Review by VaporFox

""Every bullet is your baby?" I'm putting these brats up for adoption."

Welcome to Black, yet another of EA's hype machines that I reluctantly have to throw a wrench into and expose for the "clunker" it really is. Now, I'd been reading up on the progress of Black in its development stages for quite some time before its release. I even played the demo, which showed definite promise; so it seemed like EA and Criterion might actually have their act together for this.

Boy, do I ever hate being wrong.

Allow me to start with something most people never mention in reviews: The instruction manual. Weighing in at a whopping 7 pages, this is perhaps the blandest and most uninformative manual I've ever laid eyes on. Heck, I've read stick-on instructions for games at rental stores that were deeper than this. I mean, if the developers of Black were such "gun nuts" as they supposedly were, you'd think they'd have at least included a section in the manual that would pay homage to the various weaponry in the game. It doesn't even MENTION anything about the guns. Go figure, eh?

The story? Well, they managed to scrounge together a whole PARAGRAPH to let you know what the background to the game was about, which goes as follows:

"BLACK takes you deep into the world of the unsanctioned military-- beyond the army, beyond the law, beyond consequence. Your mission: hunt down those than no-one else can stop. Let nothing stand in your way."

Translation: "You're the next generation Rambo. Get ready to blow lots of stuff up, then do it some more (oh so inspiring, I know)".

In its defense, though, not many people play first person shooters for an engrossing or in-depth story to begin with. After all, there's only a handful of games in this genre with "respectable" plots to begin with. So, this didn't affect my final score.

Graphics - Rating: 8
I was really torn between an 8 and a 9 with my score for this aspect of Black; however, in the end, certain quirks kept me from choosing the higher score. Overall, there's very little to complain about concerning the graphics. The front end presentation (I.E. the game/options menus) are all put together well. The cut scenes between each mission are done in a manner that's easy to appreciate too; they help set the stage for the action and compliment the gritty feeling Black tries to keep fresh in your brain for the duration of the game.

As for the guns, they're represented gorgeously and (for the most part) accurately. Criterion succeeded in capturing the feeling of power each piece of weaponry has, in both cosmetic appearance and with the various reloading animations.

There's something I must gripe about here though. I'm starting to think a requirement of working for EA is you must have crappy attention to detail. First they put the steering wheel on the wrong side of James Bond's Astin Martin in "From Russia With Love". Now in Black, they put the case ejection port on the AK-47 on the wrong side of the rifle. Seriously, how do developers let painfully obvious mistakes like this slip by? Of course, not everyone is going to notice (or even care about) small details like this, but those of us who do likely can't help but eye-roll at them.

As a whole, the environments are believably realistic and easy to look at. From war-torn city streets and barely standing buildings, to rickety old farm houses in the middle of lush moon-bathed forests, the locales all prove to be perfect places for the carnage your protagonist can unleash at any time. The way smoke, shrapnel, and debris can fill a confined room as the bullets and grenades start to fly can be an exhilarating sight to behold at times.

The character models are adequate, yet aren't anything I haven't seen before in countless other military shooters. The low number of enemy types is something many people may dislike. Though to be fair, soldiers aren't really supposed to stand out as individuals in the battlefield. My only complaint in this department is I wish there was more variety in the enemy death animations.

Sound - Rating: 9
Okay, this is arguably the biggest plus of the entire game. If you're one of those people who've invested money in a nice Surround Sound setup (or even headphones for your TV), it's going to feel worth every penny as you play Black. You can practically FEEL the recoil of each gun as they fire just as much as you can hear the gratifying sounds of each bullet connecting with its intended target -- be it an enemy soldier's cranium, or the shabby wooden crate he foolishly chose to take cover behind.

Soldiers yell warnings to their comrades in appropriate languages. Hot lead ricochets with convincing flair. Wood splinters; glass shatters, and barrels full of volatile materials explode with satisfying oomph. You'll never doubt that you're immersed in the middle of a battlefield.

The music does an admirable job of capturing the mood. The problem? There's not really enough of it. For many portions of the game, there's nothing but dead air, far as music is concerned. Thankfully, you can get around this by using your own custom soundtracks, should the urge rise.

Similarly, the voice acting -- both in-game and during cut scenes -- is tight, yet too spaced out, IMO. Often times, your character only says anything after a key enemy has been "taken down" or immediately upon reaching a checkpoint, which made the flow of things seem kind of stilted to me. It's all a matter of personal preference though. I think the nigh-constant chatter between squadmates in shooters like Republic Commando just spoiled me.

Gameplay - Rating: 6
I can't even begin to express how flustered EA/Criterion has made me in this area. No, the gameplay in Black isn't "horrible" by any means. But, it felt like for everything they did RIGHT here, they nullified it by doing something equally WRONG.

The Flaws
Black is missing certain features that I (and many other gamers) strongly feel should be standard REQUIREMENTS with games in the FPS genre these days. First off, there is no X/Y analog sensitivity/speed adjustment option whatsoever. This might not be so annoying, if Criterion didn't decide that the default aiming/turning speed for everyone should be set to "Grandpa With Arthritis" level. Seriously, in a firefight, if it takes you 3-4 seconds just to turn around 180 degrees, you might as well mark that "organ donor" checkbox in your driver's license if you haven't already, because that's what you're going to end up as shortly.

On a similar note, there is no "sprint" feature either. Again, this wouldn't feel like a big deal if your character didn't run (heh) with all the urgency of a tranquilized sloth. What? There's a sniper taking potshots at me in that tower 2000 yards away? Okay, let me just lazily trot in-between obstructions while closing in on him; maybe I'll even have time to smile and wave at him right before he puts a .50 shell between my oculars. Wheeee!

