Version tested PlayStation 2
As Nigel Tufnall so memorably uttered in the legendary Spinal Tap 'rockumentary' "It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black."
He wasn't, of course, referring to Criterion's manic first-person shooter, but it's likely he'd have given the same deadpan assessment all the same. He'd have also reasoned that this one most definitely goes up to eleven.
But BLACK rarely needs that 'extra push over the cliff', because for most of the eight hours (or so) it lasts, the needle is throbbing so far into the red that you'd swear your humble, ageing games console is in danger of melting at any moment. No word of a lie, but at about 5pm on Monday there was a power surge in the office during a particularly intense part of the fifth level.
The war on terror continues
Don't believe me? Then how about some endgame stats: total enemy count: 2758. Total bullets fired: 40,650, or - put it another way - 14.7 bullets per death. Let's see, over the course of approximately 8 hours, that's nearly six DPM (deaths per minute), or one death every ten seconds. And when you consider that a fair bit of your time is spent scouring for health and ammo, you begin to get a sense of how hectic this game really is. During the more crazed sections the body count is probably closer to three kills every ten seconds, and by the end of it all you'll need to change your shirt in all probability.
Creating an FPS focused firmly on frenzied shooting was always the plan, though. To do for the shooter what Burnout did for the racing genre. To strip it down to its "bare bones" and create "the most intense firefights ever seen in a videogame" using "Hollywood as its inspiration". You can't argue with any of it, because virtually from the word go BLACK sets its stall out, and there's never any turning back. If anything, the heat just keeps on rising, right up until the point where you almost can't stand the pressure anymore. This is definitely a game to be played in short, sharp bursts, such is its almost raging intensity.
Remember that hectic section in the prison in the middle of Half-Life 2 where you had to arrange the little sentry guns to help you annihilate wave upon wave of oncoming Combine forces? Well imagine that level of onslaught for the entire game (without alien allies), and set among the most destructive, explosive environments you've ever seen (on any platform). And with deadly armour-clad enemies that bother to traverse sections of the map to hunt you down. And an evil checkpoint system that heaps more pressure upon you than you'll have experienced in a shooter for a long, long while.
Jack of all trades, master of guns
Regaled in pleasingly stylish (but achingly earnest) flashback, the premise is that you're Sergeant First Class Jack Keller (why is every other lead male in a videogame called Jack these days?) sent into the heart of generic, fictional Eastern Europe to track down a 'traitor'. He has a 'squad' (of sorts) occasionally accompanying him on this increasingly misguided mission, but for the most part it's just you versus an entire army of trigger happy goons, all too willing to die for their 'cause' and provide you with an almost comedic parade to mow down.
Mercifully, the cinematics firmly take a back seat to the exceptionally explosive action, and the player is given full licence to get on with blowing the crap out of anything that looks remotely flammable. Did we mention explosions? In what amounts to one of the most unwise set of locations for terrorists to ever consider hanging out, you're given an insane number of opportunities to engage in gratuitous pyrotechnics, with seemingly everything on show capable of causing flaming death to any bystanders.
Once this becomes apparent, half the fun comes from checking out what else can be combusted to spectacular effect. Along your journey of death you'll delight in detonating a procession of barrels, tankers, and pipes, ecstatically explode a fleet of cars, land mines and even smelting vats. Basically anything that looks slightly precarious is fair game, giving you almost unlimited opportunities to catch your increasingly determined foes in the blast radius. Now and then you'll even get the odd level-specific signature explosion, whereby specific parts of buildings can be destroyed to devastating effect - the sort that EA sticks in its promotional videos to make it look like every building's capable of collapsing like a pack of cards.
In a predictable act of sensible game design (that smacks a little of the GeoMod fiasco, except Criterion never made the silly promises that Volition did) you only get to destroy things that don't undermine the fabric of the level, so sometimes you will get a little exasperated at the inconsistency when certain seemingly ideal targets remain intact to explosive fire, but by and large BLACK will sate the most intense appetite for destruction.
Played within its simple rules, BLACK quickly distances itself from the generic FPS herd by sticking to its refined principle of making it genuinely possible to have fun shooting up an empty room. There's so much stuff to destroy in the scenery alone, the enemies almost become a side show; something to temporarily hold you back from completely wrecking the next section.
Evidently, one of the key inspirations that runs throughout the entire experience is the legendary lobby scene in The Matrix, where a pristine corporate hall is gradually reduced to the bare metal supports as a blizzard of lead shreds the tiles, glass and concrete asunder during one of the most memorable movie firefights ever. Essentially, Criterion took that one central idea and applied it to everything you see in the game, making it possible to reduce even the most perfunctory room into a scene from a riot.
Factor in some of the most advanced particle effects you've ever seen, and what would have otherwise been a typical firefight in a boring grey room is suddenly alive with sparks, debris, smoke, explosions, and utter confusion as you try and get a bead on the faint silhouette that's raining death on your from behind makeshift cover - cover that you could probably blow to bits if only you could see that there was a handy barrel located nearby. In some senses BLACK does nothing new, but with such a giant leap in visual ambition and quality, suddenly the whole experience of engaging in intense firefights becomes utterly unique in so many ways that matter. What you leave behind after a particularly testing encounter can't fail to leave a crooked smile etched over your tormented features, especially when you know there's so much more to come.
Criterion not only makes the visual experience unlike anything you've encountered, but also makes the core combat a determinedly brutal affair that'll test the best in ways that even FPS veterans will be forced to admire. For a start, removing the tension-killer that is the quick-save immediately removes the stabilisers, and forces players to approach firefights in a perpetually level-headed manner, removing the gung-ho nature that tends to creep into most shooters that allow you to store your progress after each and every kill. Instead, BLACK resolutely believes that players should prove their worth across extended sections before they're deserving of the luxury of a checkpoint. In the beginning, this is jarring. Irritating, even; after all, no-one likes having to endlessly go over old ground. But the further you progress, the more you're thankful that the developer forces the player to experience the game holistically, rather than broken up by perpetual visits to the save menu. By the end of the game, you'll most likely recall those tense moments when you were forced to scuttle off in search of precious health packs and first aid kits, clinging on for dear life with merely the cold comfort offered by two slivers of recharging health.
The most terrifyingly memorable moment for me in the entire game came at exactly one of those occasions. Having had my hide thoroughly tanned by an uncannily accurate RPG-wielding foe stationed up in a faraway balcony that I could barely see, I was squealing like a little hog, hopping from behind cover points and still getting caned by the splash damage.