Black is the much-hyped new title from Criterion Games, the maker of the popular Burnout series. Trading fast cars for loud guns, Criterion has decided to put their own touches on the popular first-person shooter genre. But despite some amazing graphics, some of the best sound you will hear on your Xbox and a whole lot of over-the-top action, Black ends up falling just short of the greatness we've seen in their other products.
On the surface it may look like Black is a major departure from the Burnout games, but as you play through this game you will notice that the two products share more than a few similarities. For one thing, they are both about fast-paced action and split-second decisions; there isn't a lot of time for planning ahead, this is balls-to-the-wall action like you've never seen it before.
Black's inspirations were not other first-person shooters, but rather movies like the Terminator, Commando and Die Hard. From the moment you start playing this game you will be amazed by all of the bullets flying around and the explosions going off. This isn't your usual first-person shooter, this amps up all of the excitement as if Hollywood has taken over and aren't going to settle for just a few bombs going off. Nearly every can, car and box are destructible, and a good deal of the game's landmarks and backgrounds can be damaged in one form or another. This may be March, but Black has "summer movie" written all over it.
The emphasis here is on the guns, all of which look and sound stunning. Black is certainly not the first game to offer a variety of guns, but it's clear from the get-go that the developers did what they could to make each of them feel unique and special. You can only hold two weapons at a time, so you're constantly forced to choose between your favorites (or the two guns you feel would be the most useful for any given level). For the most part you've seen all of these weapons before in other first-person shooters, but the gunplay in Black is rewarding and fun … for awhile.
You play Keller, the action hero-type who starts out the story being interrogated by some government worker. The cinemas are all done in full-motion video, something you almost never see in a game of this type. You get a new cut scene before each of the eight levels, each filling in just enough of the back story to keep you wanting to know more. Employing all kinds of quick edits, artificial close-ups and stock photographs, these sequences are definitely unique. Some may dislike how disorienting the editing is, but they are certainly interesting and keep you guessing.
The eight levels you play in Black are all part of Keller's story, flashbacks to these exciting battles that had him attempting to take out arms-dealing terrorists and its leader, Lennox. Through some twists, a few turns and a whole lot of spy-talk, you start to realize that the mission is becoming personal and that everybody views themselves has freedom fighters. Or something like that, the story is a little murky and doesn't make a whole lot of sense by the time you get done with it.
All you need the story for is to set up the eight levels, each taking you to completely different locations full of new areas to destroy. Be it a forest next to a border, a graveyard, the docks, or, my favorite, a blown up bridge, Black is a virtual tour of sad and gloomy locations full of guys just looking to kill you. Each of the levels have a different feel to them and Criterion has given all eight their own unique touches. None of the game's designs seem very practical, but looking at it from an action movie point of view, all of these locations feel like what you would get out of your average 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick.
Black's big gimmick is that almost everything that lines the environment can be destroyed in one way or another. To hammer this point home Criterion has placed most of the enemies right next to things that can be blown up, leading to easy kills and a painless experience. All throughout the game the bad guys seem to be drawn to cars and boxes that are just waiting to be blown up, making a big chunk of this game entirely too easy. You will still need to engage enemies one on one with your weapons, but most of the baddies found in this game can be taken out by the environment if you use it to your advantage.
This brings me to one of the biggest problems with Black, the game's AI is terribly dumb, to the point where enemies will hardly notice when you kill their co-workers. Don't get me wrong, some of them put up a good fight, but for the most part you can have your controller unplugged and still outsmart them. Perhaps this goes without saying, but these enemies are pretty predictable too, taking some of the tension out of the intense fire fights. And for whatever reason, you're really only fighting a couple of different foes; the only variation is that some of them wear protective masks.
Despite there only being a couple of different look enemies, it should be said that they look fantastic. In fact, the entire game is just phenomenal looking. With all of the chaos unfolding on screen, explosions rocketing into the sky, and bullets whizzing by you might think this is a first generation Xbox 360 title, but it's just a good developer getting the most out of the outdated hardware. Every single level is fantastic looking, each with their own cool lighting effects and destructible landmarks. This game really pushes the Xbox to the limits, if there's one thing you won't be disappointed by it's the amazing visuals.
And you won't be complaining about the sound, either. Black has some of the best audio I have heard in any first-person shooter, regardless of the console. The sound effects in Black are straight out of the movies, each one a dynamic sound that cuts through the appropriate background music. Best of all, each of the guns has its own sound, all more impressive than the last. This is a real treat to the ears, and even better if you have your Xbox hooked up through a nice surround sound set-up. Even the music sounds like it comes straight out of a Michael Bay movie, pumping you up rush into a big group of bad guys and kill them all while yelling unintelligible gibberish. Hey, if Sylvester Stallone can do it then why not you?
Sadly, while the attention was going to the games presentation one aspect that was completely overlooked was the gameplay. Black has just about the most basic control schemes of all time, offering little more than shoot, reload, and crouch. You can't jump, you don't really open doors (you blow them up) and you can forget about climbing, this game is as basic as they come. In a lot of ways the control set-up reminds me a lot of first-person shooters from years ago, before Half-Life and Halo had their effect. It may look like a next generation game, but the controls are strictly old school.
These days it's rare to find a first-person shooter without any kind of multi-player component, but Black isn't afraid to stand alone and be that one game that is single-player only. Criterion has always contended that they wanted to focus on Black's campaign, making it the best it could be. But with only eight levels most fans of the genre shouldn't have trouble beating it in around eight hours. With nothing more to do than beat the game again on the other difficulty levels some may find Black lacks depth. Usually this sort of problem is rectified with a fun multi-player mode, but not Black. Black stands alone as a short game with limited replay.
A short story and limited replay can usually be forgiven if what you're experiencing is at least interesting. The action and explosions found in Black are great … for about the first three levels. Since the missions rarely deviate from you rushing to a bunch of enemies and killing them you might get bored of the game's limited scope. There are no puzzles to speak of and with bad guys pointing you where to go it's almost impossible to get lost; this story is straight-up action almost to a fault.
And then it all ends. There's no notice, no peak in the story, it just ends. Abruptly. And not only do the credits roll far too early, but the ending may make you angry you played the game at all. I won't spoil anything, but you would be hard pressed to find a more disappointing ending to a video game, it's almost a slap in the face.
Black is hurt by its simple game play, short story and crummy ending, but that doesn't mean it's not worth experiencing at least once. With no multi-player features it's hard to recommend Black as a purchase, but if you're looking for a game that will turn your weekend into two days of action-packed bliss, then you can't go wrong with Black. The style is there, but Criterion Games forgot to provide the substance … see, it really is like a Hollywood summer blockbuster.
With its amazing production values and stunning visuals Black makes a great first impression. But dig a little deeper and you'll find that Criterion Games' newest first-person shooter is short, shallow, and kind of boring.