Imagine a First-Person Shooter from the makers of Burnout. Imagine it to be a cross between the high-octane action of their famous racer, the (slightly contrived) plot of 24 and more spent bullets and explosions than your average Steven Seagal box set. You picturing it? Chances are you’re pretty much thinking of Black.
Black’s main strength - and, ironically, probably its greatest weakness - is the pure focus on the extravagant, visceral firefights. Apparently developer Criterion surmised that if we’re not shooting swarms of foes or blowing up vehicles/fuel tanks/buildings continuously, we will be bored - so that is pretty much the name of the game throughout.
You play a black ops soldier (you see where the game name comes from now?) called Jack Bauer - sorry, Jack Kellar, and he is a ‘rogue’ and a ‘maverick’ who doesn’t follow orders but gets results *yawn*. Anyway, the cutscenes are filmed, and it shows Kellar being grilled by a government agent (a bit like The Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files) to explain his actions over the previous four days, where a mission to stop a terrorist called Lennox got completely botched.
“Black’s main strength - and, ironically, probably its greatest weakness - is the pure focus on the extravagant, visceral firefights.”What follows is eight levels of intense gunplay, across a variety of locations such as a woodland border checkpoint, a graveyard, a huge fortified bridge and a dockyard. The levels are generally pretty well designed, and although they are totally linear (with only one or two slight exceptions) the action is well directed, and you certainly shouldn’t find yourself getting bored. The course of progress is rarely any more in depth than following the strict path to the level’s end, but sometimes you’ll have to destroy a door or some sort of daunting barrier blocking your path (like a concrete wall - nothing, ofcourse, a few grenades can’t deal with). There’s also the obligatory planting explosives on certain machinery to scupper the terrorists’ plans. Not particularly inspired, but never less than entertaining.
Graphically, Black is an outstanding effort on the ol’ PS2, and despite a few rough edges is one of the very best looking games on the console. The weapon models in particular are excellent and include an almost fanatical level of detail. It is also brimming with lots of gorgeous special effects, such as dusty lighting (fast becoming a cliché, but still very pretty here), overblown explosions and a very nice out-of-focus effect. The only criticsm I would raise is that some of the floor textures have a tendancy to waver and stutter, which does tarnish an otherwise visually storming game. Criterion has really thrown the development manual at the PS2, and managed to achieve almost unprecedented visuals from technically ancient hardware.
In terms of audio, it is also a very strong performance. The soundtrack is pretty much action-movie quality, and it is co-written by the same chappie who does the music for the TV series Alias and Lost, Michael Giacchino. Usually during the levels there is no music, but it often kicks in when either the level is reaching a climax or a particularly intense action sequence is beginning. The sound effects are awesome - gunshots and explosions sound very authentic (insofar as my complete lack of first-hand knowledge goes, at least) and this is one game which really needs to be played with the sound turned all the way up to eleven to appreciate it.
There is some noticeable character AI, and it’s not half bad, as these things go. Enemies have a commendable knack of finding cover (if they spot you), and if they see you from a distance, often they’ll discretely try to close to within firing range - even if this means following you up a couple of flights in a building. It’s not on the same level as, say, Halo or Half-Life, but is pretty decent all the same. Unfortunately the enemy designs are not quite so interesting - for almost the entire game you’ll be shooting against masked goons, often from a medium to long range, and their design never differs from the camoflage outfit replete with balaclava and/or helmet. Differing weapons and riot shields is about all there is to seperate them, and it does get a bit tiring shooting the same 2000-plus character models for the entire game. For most of the game you’ll also be in the company of one or two fellow US soldiers. Their role is - as always - to basically follow you and provide covering fire while you do all the work. They hang back and aren’t really useful enough in my opinion, but nevertheless it’s nice to have a bit of companionship, and they are far less irritating than comparative squad-mates in Killzone.
“Criterion has really thrown the development manual at the PS2, and managed to achieve almost unprecedented visuals from technically ancient hardware.”If you were up to speed with all the pre-release hype and marketing surrounding Black, you may know it was touted to have all sorts of revolutionary environmental destruction, much like Red Faction similarly boasted several years ago. It’s very impressive from a visual standpoint, but to be honest rarely means anything significant to the gameplay, and is a bit of a white lie given that it’s only very specific buildings or structures that can be damaged. At least Criterion never made all the grandiose promises that Volition did all those years ago (which included altering the flow of liquids through environmental manipulation) - most of which never came to fruition.
Controlling Kellar (why is every other action hero called ‘Jack’ these days?! I blame 24) is pretty hassle-free thanks to some responsive and fluid controls, and you’ll probably not struggle at all due to the DualShock (which many people accuse of not being particularly capable of dealing with FPS). Kellar moves at an appropriate pace and the default aim sensitivity is pretty reliable, both of which are pretty important for me in a FPS. Naturally, in this post-Halo world of games, you can only carry two weapons at any one time and grenades are thrown instantly via a quick press of R2. There’s also the obligatory melee attack, and you can carry up to three medkits (unless you play on Hard mode, where you can’t carry any) which are accessed at any time by pressing down on the D-pad. All in all the controls are as good as you could ask for, and as intuitive as pretty much any other console shooter out there.
