I hate to pigeonhole Biart, but this independent Russian developer definitely has a type. In the past few years they have announced Fish & Reefs, Reef Aquarium and Underwater Wars. It's clear that this is a company as in love with water-based games as Koei is with ancient Chinese wars. Their newest game, Deep Black: Reloaded, is no exception. It combines the look and feel of Dead Space with the action of Gears of War, drowns them both in water and calls it a day. Too bad I was the one who needed to come up for air.
You play Lieutenant Syrus Pierce, a heavily armored ex-mercenary who happens to look exactly like Isaac from Dead Space. Your job is to break into an underwater facility and rescue the hostages. Along the way you discover that a bio-terrorist organization has nefarious plans that you must stop. Of course, all this amounts to a whole lot of shooting, dying, reloading and more shooting.
The action feels like it was ripped directly from Gears of War, which means that you'll spend most of your time kneeling next to a crate looking for the perfect time to pop up and shoot your opponents. The game's linear level designs force players into a never-ending slew of enemy encounters, all of which play out in exactly the same way. This is a solid foundation for an action game (as proven by Epic), but Deep Black: Reloaded misses the mark every step of the way.
For starters, the enemies take far too much damage. It's one thing to unload an entire clip into one of those Gears of War aliens; they're gigantic bulked-up creatures that look like they would be unfazed by a simple bullet. But here the enemies are guards and soldiers, people that shouldn't require 20 - 30 bullets. Thankfully you'll pick up more powerful guns along the way, but there's always the feeling of imbalance between what the bad guys look like and how strong they seem to be.
It also doesn't help that Syrus Pierce can die in only a matter of seconds. All it takes is one or two well-armed men to quickly take down our hero, so it pays to always stay covered. The problem is that it's not always easy to reach cover in time. Enemies will pop out of nowhere as you push forward into the level, giving you very little time to successfully retreat for cover. There are times when I died while simply turning around, which left me a bad taste in my mouth.
The game's frustration starts early, too. The tutorial tries to teach players how to hack a drone to use against other enemies. On paper that's a great idea, but in practice the drone moves too fast and hacking takes a little too long. This imbalance resulted in me dying a half dozen times in the tutorial. This is only made worse in the actual game, when bad guys will rush our hero giving him little to no time to react. You know you're in for a tough go of it when you die multiple times in a simple tutorial.
The constant dying is only made worse with Deep Black's horrible checkpoint system. It's common to have to fight through wave after wave of enemies multiple times before reaching the next checkpoint. It's especially frustrating because an enemy can pop out of virtually nowhere and kill you almost immediately ... even on the normal difficulty. I found myself replaying a number of cringe-inducing sequences simply because of one guy I missed along the way. These cheap deaths only accentuate the game's negative aspects.
When you're not dying in repetitive firefights, you're underwater swimming through dark caverns and tunnels. Here's where the game should shine, given Biart's penchant for water. But alas, this change of scenery comes with its own set of problems. Swimming is, for the most part, easy to navigate. However, hiding behind walls can be a bit tricky. There's no way for players to shimmy down a wall, so I found myself hiding in spots where my head was visible to the enemies. The only way to fix this is to detach from the wall, swim down a few inches and then try to attach yourself again. Of course, in the time it takes you to do that the enemies have already killed you.
On the other hand, the underwater bits do present a few fun gameplay mechanics. It's a lot of fun to control the enemy drones, assuming you have enough time to hack them. Also, there's something satisfying about harpooning a bad guy on dry land from the bottom of the drink. Unfortunately, a lot of this potential is wasted and most of the swimming stages are completely forgettable.
Some of these problems could have been fixed with interesting weapons and a better story. Sadly, neither of these things happen. You're stuck with a series of generic guns (assault rifle, shotgun, etc.) and a story that goes nowhere in a hurry. Even the grenades are near useless. I found throwing grenades to be hazardous to my health, as simply aiming opens Syrus up to attack. Using the same weapons throughout the game's lengthy story only drilled home how tiring the experience is. I felt like I had seen the whole game after only spending an hour with it.
Thankfully the game looks fantastic. The various worlds are nicely detailed and the water effects are second to none. Then again, for a company so devoted to sea-based games, I would hope the water was spot-on. You'll detect a lack of variety in character models and background textures, but that doesn't bring down the quality of the graphics. On the other hand, Deep Black's voice acting is often painful to listen to. The voice acting is a little off the whole way through, and not in an endearing way. Much like the action, Deep Black's presentation is a mixed bag.
The game allows for both keyboard and gamepad controls. I opted for my wired Xbox 360 controller, though the game felt good with the standard keyboard layout as well. This feels a lot like Gears of War, which is ultimately a compliment. I love the idea of an underwater third-person shooter; I just wish Biart was able to fully deliver on this potential.
Deep Black: Reloaded left me feeling wet and clammy. The non-stop action wore me down quickly and I never felt truly invested in the storyline. I also had a whole host of problems getting the game to run on my computer, though that was resolved after several updates and a Google search. With some tightening and a better checkpoint system this game might be worth checking out, but even then this middling shooter wouldn't be easy to recommend.
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