A Second Look @ Black
(Images taken from EA.com)
Upon its release, Black was labeled as "gun porn," a kind of game with so many guns that it should have been classified as such. It was touted as having cinematic quality gameplay, destructible environments, an award-winning soundtrack, and an engaging story. The world was your playground to blow up as you saw fit. And for the first half of the game, it does this well.
Black puts you in the shoes of Sergeant First Class Jack Keller, who in the opening live-action and proceeding (unskippable) cutscenes is being interrogated while in chains. What unfolds is a story of betrayal, disobeyed orders, and uncovering international terrorist plots. Or something. It is really hard to follow because the story does little to draw the player in. Let's face it: all you really care about is shooting stuff.
As Keller, you and your team are running through a war-torn city in Russia attempting to hunt down the leader of a high-tech and highly-trained terrorist organization. Along the way orders are disobeyed, plots are uncovered, enemies are mowed down, and things are blown up. Its a typical summer blockbuster story held together with duct tape.
The gameplay is as simple as a formula can get for an FPS game: pick up a gun and shoot your way through the levels. Staying undetected isn't needed as it only means you have to shoot less bullets. One drawback is that once enemies know your position they lock on and know where you are even if you approach from a different position. They're less like human AI and more like scared hunting dogs. Their shooting is relentless, never running out of bullets but they lack intelligence, the only way to quickly dispatch them is with a tricky headshot. In this game, you need to aim for the upper part of the head rather than just the whole face. One would think a helmet would be more likely to stop a bullet than someone's nose.
Multiplayer is non-existent and in exchange each map is very large, taking around 45-60 minutes to complete, depending on how you want to play or how many times you die. The total game clocks in around 12 hours. That isn't bad, but when compared to other games of the same era, which some had longer campaigns and multiplayer, its a wonder why the graphics weren't touched up in replacement.
There's no button interference, no jumping or sprinting, which makes backtracking a boring task. The ability to screw on a silencer to some weapons is mapped to one of the face buttons. You can look down the scopes, reload, melee, and crouch. The usual. There are a lot of objects littered throughout the levels and all of them can be destroyed, meaning you'll be hard pressed to find cover in a SNAFU.
The orchestral soundtrack is a great one and lends itself well to the environments and the overall mood. On the Xbox, you can switch it out for a custom soundtrack so you can feel free to blast away enemies with whatever tunes you fancy.
Since the guns are the main attractions, the attention to sound detail is perfect. Each gun has its own unique and powerful sound. There is honestly nothing quite like letting loose with an M249 machine gun against a small horde of oncoming enemies.
The voice acting is awfully dry and doesn't show any emotion behind the acting. The cutscenes are the same way. Any talking is just ignorable at best.
The level designs range from several bombed-out cities, to a bridge, and finally a jail. Its not much and its not impressive at all. The "destructible" environments include anything from cars, crates, pillars, gas tanks, a few walls, and red barrels. The game rarely gets intense and the best moments usually come from a large explosion. You never feel above the enemies, you are just as easily taken down as they are. Some levels can be a bit confusing to navigate since it never directly tells you where to go. Sometimes you just have to hunt for the way yourself. You will also find yourself stuck on more than one invisible wall several times throughout each level. You can't just walk off the sides of stairs, the only times you can fall is from certain areas, otherwise there's an invisible wall to protect you.
All this serves as a distraction from what the game really is: a shallow FPS that was caught up in the hype of the genre at the time. Linear levels, poor AI, a typical selection of guns, and a poor story to hold it all together. What it has is a long, narrow-minded, even ignorable story, repetitive gameplay, a meager selection of guns, and the type of brooding similar to an emo teenager: its just a phase, and once you're halfway through this game you'll want to move on to something else. Gathering all the intel throughout the game unlocks nothing more than the requirements to advance to the next level in hard and black ops modes. They serve no purpose in the story and generally don't matter to the overall package. The end of the game comes abruptly with a cutscene and the credits roll. That's it.
There's no multiplayer, and the short campaign will either leave you wanting more or a deep feeling of disappointment. The back of the box says to "Get creative with your kills." The problem with that statement is that there is little creativity to be had.
There is no "wow factor." Even reloading takes away from the game as it seems to put an emphasis on it. The background blurs and Keller takes his sweet time to do it right. This becomes a major problem when in the middle of a firefight, instead of focusing your reticule dot on the next target, you can no longer see them because it wants you to pay attention to the action of reloading the gun. It's embarrassing.
Its not "full" of anything, even itself. It never has moments where its confident in what its doing. It doesn't do much to draw the player in to its world of shady black operations. If I could at least say one good thing about Black is that it sticks to its guns, literally. Every enemy drops a weapon that you can collect so you're never close to running out of ammo. It tries, but at the turn of the hardware cycle, trying wasn't enough. More weapon selections, more areas, a more detailed storyline, and a bigger emphasis on play style is what would have made this a great game.
If you're a fan of the run-and-gun FPS genre then Black deserves at least one playthrough. You can find it either on the original Xbox or PS2 for cheap or as a downloadable "Xbox Original" on the XBLA for $10. Despite all this it, its not hard to justify as a purchase for anyone else. Its a good, solid action game with long levels, amazing sound quality, and steady gameplay. It is definitely worth at least one playthrough.