Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Retrospective - Black

  • Game: Black
  • Formats: PS2, Xbox
  • First Released: February 24, 2006 (UK)
  • Developer: Criterion Games
  • Publisher: Electronic Arts
  • Genre: First-Person Shooter

There are moments in Black where you can’t help but think of ‘Team America’. Just as in that film, Black exists in a world where the destruction of property and buildings - no matter how valuable, or impressive the architecture - is all fair game, so long as it’s done by crack US combat teams in the fight against terrorism. In the first level of Black alone, you’ll find yourself storming a museum, firing rocket-propelled-grenades at city towers, and generally instigating more explosions than Steven Seagal’s entire cinematic output can muster. Take the very first task in the game: Opening a door. In this game, your key is a 12 gauge.

You play Jack Keller, a ‘black-ops’ soldier, with a reputation of being something of a maverick, a rogue, a lone-wolf – you know the type; prone to disobeying direct orders if it means getting the job done (admittedly not the most original videogame character of all time.). The game’s background is introduced by way of flashing newspaper headlines and fuzzy footage from newsreels, whilst the characters and main story slowly reveal themselves through the ‘interrogation room’ cut-scenes that precede each mission; Keller puffing on a cigarette and gruffly recalling his recent exploits. It’s a somewhat minimalist approach, which works, and works brilliantly setting the atmosphere and scene for each mission.

The visuals alone are startlingly good, even by today’s standards and certainly rank up there as some of the best the PS2 ever achieved. The game world is wonderfully moody and atmospheric; some of its darker environments conveying a sense of dread, and the quality of the graphics - combined with the suitably orchestral score, and meaty sound effects - serve to pull you into the game far more than most comparable console FPSs of last generation. In the cities, you can almost feel the crunch of glass beneath your steel capped boots, and you can sense the eerie chill in the air when wandering through the haunting forest.


The game has other ingenious tricks for involving the player too. Most engaging of these is perhaps the effects that kick in when Jack is critically injured; you can feel your heartbeat pulsing through the game-pad, and the visuals blur and slow-down, the sound becoming muffled and it stays this way until you either manage to locate a first-aid kit, or, more likely, die. This is a First Person shooter that well and truly puts you, the player, in the ‘first-person’; doing its best to make you feel what the character feels, and to make you value his survival, and seek to protect him from harm. Sure more modern games do this, some do it better than in Black, but it’s nice to know where your roots are.

The levels are big, and less linear than many FPSs, meaning that there is some scope to explore, and ‘find your own path’, and the missions are relatively varied (although most equate, ultimately, to killing lots of people and blowing up lots of stuff as per genre convention). There are a range of primary and secondary objectives within each mission, though the amount of these you’re obliged to fulfil depends on which of the four difficultly settings you’ve settled for. Normal mode, for example, requires you to fulfil all primary objectives, and just a few secondary ones. And of course, as is the game’s selling point just about everything you’ll come across is destructible in some way; from buildings, to vehicles, to road-blocks, to tree-stumps - the world is yours to destroy at will (or cower behind). The weapons with which you get to wreak havoc with are really just standard, bland, typical FPS-fare; pistols, shotguns, machine-guns, rocket-launchers, etc, all of them subject to the usual advantages and limitations. No big surprises there then, although considering its ‘real-world’ setting, there wasn’t a huge amount of scope for letting imagination run wild in this area. Besides, they’re all very, very satisfying to use; the shotgun is just as powerful and reliable as you’d hope (always my weapon of choice), and there’s little so satisfying as perching atop a ledge and sending a rocket into an enemy base, then sitting back and watching the chain reaction of explosions. 

Now, this is anarchy. This game dicks on The Sex Pistols.

Once you peel back the spot-on presentation, well-judged sense of involvement and decent level design, however, Black does have some shortcomings. Enemy AI isn’t awful, but it’s not nearly as well balanced as we’ve come to expect from the cream of contemporary shooters. I also feel some personal frustration with the cut-scenes that you CANNOT SKIP; each time you start a mission, you have no choice but to sit through them, which seems strange, considering how simple this would have been to resolve. It’s not an especially long game either; the seasoned gun-porn fanatic should have it wrapped up fairly swiftly and whilst the new objectives presented by higher difficulty settings offer some reason to replay, it’s unlikely that even the most devoted fan will trawl through the whole game more than two or three times. Which brings the biggest omission to the forefront: there’s no multiplayer mode. No frags or capturing flags. Considering how standard the multiplayer mode has become to the genre, it seems a shame that Black misses out, and whilst it’s sad that multiplayer doesn’t make an appearance, I feel that, overall, the game is better for it as the single player mode is so well made as a result of all the attention being placed on it.

Black offers one of the best FPS experiences available on a console; certainly the best on PS2. The visuals and audio are stunning, and the gameplay is pitched perfectly between strategic thinking and all-out, no-brains, balls to the wall action, providing an immensely satisfying all round experience, with no short supply of jaw-dropping moments. However, its modest length and absence of multiplayer options seriously compromise its longevity, and prevent it from reaching the status of classic.

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