Review by sbn4

"Once you go Black..."

First person shooters have become a pretty trite affair these days. It seems very few first person shooters (FPS) can set themselves apart from the rest. Most of them either end up being generic or have the “been there done that” feel. Games like Goldeneye and Halo have successfully left their mark in FPS history for being both innovative and having interesting concepts. Criterion Games, the developers of the high octane Burnout franchise decided to take their first stab at the genre with Black. Using the same Burnout engine, Criterion attempted to set themselves apart from other FPS by using bigger explosions, more destruction, and actually putting a lot of emphasis on the actual guns. They hoped to set themselves apart by ushering in a sense of realism with the guns, as well as firing them. While Black delivers on what it promises, it falls just a bit short of being a great game.

Black takes you into the world of a unsanctioned military. You know, the kind with huge risks and little reward; the kind that's above the law that no one knows about, and requires you to do whatever it takes to complete the mission. The game puts you into the shoes of a black operative named Sergeant Jack Keller. It seems that Keller has been detained for some of his prior actions in the game. Keller is in chains and is being interrogated, and relays what exactly what he has done to get him to this point. The game's story is told through live action cutscenes similar to Need for Speed Most Wanted's cutscenes. These scenes give you a oppressive black ops interrogation type feeling. The story itself might be a little hard to follow if you're not familiar with at least a little bit of military lingo. However, you'll quickly forget names and faces once the action starts. Just as a warning, the ending leaves you with a cliffhanger. If you didn't realize that Black was planned as a trilogy, you might be a bit disappointed.

Gameplay 8/10

What makes Black different from other FPS out there? Criterion apparently wanted to set themselves apart by being the biggest, loudest, and most destructible FPS on the block. Black has been inspired from several movies like the Rock and Black Hawk Down, which have Hollywood style gun fights. First things first, Black's motto is “Guns are the stars.” And boy are they ever! Every gun looks and sounds like their real life counter part. You've got the Glock 17, MP5, AK47 G36C, Uzis, and rocket launchers to name a few. Each gun has been recreated to resemble to genuine article. Everything from the recoil to the muzzle flash has been realistically created. Another thing the developers did was give a lot of attention to the actual reloading. As a person who has operated some of the fire arms found in Black, I was impressed by how well the developers translated the reloading animations. Most other FPS have never had this much detail in the actual reloading. Hell, even all the menus in Black has little snippets of a reloading animations from different firearms in the game. Guns like the Mac 10, Uzi, and Glock can be reloaded rather quickly, but rifles and the M60 have longer reload times. Another interesting concept about reloading in Black is the blur effect. When Keller begins reloading, your focal point will become blurry to the point that you won't be able to see anything but your weapon. This was done deliberately by the developers. Anyone who has reloaded a gun knows you need to concentrate on the gun itself when you're reloading. Having two different reload animations for each weapon is another interesting concept in Black. They really aren't that different. When you're taking fire, Keller will reload quicker, and when you're out of harm's way, he'll take his time. For example, Keller will tap the side of his MP-5 before inserting a fresh magazine into the gun when there is no imminent danger.

So we know the guns in Black look and sound amazing. But how does Black stand from a gameplay point of view? Honestly, I'd have to say Black is a little shallow. The game starts out strong with great presentation and visuals, but it ends up getting extremely repetitive. Hardcore FPS fans might get tired of Black extremely quickly. You start out each level with at least one gun. As you progress through the levels, you'll come across a bunch of different weapons. However, you can only carry two weapons at any given time. This is good because most operatives can't carry fifteen different high powered weapons. This also adds a little bit of strategy into the mix too. You'll have to make a decision as to whether you'd opt to keep the more accurate single shot Glock 17 for a close quarters Spas 12, or a rapid fire Uzi instead. You'll also be able to hold a maximum of nine grenades too. Grenades can be tossed simply by pressing L2. It's an effective way to lure commandos out of cover or eliminate several of them at once. Every defeated enemy will drop ammo and a select few guards will drop a first aid kits which will bring up you life by a little bit. Health kits, which restore a lot of vitality, can be found scattered around the levels too. However, these kits can only be found on the easier difficulties.