Thankfully, one aspect not lifted from Halo is the regenerating health system. Although I appreciate video games don’t tend to be especially realistic, I still have a dislike for games which give you recharging health without plausible justification. Here you’ll find the portable larger medkits scattered around the place, and some enemies drop small white medkits when they die. It helps keep the game moving and is actually a pretty balanced health system.
The weapon selection is pretty extensive and is entirely real-world weapons, all modelled in immaculate detail. All the usual suspects are here such as the Glock 17 pistol, an Uzi, the AK47 or M16 assault rifles, the M79 grenade launcher and the rocket launcher. They all sound hugely dangerous and somehow it’s pretty satisfying in a gunfight when you are expertly handling weapons like this. I’d also like to point out that a lot of artistic licence has been taken with the guns, namely that most automatic weapons have a clip of 60 to 90 rounds - which is great in game terms, but obviously not all that realistic. Still, you won’t question the matter when you’re in a firefight against four enemies, and that large clip saves you from having to do a potentially fatal reload. On weapons where the option is available, you can also switch between semi-auto, burst fire or fully automatic fire mode, which is a nice touch. My only real issue with the weapon lineup is that I feel that a lot of the machine guns are too similar, and because the choice tends to be so extensive it immediately renders a lot of the arsenal obselete - you’d have to be a fool to favour a pistol over, say, an Uzi or MAC-10 Elite, especially given that these two can be silenced, just as the smaller firearms can. Like Cold Winter, although it’s great having a big weapons lineup I feel it could’ve done with more balancing and tweaking, as the odds swing hugely in favour of just a few weapons as it is.
Given the high quality of the sound and music, it’s a shame that the speech can’t help bring things down a little. For a start, the game is littered with profanities which sound rather forced and as though they are simply there for shock value (because swearing makes a game approximately 23% more appealing). Also, the actual delivery of the script is suspect at times. For example, at the beginning of the second mission Kellar is trying to sneak across the border, yet he is literally shouting over his radio to relay his position and strategy of approach. The voice acting isn’t bad, as such, but it just lacks sublety, which seems something of a recurring theme as far as this game is concerned.
A big problem is that with a game as action-packed as this it’s only a while before it starts to become slightly tiresome and repetitive. Entertaining as it can be, because of the intense, concentrated action, I think it’s a good idea to play it one level at time, and try to space it out over a week or so. The problem is compounded by some questionable checkpoint spacing, whereby there’s only one checkpoint per level - usually about halfway through - but due to the length of some levels you will be playing up to 30 or 40 minutes at times without passing the checkpoint. As I’m sure you can understand, this can be very annoying if you keep dying and you have to replay the entire level. Whilst I felt the Normal difficulty was generally pretty well-balanced (despite said checkpoint issues), the game has a horrible tendacy to unleash a couple of RPG troops on you when it wants to make things tricky. They tend to be high up buildings and are generally very elusive - the only clue often being the ominous smoke trail of the projectile. I felt this was a little unfair and smacked of a quick, lazy way to ramp up the difficulty. Also, Kellar cannot jump, and Criterion have taken advantage of this by putting in small steps - I mean literally about two feet tall at points - to prevent you backtracking through the levels. I’m not sure why this decision was made and I appreciate it’s a really small issue to gripe about, but being unable to backtrack or explore at will because your stupid character cannot climb something a bloody hamster could mount is pretty annoying, and somewhat implausible.
Furthermore, it’s a shame that the game doesn’t last a bit longer. You will probably see the ending after six or eight hours’ gametime (difficulty depending), although possibly longer than that ‘off the record’ if you keep dying and having to restart. I think it’s a bit of a shame that there’s not a bit more variety to it - there’s the one stealth level, but it’s actually easier to simply run and gun your enemies, rather than creep around and unsuccessfully try to avoid being seen. The option to perhaps drive a vehicle (which is largely prerequisite of any big FPS these days), or some non-linear levels set in wide-open spaces could work wonders for the pacing and variety here, but I have to clarify that I’m not suggesting that Black isn’t fun as it is - just that a little more variety would only be a good thing.
Strangely for a big-budget, high profile FPS, there is no multiplayer whatsoever. No split-sceen, no online; nothing. While this doesn’t particularly bother me personally (I’m mostly a lone gamer) I appeciate that it’s something of a missed opportunity to extend the game’s lifespan several-fold. They did claim that this was done to put more time and resources into creating an outstanding single-player game, but it’s something of an oversight regardless.
Technically things are pretty good. The surround sound is excellent, and really put to full use. The game has support for 50 and 60hz televisions, and loading is fairly brief, clocking in at about fifteen seconds going into each level. The frame rate is pretty stable, with occasional dips when things get really heated, but nothing that mars the game too much. The physics are decent enough - ragdoll is a mixture of scripted animations and impromptu physics, which works well enough, but doesn’t have the visual appeal of ‘proper’ ragdoll as seen in Cold Winter or Half-Life 2. You can also mess around with environmental physics which works well enough, but it’s not quite as interactive or intuitive as seen in those two just mentioned.
Overall, Black is a good game. It has absolutely superb audiovisual presentation, extravagant and hugely entertaining action and some of the best FPS set-pieces you’ll find on the PS2. It’s a shame the experience doesn’t deliver a little more variety and there are a few minor flaws which bring things down a little, but all in all this is one of the most explosive, entertaining shooters on the PS2. Well worth your time.
Seven out of ten