34

Reviewed: 07/15/09

A black knight with guns.

Come 2006, the Xbox 360 had just been released, the PlayStation 3 had been announced, and Sony fans are eagerly not waiting for one as it costs a billion quid to purchase it. So what’s the best way for Sony to drown the fans financial sorrows? They could keep the hits rolling when the PlayStation 2’s contemporaries have declared themselves dead, or they could push the hardware so much that fans can almost convince themselves they’re playing a 360 game. Or maybe they should focus on the future and apologise over the elitist attitude the PS3 portrayed from the pervious years E3, because they didn’t quite mean what they said.

To hell with just one of those options, Sony chose all three. That year saw the platforms best titles such as Shadow of the Colossus and Okami, and Criterion’s Black claimed to revolutionise FPS’s similarly to how Burnout changed racing. And in many cases it’s not a boastful remark when they can truly pride themselves in producing one of the finest looking games the Emotion Engine can handle. Black is simply one of the most stunning games I’ve ever seen on the PlayStation 2. I don’t just mean pretty photorealistic graphics. I don’t mean bright colours. I mean a title that offers a living, breathing environment where its realism plays an integral part of the experience.

From the first level, you wake-up in the first room to an ambient dawn that gleams through the windows whilst there’s a conflict outside. Take a gander onto the streets and it’s comparable to wading through Half-Life 2’s City 17, the windows gleaming in the morning light go unappreciated as you’re thrown straight against the terrorists barricading the city. Pick up your first weapon and you’ll admire how slickly the guns reload, alongside fantastic blurring effects that obstruct your view when reloading, prompting you to take cover when doing so. Destruction of the environment is strongly encouraged here with masses of walls, cars and grave-stones that give-way to bullet-fire. Explosive barrels may be the ultimate FPS peeve, but watching them here reinvigorates life into them as the explosions are incredible and there are lots of them. Enemies may be a bit too conveniently situated next to explosive entities a bit too often, but there’s no denying how impressive the on-screen destruction is with next-to-no slow-down to note.

An opening cut-scene reveals the interrogation of a Black-ops sergeant, Jack Keller. Narrated retrospectively, you’re playing the various events told within the interrogation that’s progressively revealed between levels. Ultimately forced to tell the truth or become imprisoned, Kellar speaks of a terrorist group known as Seventh Wave. His team learn of the leader, William Lennox, who they are forced to chase down. Keller and his black-ops troops consequently end up on an epic mission, wading through the streets of Veblensk, across the Treneska border crossing, the deserted town of Naszran then traversing across the mine-laden Grasnei bridge into the Spetriniv Gulag.

If it weren’t for the atmospheric created by dazzling visuals and a well-crafted orchestral accompaniment, Black would be a pretty standard linear shooter. Style does prevail over substance, and if you weren’t able to blow parts of the level to smithereens this wouldn’t be quite as good. But that isn’t to say Black plays poorly. Tactical thinking is often the norm, and although the enemy AI is ordinary there’s a large amount of them to compensate. Reloading weapons here is not a split-second action, but one that takes planning as your entire vision is impaired when a new magazine is slotted in. Taking cover frequently is essential as an enemy spawn may strike just when you thought the room was free. Courtyard shoot-outs don’t end obviously either. Sometimes you’ll find yourself muted behind a box once health has been depleted, attempting to poach individual enemies with single shots. Using a machine-gun.

Unfortunately the selection of weapons is predominantly those machine-guns. There’s not a great deal that distinguishes between the firing abilities of them either, with subtle differences in range and force-feedback. Despite the emphasis on taking cover and gaining a good vantage point, Black seems fond of constantly feeding the player SMG’s. Yet here they surprisingly work well for distant shooting. Close-up offence is brevity as full health can cascade to red and you’re again forced to whimper behind a wall. This time, an RPG could be firing your way. Shotguns and grenades appear frequently, but sniper rifles and RPG’s rarely appear more than once in a level, with their use limited to scripted events.

Black’s undoubtedly an entertaining game to play. Its execution is difficult to fault but it doesn’t rise above the rest when it comes to the pure action, and its lack of variety and depth does let it down. There’s nothing wrong with it’s linearity but the choice of enemies is very limited, essentially machine-gunners and less frequently (but still often-enough!) armoured shotgunners. Troops sitting in towers with an RPG launcher do stir-up the intensity, but there’s little deviation from the standard A-B progression. The unlockables such as unlimited ammo and Black-Ops difficulty, adding mandatory secondary objectives, do little to add replay value to the short game. Some recon objectives are admittedly humorous though. Fancy recovering an ‘aerial photo of unknown US city’ or ‘Burnout rendering secrets’? Obviously Criterion didn’t want smugglers bettering their Burnout game!

It’s just unfortunate there are plenty of things Black omits. Firstly, it has no multiplayer. My guess is technological limitations, the special effects would’ve had to be significantly scaled back to avoid latency problems, but it would’ve been a worthy addition to the short single-player. The environmental destruction effects are inconsistent, some pillars and walls can be blasted to bits, and there are plenty of explosive canisters. However, other entities barely respond to an RPG round. It would’ve made for some fascinating fight-scenes, and at least less awkward, taking cover behind a wall that does turn out to take damage happens too often. Kellar can’t jump either, making a downward step regrettable as he’s unable to retreat when getting shot from all directions. And why can’t the game be saved at checkpoints? Leaving the PlayStation on to return to a mission later is a royal waste of electricity!

But what Black does do, it does pretty well. The amazing visuals make it seem the PlayStation 2 had an answer to the Wii’s The Conduit; three years earlier. The light effects are beautiful, the war dust has been recreated exquisitely and the weaponry is orgasmic. It really does offer a taster of what the when-upcoming generation would be like. But style aside, Black is solid. The missions are fulfilling and satisfying, the masses of enemies make this taxing and it does lead to emotional moments. But you’ll be a better person after it. The extent of enemies may not be beyond balaclava covered troops with a machine/shot/RPG gun but the predominantly outdoor levels are well varied, keeping grey corridors to a minimum. The action may get repetitive from its lack of variety and struggles to maintain the adrenaline-rush it initially tries to create, but in moderation this is a real blast for any stubborn PS2 owner. Black may not be quite the Burnout-in-a-barrel that Criterion said. But boy, it showed the PS2 was still alive in its final year before the PlayStation 3.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Black (EU, 02/24/06)

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