The game's eight levels all play like a battlefield. You'll constantly find yourself under fire and returning fire. The game certainly encourages you to go in with all guns blazing because ammo is never scarce. The fire fights themselves can be pretty intense. Unloading an automatic weapon will cause dirt, dust and grit to fly everywhere. The muzzle flash of your enemy's weapons will be your only way of keeping track of them. You'll also be able to blow apart a large part of your environment. For example, if the guard in the bell tower is giving you a hard time, then flank him by shooting the large bell directly above him. Then watch as the bell falls right on him. There are a couple instances in Black where you can use the environment to effectively eliminate guards. The levels are actually rather linear, but each one of them are large and laid out well. You'll mostly find yourself fighting through urban areas like cities, buildings, and dockyard areas. Each mission should take you a good 30-45 minutes to get through on your first time.

While this may sound well and good to some; Black will end up getting repetitive. You're pretty much left with shooting mercenaries and blowing things up. The game is certainly catered to people who love to destroy or blow stuff up. A large part of the world can be ripped apart. For instance you can shoot out walls, doors, blow up cars, buildings, etc. What is amazing is how a current generation system can handle everything that's happening at once. Black is any extremely impressive game in this respect. However, there are certain problems that are keeping Black from perfection. One of them is variety in gameplay. You can't commandeer vehicles, operate machine gun turrets, etc. Many of these things almost seem standard in other FPS.

Another issue with Black is it's AI. While they are competent, they do behave a little oddly. One of the first things I noticed is that many guards will sometimes run dangerously close to an explosive object. For example, guards will run close to a fuel barrel, cars, or a large gas tank. Naturally, you'll aim for the explosive object to eliminate them. While this produces a satisfying effect, it does take some of the fun out of the game. Something else I noticed about the AI is that they completely ignore dead bodies. There are some stages that allow you to use a stealthy approach by equipping silencers to your weapon. You can quietly eliminate a guard and leave his body. Patrolling enemies won't even have the smallest sense of curiosity as to why his buddy is slumped on the floor. Another odd thing about AI behavior is their reactions. For instance, in the beginning of the dockyard level, you can throw a grenade at the two patrolling guards right below you. This will quickly eliminate the two guards, but there is another guard on high ground not more than 100 feet away who will simply stand there like nothing happened. There are actually several instances where something like this occurs.

It's sort of a shame because the AI is not bad beyond these points. Most enemies are good shots, and they will effectively destroy your cover if you hide for too long. Some will even try to hang on for dear life after shot off a high ledge. It's things like this that make Black entertaining to play through. However, there isn't a whole lot of enemy types. You've got you're standard trooper who will die in a few shots, you've got one that wears a little bit more body armor, shield wielding guards, extremely accurate snipers, RPG (rocket propelled grenade) guards, and shock troopers. Shock troopers are perhaps the most dangerous of the bunch if not handled correctly. They have tons of body armor, a metal face mask, are extremely fast, will charge at you fearlessly, and are always equipped with a shotgun. On harder levels they will make quick work of you with one or two direct shells. Needless to say these shock troopers will have a hard time hitting you from a distance. Other than the shock troopers, there isn't a whole lot of variety in enemy behavior too. Most mercenaries will fire at you from a distance and are quite accurate. They'll take cover from time to time, but they'll reveal themselves a little too often. Like I mentioned before, some guards have the tendency to take cover behind an explosive object like a car. What's a little strange is that none of you're enemies are equipped to throw grenades at you. While you can argue the RPG guards are enough, it certainly would have been more challenging if guards did throw grenades once in a while. Most of these issues can be ironed out by turning up the difficulty setting. It's a little disappointing the AI wasn't handled as well as it could have been.

In some missions, you'll be backed up by a few of your comrades. While it's nice to have supporting fire, the friendly AI is a little dumb. For one, your friends will never die. Even if they take a direct hit from an RPG, they'll be walking around like they never felt it. Secondly, the friendly AI are horrible shots. Sometimes they'll engage an enemy standing no more than five feet away and they'll miss each other several times. You'll end up doing most of the dirty work during these missions. It's not to say they never kill anyone. But in missions with at least a 100 enemies; the number of kills your comrades get can probably be counted on a single hand. Something that Black seems to be lacking is the ability to sprint. The movement in Black is fine, but the lack of sprint is a little odd. For example, if an RPG comes careening at you, you're forced to sluggishly back away from it. This will cause you to take more damage than necessary because you can't sprint quickly away. Even despite these issues Black can still be an entertaining game for the time it lasts. The game provides non stop white knuckle action. The game throws tons of enemies at you and it never ceases to feel chaotic.

