Set in Eastern Europe, Black places you in the role of Sergeant First-Class Jack Kellar, a veteran of the US military and a member of a Black Ops team sent into the field to bring back a traitor. The story is told through brief, hard to follow FMV snippets between levels, and it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Toss in a completely disappointing (and obvious) cliff-hanger ending, and the story is best described as forgettable. Part of the problem is that you never really interact with any other characters during the course of the game. Occasionally you'll be paired up with another soldier, but outside of a few radio communications you never talk to anyone else, you just shoot wave after wave of nameless enemies. The story is also so derivative that even tossing in a few extra characters might not have saved it. The "lone guy against the terrorists and a government conspiracy" thing has been done ad nauseum.
Black's controls are smooth and easy to pick up if you have spent any time with a FPS on the PlayStation 2. Rather than forcing you to navigate a series of menus, the game makes good use of the d-pad, allowing you to quickly perform minor actions such as using health packs and changing your weapon with the tap of a button. Because many of the guns have quite a bit of recoil, aiming is a little difficult at first, but once you've gotten accustomed to the touch required for precision aiming and learned to make use of the zoom feature, you'll be capping bad guys left and right. Aiming felt a tad bit off at times, especially with headshots. You actually have to aim a hair above the head to make sure you cap your target in the melon. There's a minor issue that pops up occasionally where your character will slowly move to the left on his own; while it's odd, it doesn't really affect the gameplay much.
If you've been following any of the hype leading up to Black, you know that it's all about using big, powerful weapons and blowing stuff up. MP5, Uzi, Remington 12 gauge shotgun, AK-47, Glock 9mm, M-16, rocket launcher and a grenade launcher are just some of the guns in the game. Criterion really placed a lot of emphasis on the guns being the stars of the game, but for the most part, many of the guns feel the same and you really only end up using a few different ones. Since much of the gameplay is focused on being patient and picking off enemies from a distance, guns like the Uzi are seldom used. Other guns like the sniper rifle and rocket launcher seem to only be made available when a specific scenario arises. This means you'll pick up the rocket launcher, use the two available rounds to blow up a wall, and then go back and pick up the weapon you had earlier. It would have been nice for the game to offer you the chance to be a little more creative with how you arm yourself.
Black is not a long game; in fact, most people will be able to get through it in 6-8 hours their first play through. I personally found the length acceptable, and would rather have a short game than a long one filled with needless backtracking, but some people will certainly be let down by its length. Despite the game's overall brevity, Black's levels take a long time to complete - upwards of an hour for almost all of them. Checkpoints are scarce, which means you could find yourself doing entire 20 minute sections of the game over again if you die. An even bigger issue with the long levels is that you can't save your progress mid-level. This can really be aggravating when you're having a good time with the game, but don't have an hour to devote to clearing "just one more level" before you head off to bed.
A short campaign isn't the end of the world, but the lack of any sort of multi-player component is a real killer. It's understandable that Criterion would want to focus on the single player mode and get that right before adding support for online play or co-op, but perhaps the game should have been held back another couple of months so this could have been implemented.
Black has been touted as placing you in the role of your favorite action hero and letting you go to town, spraying bullets and mowing down bad guys. In reality, it's quite a bit more subdued. Running into a room and taking on all comers is a sure way to get yourself killed - you've got to be much more patient. Generally you'll head into an area and quietly pick off as many guys as you can. Once your presence is noted, you find cover and focus on one guy at a time. Most of your fighting is done at medium to long range, making short range weapons like the shotgun (which is the most fun to use) little more than an afterthought.
This style of combat wouldn't be so bad if the AI was somewhat competent, but it's simply dreadful. A typical firefight goes something like this:
Shoot a guy in the face
Guy falls down
Guy gets up
Shoot guy in face again
Guy falls down again
Guy gets up again
Shoot guy in face again...Repeat as necessary (and it will be necessary to repeat because it takes an insane number of bullets to take down a single soldier)
The AI is so poor that enemies will stand there oblivious to the sounds of breaking glass behind them, and they'll completely ignore their comrade falling dead just feet away. Other than the guys that carry shotguns, the bad guys aren't very aggressive, and you've got all the time in the world to reload and assess the situation before going in. Things are a little better on the harder difficulties, but not much. There are no boss battles to speak of; another big letdown since the basic enemies are so bland.
Of course Black's biggest selling point leading up to its release has been the sheer amount of destruction you can cause. Even this has been overstated, because while you can shoot and cause damage to most of the surroundings, very few things can actually be destroyed. There is tons of glass to break, and plenty of explosive barrels, but very few large structures can be completely demolished (there are some, but not as many as you'd think). Other than shooting explosive containers that are all too conveniently placed near oblivious soldiers, there aren't many situations where you'll find yourself using the environment to kill the enemy. If you decide to play through the game again you'll likely be a little more creative with your kills, but the first time, most of your killing is done the traditional way, via firing a round into a soldier.
Many gamers in search of great looking visuals have moved on to the Xbox 360, but recent games like Shadow of the Colossus and Resident Evil 4 have shown that the PlayStation 2 is still capable wowing us with high quality visuals. From plentiful particle effects and awesome lighting, to realistic rocket trails and destructible environments, Black's graphics are nothing short of amazing. At any given moment you'll see empty shells flying from your weapon, bullets ripping into bad guys, errant fire splintering walls, barrels exploding, and smoke billowing throughout the room. One look back at an area you've just cleared will reveal a level of destruction that would make Jerry Bruckheimer proud. The framerate is generally pretty consistent, though there are certain instances (the last room in the game) where the slowdown gets pretty rough. The good news about the slowdown is that it usually helps you out a bit since so much is going on at once.
One of the cool effects you'll notice is the blurring of the background that occurs when you're reloading your weapon. The theory behind this is that when you're reloading, all of your focus is on your weapon. I found the blurring to be a nuisance, but it does force you to take where you are into consideration before you reload. There are even multiple reloading animations - one for when you're under fire, and one for when you're not. The animations do look fantastic, and it's easy to believe the team's claim that they spent more time on this area than any previous FPS developer.
Black's audio is one of its most impressive aspects. The soundtrack is performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra and is on-par with any big budget action movie. I would have actually liked to hear more music in the game since it was so well done, but it only popped up when the action was getting intense. The voice acting is pretty good, but it loses a few points because of the drab story.
Of course, the guns sound terrific. The game supports Dolby Pro-Logic II, so you'll hear guns firing from all directions, bullets whizzing past, and plenty of big-time explosions to rattle your subwoofer. One minor complaint is that the surround sound could have been used more effectively to track your enemies. It was often difficult to pinpoint your enemies' location because they could be hear coming out of more than one speaker.
It sounds like I'm really coming down on Black and saying it's a bad game, but that's really not the case. From a technical standpoint it's phenomenal and gets performance out of the PlayStation 2 hardware that nobody thought was possible. That said, you can't help but feel all the missed opportunities as you play the game. Even slightly improved AI would have made the game much more engaging, as would more effective bullets, varied mission objectives, and more freedom to carry whatever guns you wanted. On a larger scale, co-op mode would be fantastic, and the potential of online multi-player action with this engine is endless. The PS2 isn't exactly blessed with a large number of enjoyable first person shooters so Black is certainly worth a look if you can pick it up cheaply or as a rental. The lack of replay value, however, keeps it from being worth the full price of admission.
3/24/2006 Aaron Thomas