- Title: Black
- Developer: Criterion Games
- Publisher: EA
- System:PS2 (Xbox)
Gameplay itself is the height of simplicity. Level maps allow for occasional stealth moments, but for the most part you'll know there are enemies about because they start shooting at you. Once you've identified the points in space you need to click on, you'll notice the numerous explosive crates and gasoline-filled vehicles nearby. In an effort to show off their work on the game's physics, the designers provided flammable cover for your enemies. After you've exploded the obvious targets, you can move out among the wreckage and take down the remaining stragglers. Aside from an understandable desire to flee a thrown grenade, the enemy AI is only slightly more advanced than that utilized by some witty mailboxes. Their most confusing move is the 'don't fire at the player' maneuver. While they're more than willing to take badly aimed shots at you from afar, if you do enough juking around up close they seem to get tired and give up. Firing a gun can be confusing when you're that dumb. Maybe they're confused by the boring sameness of the weapons. Despite the concentration on what happens once the trigger is pulled, the weapons themselves are all pretty much the same. You've got your AK, your shotgun, your silenced pistol, etc. None of them feel appreciably different, and the result is that you'll be switching weapons as soon as you find a new one just to keep your ammo levels up. Strategy is hard to come by on pretty much every level of this title.
Beyond that, the game's focus does result in some fairly impressive gunfights. Bullets spatter and spark off of every metal surfaces, throw up clods of dirt as you walk a burst into an enemy combatant, and chew convincingly through the scenery. The term 'fully destructible environment' is not just marketing; The AI never seems to fully grasp that hiding behind stuff isn't that helpful. When you can break up a downed tree into lumber with a few well-aimed bursts, it's easy to get to take out cowering bad guys. It's even easier when the terrorists shoot out their own cover, but that's another story. Other physical elements are just as convincing. Explosions bloom outwards with smoke and fire, and leave noticeable marks on the environment. Bodies fly heavenward when prompted by a grenade or vaporizing vehicle. Criterion chose to make virtually every other element of this game a secondary priority, and it shows. Black's physical environs are one of the most impressive in any shooter I've played.
On the other hand, the aural elements of Black are extremely well developed. The detail found in actually firing a weapon is here, with every weapon managing to sound unique. Their watery action prevents a real differentiation, but you can always tell what your opponents are firing merely by the sound their weapons make. All the sound elements are well-crafted, resulting in very satisfying explosions and gunfights that at least sound exciting. Curiously, the occasional musical stings are nowhere near as polished. Ostensibly used to heighten tension, they come across as mostly annoying. After the first few levels I turned them off, and didn't miss them a bit.
Black is a title that could have captured some of the core of gaming fun. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a stripped down shooter that focuses on the gunplay element of the genre. I reviewed two games that captured that quite well at the end of last year, in fact. What makes me dislike this title over those is the immaturity of the game's language. Whereas Quake IV was a military game, focused on the business of shooting, Black feels more like some cynical kids playing at war. The 'bad guys' do dumb things because they're bad. The good guy always has a ton of ammo at hand, and there are copious explosions. Occasional radio chatter with HQ is so loud I can literally hear the sound of the radio's feedback echoing off of the surrounding terrain. The impression I get from the game is that this secret, stealthy agent is working way through the jungle when suddenly you hear "KSHHHHH AGENT BE AWARE OF POSSIBLE TARGETS INCOMING!!!" The fact that your opponents don't react to this loud and obvious element of their surroundings may indicate that you are listening to your radio through earbuds or headphones. I just think it means their AI wasn't programmed to react to that part of the game. The most interesting and telling element of the game's language, though, is that there is no 'use' button. You want to open a door? You shoot it. You want to destroy information on a laptop? You shoot it. Compared to the nuance of another 'black ops' title such as Splinter Cell, the childlike stupidity of the gameworld is almost embarrassing.