One thing that might absolutely shock you about Black is that there is no online or offline multiplayer in at all. This is strictly a single player ordeal. Apparently Criterion wanted to put all their effort in designing a memorable single player experience. The only problem is the single player is nothing extraordinary. It's fun and fast paced, but there are other FPS that have better single player campaigns. It almost seems odd that a FPS in today's market wouldn't have some sort of multiplayer. This is quite a shame because once you get through Black's 6-7 hours of gameplay, you'll have almost nothing left to keep you coming back.

<.b>Graphics and Sound 9/10

It's pretty clear that Criterion has spent a great deal of time on the audio and visual presentation of this game. It's not surprising because Criterion's latest iteration of the Burnout series, Burnout Revenge, looks and sounds amazing. Black is one of the best looking FPS for the PS2. The levels are large and nicely detailed and the particle and special effects look simply stunning for a current generation game. As I mentioned before, the guns look great and resemble their real life counterparts down to the muzzle flash, recoil, and even scratch marks. The explosions are particularly nice. There's something pleasant about destroying a large gas tanker next to a building and watching rubble and shards of glass fly everywhere. Even with all the action and explosions going on at once, the game's framerate rarely stutters. There are some instances where the game does take a dip, but it's never too often and it's hardly distracting. This is extremely impressive for the aging PS2. The only thing I noticed about the visuals were some of the breakable objects could have looked better. If you go up close to some of them you'll notice lines or seams that reveal how the object is going to break apart after you shoot it. This is sort of a bummer, but it's pretty trivial to gripe about something so insignificant. Other than that, there really isn't much to complain about visually.

The audio in Black is just as strong as the visuals. What makes Black's audio so strong is the sound of the guns. Each gun sounds powerful and crisp. The RPG is particularly awesome. When an RPG is fired at you, you'll immediately know to get the hell out of there from the shrieking noise as it jets through the air. Another great thing about Black's audio is the music. The music is superb in this game. They seem to perfectly match with the gameplay. High energy music will play during intense scenes, while more “sneaky” music will play during stealth situations. I honestly loved the music in the game. Unfortunately, there simply isn't enough of it. There are many times where the game is like Killzone, were there is no music whatsoever. Hey, at least the music that is in Black is great. On another note, the voice acting in Black is well done too. Each of the characters put forth a extremely believable performance. The military lingo and radio chatter during missions are well done and make you feel like you are a part of the action. However, you might find it a little difficult to understand some of the jargon. Black is an extremely thorough package when it comes to audio and visuals.

Replayability 6/10

Here's where the game takes a turn for the worst. Black can be beaten in with 6-7 hours even if you aren't rushing. When I checked my game clock, it said I had beaten the normal setting of Black in 4 hours and 56 minutes. That is pretty horrible for any kind of game. To add more salt to the wound, there really isn't anything that will keep you coming back to Black. You can try harder difficulty levels, which will unlock silver weapons for you. Silver weapons are a cheat that allow you to have infinite ammo for any gun you pick up. This cheat is satisfying for the few levels that allow you access to RPGs. Other than that, there really isn't much point to this cheat because ammo is plentiful in this game. It might have helped matter for Black if there were at least some sort of multiplayer even if it was offline. Unfortunately, we are stuck with a game that feels more like a tech demo rather than a complete game.

In the end, Black is a competent shooter that falters in some areas, but still ends up being an enjoyable shooter. Black provides some extremely intense firefights with nonstop action along with great audio and visual presentation. On the other end of the spectrum, Black is extremely short, lacks multiplayer, has low replayability, and has some subtle gameplay issues. Black might disappoint those who are in love with FPS like Halo or Timesplitters. Those who like relentless white knuckle action will eat this up. But, due to Black's extremely short length and lack of multiplayer, it's hard to recommend this as a $40 purchase. This game would make a solid rental that can be beaten in a weekend. However, for a gun enthusiast like myself, I found it extremely hard to stay away from Black. Hopefully Black's sequel will remedy some of the issues with this title and make it a FPS that ranks among the Goldeneyes and the Halos.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 04/10/06

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