If you already know about Black I’m not surprised. The hype has been over the top, promising to teach a couple old dogs a few new tricks. For the most part it delivers, giving Xbox and PS2 owners one last hurrah before their hard worked machines are overshadowed completely by the 360 and looming PS3.
The story starts off in a smoky interrogation room, portrayed through a live-action cut scene. The acting isn’t very good, but it’s so highly stylized that you won’t notice how bad it is. The story isn’t very good either and brings nothing significant to the table. Each mission is summarized up front before you begin play, as these scenes actually take place after the end of the game. Yes this might sound like it would ruin the plot, but as mentioned earlier there is no plot to ruin, just your standard undercover military black ops stuff (hence the title). But we didn’t come here to laugh and cry; we came to blow stuff up!
First and foremost the graphics are phenomenal. Much of the meaningful environment can be destroyed in some way. The developers claim that every bullet is accounted for, and after playing I can see no reason why this isn’t true. Cars, barrels, boxes of explosives and the like are placed liberally about the levels. After a bit of experience, you’ll find it’s often better to shoot everything except your target because something will most likely explode, killing everything within a 5 mile radius.
Bullets tear through the environment leaving sparks and clouds of dust and debris everywhere. I was in a heavy firefight with a half-dozen enemies a hundred yards or so in front of me. After a long moment of complete chaos everything quiets down, not a sound. So I continue on through the thick smoke left over from the destruction directly into an enemy soldier who was just as surprised as I was to see somebody still alive. This is a great example of how Black’s graphics are used to supplement game play, rather than just look pretty. Also in a later level where lighting is used to great effect I actually found myself squinting as I exited a tunnel into the bright sunlight. Not before my on-screen persona’s eyes became adjusted to the outdoors was I already being shot at from multiple angles. Black, you just don’t let up.
On Normal difficulty, the enemy AI is average at best and they often act like super-humans. Even the weakest soldier can withstand an inhuman amount of lead. In addition to this feat, they simply will not bleed (I tried, really hard). This is a disappointment. Character animations range from decent to good. The satisfaction of seeing a just dead body slam against the wall after some strategic grenade placement is priceless.
At first the controls may seem a bit slow (you can’t adjust your look speed) but it won’t detract from the fun for most players. In the event you find yourself caught in the middle of an ambush, red markers will show up giving you a general idea of the direction of the fire, a nice inclusion.
I need to mention that there are no vehicles and no multi-player in this game. While a Black online multiplayer experience would be welcomed, and probably be a ton of fun, it’s something we have to make due without. At no point in time however should you feel like you’re missing out because you can’t drive around. The game is designed very well without vehicles and stands on its’ own.
Also, grenades are especially fun to use in Black. The skill balance is just right. For example if you want to throw a grenade at that loser up in the tower who just won’t stop shooting his RPG in your face you, simply aim and throw. Chances are it’s going to land right where you want it to. You don’t have to waste 5 grenades adjusting trajectory, watching your grenade sail one foot too high, or bounce off some barely visible guardrail. Sometimes taking control away from the player makes for a better game, and it’s good to see this theory in action.
There are a lot of duck and cover situations, which are fun thanks to level design. A handful of missions offer AI controlled teammates for support. Unlike most games, your fellow squad members seem to have more combat experience than your 6-year-old niece. That is to say you don’t have to spend every waking moment of your existence baby-stepping them through the game so they don’t die instantly. In fact, I think they may be invincible because I never saw one die. Their firepower isn’t extraordinary (you can’t sit back and eat a ham sandwich while they do all the work) but they do a decent job of distracting the enemy while you flank the opposition to create a tactical advantage.
Each level consists of a primary objective and multiple secondary objectives. Secondary objectives are quite simple and are often nothing more than blowing up a safe, or grabbing the bright red secret plans conveniently tacked to a random wall.
An oft-overlooked aspect of video games design is sound. Thankfully Criterion has put plenty of effort into making this one of the best sounding games around. Indoors guns echo through hallways as bullets can be heard buzzing inches from your ear. One of my favorite parts of the game is when you’re low on health. The perspective is altered, your vision becomes blurry and everything sounds like you dropped your head in a bucket of water. Not only is it a well-done effect, it puts you further into the game by creating urgency in your actions to acquire health or find cover.
“The Guns are the Stars” so says Criterion. There is a decent variety to choose from (you can only hold two at a time, ala Halo) and they all have a good deal of substance to them. They sound great and feel even better, like you’re shooting something real. While it would have been nice to introduce ammo variations for each weapon (hollow points, etc), the game does not offer that level of customization. Most weapons have a zoom feature, multiple fire controls (burst, full auto, single shot) and for some reason, a silencer. Perhaps the silencer comes in handy on higher levels where presumably you must sneak through levels pulling off headshots. But it’s much more fun to be in the middle of a chaotic firefight anyways, so take that silencer off!
Black had my full attention up until about half way through the game when the credits started to roll. It was shockingly short. There should have been another 6 hours, at least. This is the game’s most prominent fault, but it won’t keep you from enjoying a great experience, while it lasts.
Just for fun here are my final game stats (whole ‘lotta shootin’):
Play Time: 6:33:21
Body Count: 1625 [4.8kpm]
Bullets Fired: 26,902 [79bpm]
Verdict: Rent it. You can beat it in a weekend and since there is no multiplayer, immediate replay value is low. However, Black is a great game to have around if you find yourself in the mood to kill a bunch of stuff because you got fired, or your girlfriend left and took the cat with her.
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