Aug 22 2009

Black

zorro @ 3:56 pm

Similar to the Bitmap Brothers’ and Team 17’s efforts in the 1990s, Criterion Games seem to have a knack for taking the best elements of a genre and distilling them. The Burnout series, not really perfected until Burnout 3, took everything good about arcade racers – powerslides, traffic, jumps and turbo – and created a new benchmark.

Black has done the same thing with action shooters. It’s the sort of shooter that Jerry Bruckheimer might make. Big, dumb, loud and fun. It’s no Half-Life in terms of story, most missions are simply a series of flashbacks related through a foggy interrogation but frankly, since I tend to skip most of them anyway, I don’t care.

There are so many flaws in this game and it’s such a clone of others that while playing it I found myself feeling slightly guilty about having so much fun.

The Blurb:

BLACK TAKES YOU DEEP INTO THE WORLD OF THE UNSANCTIONED MILITARY: BEYOND THE ARMY, BEYOND THE LAW, BEYOND CONSEQUENCE.

Your mission: to hunt down those that no-one else can stop, by any means necessary. Let nothing stand in your way. Using incredible destructible environments, real-time Hollywood physics and state-of-the art particle effects, this gun-fest totally redefines the shooter.

Enough about the plot, let’s talk about game mechanics. Firstly, there’s no jump button. This is not unusual, many FPS developers take this shortcut as it strictly limits the scope of a player’s movement, thereby aiding level design. For some reason (irony?) there’s no ‘use’ button either, meaning that every door must be punished to open it. That punishment takes the form of grenades or bullets. There is an example of this in the first room of the first level and it very nearly made me quit in disgust. It’s just one of those things that simply ruins immersion.

The terrorists you pursue in Black have carelessly left behind enough explosives to blow up the moon.

However, getting the player into the thick of things is one thing Black does very, very well. The game can be played either as a run n’ gun or a sneak-em-up but it’s best played when it’s combination of both styles. Treat the level design with some respect and you’ll soon find yourself stalking the maps like a terminator. Criterion has seriously been taking from other FPS’. It has sniping stages (the Docks), capture the flag and hold stages (the Cemetery), full-on assault stages (the Bridge & Wrecker’s Yard), destroy objectives (the Foundry) and shotgun-fest stages (the Asylum).

In fact it is in the gunplay that Black really excels. Think about the street gunfight in the movie, Heat and you’ll have some idea. When enemies can shoot it to bits, cover is transient. Sprinting between cover and firing short bursts becomes standard procedure. It’s action-packed, high-testosterone, gun-totin’ fun.

One of the other things you might notice about Black is the amount of glass. I’ll bet you’ll be amazed at how much glass there could possibly be in one building as it comes showering down around you. Not just the tinkle, tinkle of a few panes but the almighty CRASH, tinkle, tinkle as an entire factory wall of glass blows out. They haven’t quite got it, there are still a few unbreakable things which approximate the smashable degree of glass. But it’s close. Remember that bit in Die Hard where Hans says “Shoot ze glass”? Well there are lots of scenes like that in Black. Sprinting down a glass-lined corridor, enemies firing wildly and panes of glass exploding behind you – jeez, it’s just like the movies!

Which segues nicely into explosions. We’ve seen a few in shooters – barrels in Doom, pipe-bombs in Duke Nukem 3D, a side of a mountain (“Knock, knock” – Halo 2) and they were recently eclipsed by an entire building in Call of Duty 2. Black tops these by the frequency and the rampant destruction it conveys.The terrorists you pursue in Black have carelessly left behind enough explosives to blow up the moon. The addition of glass adds to the experience in a totally ‘destructive’ way. And dealing with your enemies in new-found, destructive ways is what this game is all about.

Playing Black through again on a harder difficulty is worth doing simply for the opportunity to look for new explosive options.

All these FX thrills are very well, but without a decent graphics and physics engine they just wouldn’t work. Once again, Criterion’s Renderware struts its stuff hurling polygons around the screen, filling the air with cordite and dust and lighting everything just right – giving it that grim, industrial look.

Enemy AI is Medium. This means that you can expect them to react to your presence and take cover but you will experience the “Just shot your friend standing two feet away but you carry on inspecting your gun” scenario. Enemies react to distant explosions as you would expect them to – by charging headlong at the source of the explosion. When you’re nameless AI, life’s pretty simple. Long distance AI seems pretty good though, both snipers and rocket-launchers seem to know what they are doing. Especially the rocket-launchers.

It’s action-packed, high-testosterone, gun-totin’ fun.

Black’s shield system is very Halo. You can recover health behind cover which prolongs your life expectancy. Which is good, as Black has followed the current save-game standard in console games – Restarts and Continues. If you die, then continue, you will start at the recent point in the level. If you die, turn off your console and go and do something else (real-life) then Black’s developers smite you – restarting you at the beginning of the level. And on the Hard difficulty, some of the levels are Hard. If you know what I mean.

The mixture of action and objectives has not been blended this well since Rare’s Goldeneye. You may have just wasted forty bad guys but you had a reason – you had to recover some maps.

The lack of multi-player is of concern to some, particularly those internet-enabled, but when the single-player is this good – who cares?

And so it is with much of Black, a tribute to action shooters that almost becomes a parody. It’s like Serious Sam meets Rainbow Six. Black comedy?

A guilty pleasure, I thought it was great. If it took Criterion two games to perfect Burnout, then roll on Black 3.

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