Criterion’s latest game is one that has been exposed to the highest degree of hype. Press and fans alike have been expecting the next generation of the fps genre. The question is, how does the final game live up to the hype?
In short: very well, but you may be expecting a very different game to what you’re actually getting. If you’ve seen the trailers and pre-release material, you would be forgiven for expecting something akin to Serious Sam where all out guns’ blazing wins the day. The truth is very different, and certainly a lot better. Black is a game that should perhaps be compared to Call of Duty meeting Golden Eye rather than the retro shooters that immediately spring to mind.
The gameplay in this game is fantastic- I may as well get that out of the way immediately. The mission statement for this game was to make the most intense shooting experience available and they’ve pretty much succeeded. The guns in Black are the true stars- without a doubt the coolest arsenal ever and the level of visual impact they have on your surroundings is equally impressive. This alone elevates the experience above the norm as simply using each and every weapon is thrilling and diverse enough to encourage a kind of psychopathic experimentation while you blow up as much of the level to dust as possible. With regards to destroying the levels, it’s important to remember with Black that the effect of creating homage to Hollywood blockbusters was the main aim of the game. As a result, the game is tightly scripted in its destruction rather than freeform like Red Faction was with its geo-mod engine. Rather than letting you take out everything you can see, Criterion opted to work with the principle that if it looks like you should probably blow something up, and then by all means do so. Examples that are particularly fun are things like doors that, instead of having an open function, simply have to be taken off their hinges by a shotgun or grenade, fuel tanks and barrels that lurk perilously close to enemy cover and in one very special example a massive chemical silo that results in the biggest explosion I think I have ever seen in a game.
While some may find the level of genuine destruction on the structure of the levels disappointing, Criterion still do enough to make the whole experience a huge adrenaline rush- why go for dull headshots when you can throw a ‘nade through the window and take out two floors, too? It may be a scripted explosion when you do it, but it’s still a total head rush. What may take people by surprise when they play Black is that run and gun techniques just don’t work very well. It’s very much about cover, here, cover there. A lot of the gameplay is based on hiding behind something solid and using your guns to take away an enemies cover in explosive style. Most of the in game cover points disintegrates under fire, leaving you or the AI open for a serious beating. It’s a cool style all of its own and is visually brilliant. Blowing the pillars apart in the asylum stage is a hugely satisfying example. Sure it rips off the matrix, but its awesome fun.
The games AI is similar in its approach to the destruction of the levels- more virtual stuntmen to your own action scene than anything, they don’t really pose much of a threat to your brains but they’re dangerous enough and they certainly do a decent job of making the experience suitably spectacular. Accompanied by a meaty rag doll effect that throws bodies around with satisfying weight and speed, the death animations are all really good, holding back from embracing the cartoony physics of games like Halo. While the enemy goons might be a little placeholder at times, they do offer enough variety and general carnage to be good fun. As well as the usual machine gun wielders you’d expect, Black also features an assortment of special enemies in the form of armour wearing shotgun troops that take entire clips to eliminate, men equipped with riot shields and magnums that require special tricks to take down- like using your guns to break up pillars they use as cover matrix style so that the falling concrete crushes them. It’s a cool way to make you fight differently and it certainly breaks up the pace a little. One thing that Criterion did hold back on is blood. There isn’t any in the game but it really doesn’t matter one bit. With or without blood this remains one of the most violent games on the shelves simply due to the amount of ass you kick throughout that sends men flying almost without exception
Graphically, this game is a technical tour de force. If Criterion knows anything, its how to milk the current gen systems dry for every ounce of power. Black effortlessly throws around huge clouds of particle effects from massive fireballs to clouds of plaster and dirt thrown up by your bullets while all the time holding a rock steady frame rate. Considering that this game is based on PS2 architecture, Black looks all the more impressive, practically putting next gen games to shame. Set in a diverse range of locales, the art direction is also similarly impressive. The story (for what it’s worth) sees you tracking a rogue CIA operative across a fictional Eastern European country and each level is diverse enough to really engage you as you play though. Starting off in a war torn city street section; the game progresses through woodlands, graveyards, trench networks, steel factories, dockyards, a colossal ruined bridge, an abandoned asylum and a huge prison. Each level was an attempt by Criterion to allow for a new kind of destructive effect, and it shows too. Each level has its quirks and nuances that show a great deal of craftsmanship going into each area in order to make it as spectacular as possible. It works amazingly well.
The sound is also amazing in this game, the effects on the weapons and explosions are breathtaking. Part of the experience that makes Black so amazing to play is that the weapons are just great fun to use, particularly because they sound utterly fantastic. I often found myself switching weapons simply because I hadn’t heard them yet. It really is that good. The musical score is not quite as good. While it certainly does its job, it all feels a bit obvious like they took a bit of star wars, a bit of lord of the rings and a touch of halo to make a bit of a clichéd score. It’s not bad as such, just unspectacular. And if you really don’t like it, the Xbox version comes with custom soundtracks if you fancy blowing stuff up to a bit of whatever it is you like to blow stuff up to.
Black, then, is a game that may take a few people by surprise. Far more intelligent than we were led to believe, it’s a really solid shooter that, while it may lack the finer elements of it’s more advanced brethren, packs enough spectacle and great style into its levels to really keep you interested. It sets the bar within seconds of its first level and never lets up for a second until the credits roll.
Some people will find it too short, some might find it doesn’t quite live up to the lofty hype machine that it generated but if you take it for what it is, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more thrilling game available.