Hype is an interesting tool, it can completely derail a game long before it even hits store shelves. Past victims include, but are not limited to, Fable, Halo 2, and of course the subject at hand Criterion’s Black. The problem here is that when you truly anticipate something for this long you expect every nuance to be precise, every flaw to be ironed out, and most importantly you expect the title to simply wow you on every turn. Unfortunately Black won’t do that, in fact if you are expecting anything outside of a straight up shooter you are going to come away more than dissatisfied. Black is a balls to the wall shooter that simply relies on great environment interaction and crisp visuals to engage the player, nothing more, nothing less.
Criterion has done an amazing job of capturing the visceral feel of combat in a way most other shooters have failed at numerous times. Clouds of smoke fill the air when bullets graze the ground, shards of glass rain from the sky when a window is pierced, and explosions seem to rock the entire level when a conveniently placed barrel full of highly flammable material is ignited; needless to say this game is intense. The amount of detail that the team has put into every aspect is respectable, especially considering they did it on older hardware, but all of these things are marred by the fact that underneath it all Black is simply one-dimensional on every level. The formula never changes, begin a level, grab a gun, shoot everything that moves, rinse and repeat. While some may argue that this is the standard for FPS titles in general no other game iterates it better than Black. Whether it’s the limited enemy models or the simple truth that no matter how you disperse your enemy it never feels different from the last two hundred dead bodies you left behind.
The onscreen explosions are simply awe-inspiring for a current gen title.
Not everything in Black is average though; in fact the visuals are simply stunning in some areas. Subtle details such as the dust and glass effects truly add a unique atmosphere to the game and the level design is some of the best we have seen in years. Every environment is noticeably different, from the standard dock yard to the gorgeous trek across a giant bridge at sunset the game never fails to impress visually. This is especially evident when running in 480p on the Xbox. The audio is also extremely well done, the sound effects for all the guns are extremely accurate and even the actors in the cut scenes do a nice job of conveying emotion and adding to the otherwise lackluster story. The music has actually been performed by the Hollywood Orchestra and truly sets the mood for the game, while Black does support custom soundtracks I highly recommend keeping the original score in place, it really does add to the overall atmosphere of the game.
The main storyline of Black is nothing new to shooter fans. You play a rogue agent named Jack Keller who has been charged and sentenced to prison time, for what we won’t spoil, but the conversations he has are basically flashbacks of how he got there. The cool part is that you actually play these in succession to Jack’s story, so basically you are leading up to the current day. We won’t spoil too much but by the end of the game I have to say I was a bit disappointed with the outcome. The journey there was a good ride, but it felt like I was heading to the top of a roller coaster only to level out at the end and never take that huge plunge. Regardless the cut scenes are all live action and very well presented giving the game a dark and sincere overtone.
Like I said earlier the core mechanic in Black is shooting, and you will certainly be doing a lot of this. What is unique however is the interaction with your environments such as walls, pillars, and any other object you come across. You will realize early on that almost everything is destructible, got an enemy hiding behind a wall? Simply blow the wall away and take away his cover. Almost every level you play will hold something new and exciting to discover as far as interaction is concerned and it really gives the player interesting ways to dispose of the enemy. Speaking of the bad guys the AI is extremely intelligent, they will run away when running low on health and of course find cover wherever they happen to be. They are also crack shots in the later levels rarely ever firing a useless round. This can become frustrating when taking on multiple sharp shooters, especially when you run into the annoying, and oftentimes hard to locate RPG guys.
Random Thug is now a searchable job on monster.com, it pays pretty well, but no health benefits!
Probably the two biggest complaints about Black are the length of the game and its lack of multi-player support. The main story mode can be completed in as little as four hours, however the harder difficulties will certainly take you anywhere between 6-8 respectively. This is certainly going to be an issue with some gamers who don’t want to pay full price for a rental game, but Black was never meant to be a 40-hour epic, it was meant to be a visceral experience with tons of destruction and huge body counts, it exceeds on both accounts. The second gripe is my biggest concern, a lack of multi-player of any sort. It has simply become an industry standard to include some sort of deathmatch or even co-op mode to extend the life of the game. Can you imagine these destructible environments being treaded upon online?? The possibilities are limitless, not to mention a ton of fun. Perhaps a sequel will give us a chance to take it online, but for now we are forced to keep it solo.
In the end Black is exactly what the developers said it was going to be, a straight-forward shooter with a decent story and unique environment interaction. Sadly the length of the single-player and a lack of any type of multi-player mode really dampen the experience. It is fun while it lasts, but unfortunately that doesn’t last long. Unless you really enjoy shooters and plan to play it several times don’t bother purchasing it. Get some use out of the GameFly account and rent it for a couple days. Perhaps a next-gen sequel will truly flesh out the outstanding potential for this engine, but right now I am simply left wondering what happened to that game I just started playing four hours ago??!