Review by Mestevron

"Checkpoint Hell."

For some time the controversial publisher Electronic Arts has been in pecuniary peril, and has made a number of moves to become more profitable. The first move was to acquire Criterion Games, a British development house known for its Burnout series. Secondly, and more recently, Electronic Arts cut the prices of many games, including new titles, by ten dollars, in an attempt to increase revenue. Black happens to be one of the first new titles to hit the shelves at the new reduced price.

Before Black was released, Criterion Games promoted it as a revolutionary first-person shooter with a simple but effective gimmick: the guns are the stars of the game and they rain massive destruction on everything. To accomplish this goal, all the bullets fired can devastate the surroundings. Shotguns can blow apart doors, grenades can strip the concrete off pillars, and stray bullets can cause enemy-killing explosions. In stark contrast, the environment obliterating guns are incredibly inefficient against enemies. It is with a puzzling irony why the enemies can withstand such a tremendous amount of punishment from the so-called stars of the game. This becomes a nuisance when sniping enemies from afar with non-sniper rifles, which happens quite frequently. If the bullets' lack of damage against enemies was the only flaw in this game, then Black could pass as a competently executed first-person shooter. However, the imperfections extend far beyond the invisible and humongous life-bar of the enemy infantry.

For the most part, the environments are so bland that they inspire indifference on the part of the player. Significant portions of the game take place within stereotypical first-person shooter settings such as derelict buildings and outdoor industrial or military locations. The quality of the graphics is made even worse by the scenery pop-up. The pop-up is at its absolute worst when certain parts of the level geometry become instantly visible upon pressing the zoom button. Fortunately, a lot of the stunningly ordinary art and graphical glitches can be overlooked. Having the ability to castigate the physical environment without the fear of running out of bullets has the potential to be quite gratifying.

Complementing the destructive visuals is the outstanding sound. All of the guns sound crisp and powerful, and each gun has a very distinct firing noise. There are also subtleties in the sound effects; when shooting a window, not only can the window's shattering be heard, but a second noise is made when the shattered window comes into contact with the ground. The voice acting is quite competent, and in an attempt to make the voices as overstated as the rest of the game, much of the spoken words are filled with expletives. Above all, the game's music is nothing short of absorbing: a theatrical-style orchestral soundtrack that adds a much-needed epic quality to this somewhat silly shooter.

As a first-person shooter, Black's game-play is noticeably unspectacular. The game's level design basically involves just shooting everybody and everything in the way, until it is safe to proceed. Some levels require a furtive approach that is common in most first-person shooters, while other levels offer the possibility of wholeheartedly eschewing tactical circumspection. The game does offer some variety by offering objects in the environment that can conflagrate enemies when fired upon. However, shooting at explosive red barrels that are surrounded by enemies that are stupid enough to be within the barrels' blast radius can get old pretty fast. The game's first couple of levels are intriguing and modern in that there is an open-endedness that increases replay value. However, the rest of the game is generic, and somewhat chore-like. Aside from reaching the final destination via an incursion to complete the primary objective, the game also necessitates the player to complete a list of arbitrary secondary objectives that relate to the forgettable plot. Having to hunt down a specific minimum number of briefcases or files takes Black away from being an action-filled shooter and into the direction of a tedious and condescending scavenger hunt game. To add to the frustration, the game manages not to include a map, radar, or even a compass to help point in the direction of these top-secret items. Sometimes these items just seem to be littered in the most ridiculous of locations. Unlike other modern video games that include item collection as an objective, Black's secondary objective items do not glow in a bright color, thus decreasing the chance of noticing them.

Adding further to the difficulty of having to collect items, in many parts of this game after progressing a certain distance through a level, backtracking becomes impossible. This is done not only so that the player will not get lost, but more importantly, so that large chunks of level geometry no longer take up space in the console's memory. This common technique is perfectly understandable, even if it means ruining the possibility of going back and getting that much-needed health pack or missed secondary objective. This would not be so bad if the developers could come up with real obstacles to block the way backwards. At the absolute nadir of the developers' creative drought, simply walking forward through some doors will magically seal them shut. Other times it is impossible to go back because there is all of one stair-step. Anybody playing the game would think that this should not be a problem, but because the game lacks a jump button, it is impossible to negotiate a one-foot ledge. Not being able to jump in this game only hurts the game-play experience. In areas where there are lots of large objects, being able to jump can create a definite tactical advantage, but for some strange reason, the developers decided to deprive gamers of this functionality.

Also missing from this game is a popular feature that all first-person shooters have included for the last decade and a half. Incomprehensibly, Black does not support multi-player. There are few reasons to play Black again; omitting multi-player death-matches and cooperative play from this game inevitably reduces the replay value.

Not surprisingly, disappointment is also found in the controls. On the positive side, being able to reconfigure every button on the controller is undeniably a good thing. Oddly, there is a trio of illogical decisions made on the controller interface front. Firstly, with the exception of the sniper rifles, all guns will automatically zoom out as soon as the zoom button is released. This becomes a problem when assigning the zoom button to either L3 or R3, since it is impossible to aim without palpitation when depressing the analog stick. Secondly, the suppressor button needs to be pushed to double zoom the sniper scope. It would have made a lot more sense to just press the zoom button a second time to double zoom. Finally, and inexplicably, there are two buttons for changing weapons: one to cycle up, and an additional button to cycle down. If this game allowed the player to carry a large number of weapons simultaneously, this would make sense. However, the game only allows the player to carry a maximum of two weapons at one time. Therefore, both of these buttons do the exact same thing.

This game also has other bugs and not-so player-friendly elements that should have been found and purged in the debugging process. Weapons can actually be picked up from the other side of a wall, the sleep-inducing and convoluted cut-scenes can not be skipped, enemies re-spawn endlessly in some parts of the game, the non-playable characters' artificial intelligence needs to be re-worked, and enemies flinch unrealistically when being shot at. There are some parts of the game where carrying a shotgun becomes a necessity in order to just move forward. Shotguns are the only weapons that can open doors, and without a shotgun, some doors can not be opened. Another oversight in quality assurance that eradicates any suspension of disbelief, is that some of the structures that can be blown apart do not even attempt to hide their cracks. Because of this faux-pas, it becomes quite obvious just how these structures will react to explosive force.

Depressingly, none of the critiques listed thus far in this review hold a candle to this game's most depredating insult: the flamboyantly inadequate number of checkpoints. Most of the levels are quite long, and there are never more than three checkpoints in any level. There is nothing more discouraging for players than to have to spend an additional fifteen to twenty minutes just to reach that same part of the game where they got overwhelmed the last time. To make matters worse, saving is only possible when a level has been completed. There is absolutely no excuse that can justify these oversights. It is almost more charitable to say that the shortage of checkpoints is an artistic decision: an attempt to compensate for a short game length by scarcity of checkpoints rather than by the traditional imposed backtracking.

In the end, Black is nothing more than a vacuous first-person shooter with a shiny coat of paint. To the credit of Electronic Arts, the lowered price of the game and the complete absence of their usual product placement does help a little in reducing the enmity between the publisher and many of its detractors. The quality of Black is nowhere enough to atone for Electronic Arts' previous opprobrious conduct in attempting to monopolize the market. It does however make them look incompetent in their innovation rather than inimical towards the industry. This is a good thing.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 03/06/06, Updated 03/28/06

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