Adding to the pain, your "professional soldier" apparently doesn't have the ability to jump, or climb over the simplest knee-high obstacles that a kindergartner could overcome, or even ... OPEN A DOOR. Yes, that's right; out of the handful of doors that can actually be "opened" in Black, they force you to either waste a shotgun round or a grenade to blow it off its hinges. I guess kicking down or pushing doors open isn't macho enough for modern day commandos anymore. What? You don't have the shotgun or a grenade at the moment? Well, looks like you're not getting through that door then. Maybe you should try knocking and politely asking the terrorists if you can come in?

Don't get me wrong. I realize that real life soldiers don't jump/skip around the battlefield like giddy schoolboys, but if you're going to riddle the levels with simple path-barring obstacles, you should at least program in the ability for the protagonist to climb/vault over them, instead of forcing the player to backtrack around them as if he were in a wheelchair. To me, it detracts from the feeling of immersion and sacrifices realism; not to mention how it instills that "rat in a maze" sensation and makes the environments feel overly linear.

Speaking of sacrifices to realism, it amazes me how the geniuses at Criterion expect us to believe that body armor/uniform technology is so advanced now that it can keep even the most foolhardy soldiers alive. Even on the easiest difficulty settings, you'll commonly find yourself needing to unload almost an ENTIRE CLIP of ammunition from a high powered assault rifle just to bring a lone enemy down. Adding insult to injury, they attempted to simulate "realistic aiming" by literally making your aiming cursor a small DOT on the screen.

Now, I know the developers were hoping to inspire players to "get creative with their kills" by using the background to their advantage. But, you don't really NEED to get creative, considering how every other machine gun nest and building the soldiers fortify themselves in seems to have explosive barrels, trucks, or ammo stockpiles strewn about haphazardly (I wish I were exaggerating, too). No matter how well a sniper or heavy gunner is dug into a bunker, you can bet there's always something explosive nearby, standing out like a big red bullseye for you to shoot at instead; it was almost insulting to one's intelligence at times. I wasn't hoping for ultra-realism from Black, but then again, I wasn't expecting this degree of foppish cartoonishness either.

My final complaint is in regard to the weapon selection. Did we really need TWO types of shotguns (especially when they handle identically)? It's all pretty standard stuff -- two pistols (Glock and a Magnum), shotguns, a sniper rifle, an assault rifle here, an uzi there. Blah, blah, blah. Where are the machine pistols? Where are the high caliber sniper rifles that can take out an enemy who's behind a foot of concrete wall? Not even a single mini-gun appearance? *gasp!* Blasphemy! For a game where "the guns are the stars" I was hoping for a more exciting "cast" than this.

The Good Stuff
You're probably wondering just what good this game could possibly have to offer after that lengthy list of flaws I just spouted off. I know my review has come off sounding pretty negative up to this point, but rest assured Black has some glimmers of gold buried under its smoky exterior.

Simply put, if you don't try to take this game seriously, it can be surprisingly fun. Though the amount of destructibility to the environments isn't quite as deep as Criterion gave me the impression it would be, it's still a blast (no pun intended) experimenting to find out how everything is going to react to a well-placed grenade or after unloading half a clip of uzi shells on it. There's something undeniably gratifying about watching your RPG trailing smoke in the air after it's fired; and the visual (and aural) results of it hitting its target rarely disappoint.

Soldiers get stunned and/or cower briefly as your bullets zing around them and knock up debris. Pillars and portions of walls chip away and crumble under the punishment of firepower. Splash damage from grenades and rockets is just about as spot-on as I've seen in any FPS. The ability to adjust the firing mode of the automatic weapons (full auto, burst fire, and single shot) was a refreshing plus, despite how many players may not even utilize this feature any.

You'll rarely find yourself low on ammo in Black, save for maybe the most high-powered weaponry (Magnum, sniper rifle, RPG, et cetera). So you truly are encouraged to get bold, even a little crazy with your methods. Some people will no doubt find the mixture of psuedo-realism and over-the-top Rambo-ism perfectly balanced. Criterion has a solid formula here that I feel could be made into an unstoppable juggernaut, with a bit of fine-tuning.

Replay Value - Rating: 4
This is probably what hurts Black the most. It's not a very lengthy venture (but really, the FPS genre isn't renown for long games). You're looking at anywhere between 5 to 8 hours to finish this, which isn't bad. Unfortunately, Criterion just didn't give much to warrant another play-through.

Once beaten on normal difficulty, you can play through it again with "silver weapons" that don't really offer much more than a nifty silver sheen and an unlimited ammo supply. There aren't any noticeable differences in the gameplay on the harder settings, other than the diminishing number of health packs. The "Black Ops" difficulty (which is unlocked by beating hard) requires you to complete ALL of the "secondary objectives" in a mission, which adds a modicum of challenge.

The lack of a multiplayer mode (online AND off) is going to be a buzz-kill for anyone who may have otherwise been interested in this game. So if you feel playing death matches or team-oriented games with your buddies is the bread and butter of an FPS, Black is going to leave you starving.

Overall Score: 6
When the smoke finally clears at the end of the battle, Black is just another FPS that could have been a real standout if it'd have spent a bit more time in development. The few new or interesting things it brings to the table are countered by its lack of some most basic features that many consider "must-haves" in shooters now. This is 2006, not 1995. Special Forces soldiers shouldn't handle like Special Olympics competitors in these games anymore. I can only recommend buying this after it's dropped down to bargain bin price, because there's many other first person shooters out there right now that offer the same things Black does, and they don't cost $50 anymore.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 03/07/06

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