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.
Merely getting myself in a decent position to return the favour with my sniper rifle was proving problematic, largely thanks to his knack of loosing off just at the point where I was about to take aim. Eventually I struck lucky with my last bullet, only to find that a well-covered machine gun nest was awaiting my arrival around the corner. Dammit.
Other tactics had to be employed.
After a few minutes it became apparent that I'd get a potentially better view if I snuck into the building (handily placed) opposite and ascended the stairs until I could get a good angle on the nest - but that in itself wasn't straightforward, as there remained a concerted enemy presence on every floor. Finally on the top level, it was time to pull out the RPG I'd just acquired and destroy the infernal nest once and for all.
But one thing you realise with BLACK is that it's never as easy as it looks.
Completely unexpectedly, a pair of riot shield-protected, Magnum-wielding guards appeared up the stairs. Not only was this a total shock (having evidently cleared the entire building), it was the worst possible turn of events, given that I was dancing with death on minimum health, and out of regular AK-47 ammo. With the unreliable aim of the shotgun my only respite, and a meagre stock of grenades, Game Over looked certain on at least four occasions before I managed to blow chunks out of their shields and send them back to their maker. Phew.
Then it dawned on me that these guards had actually not just conveniently spawned, but actually sussed out my location from the opposite building and followed me up the stairs to take me down. But before I could take in this improbable event, another two guards repeated the trick 20 seconds later, and suddenly the last great cheating trick of the FPS player - that of hiding from the enemy - was shattered for good.
Ever since the genre came into being, it's always been accepted that retreating to a previously cleared sector offers players a safe haven, but to find out that's no longer the case at such a pivotal part of the level was genuinely palpitating. People talk about games making them scared, but this was the first time in years that anything this unexpected occurred. The only downside about it is that this was the epic final level; that Criterion didn't choose to use the 'hunt them down' trick more is a shame.
In terms of the general enemy AI, it's tough. For the most part it's very much of the 'duck and pop out' variety, but BLACK gets away with it by masking their relative dim-wittery with the sheer weight of numbers. It's not something that you'll dwell on too long, mainly thanks to the distractions offered by the visual spectacle.
Given the team's complete inexperience, BLACK is a remarkably solid first attempt. Perhaps it's this outsiders approach has actually benefited the Guildford-based team, allowing them to take a fresh look at a genre which has - for many years - been stuck in a rut of its own making. Right from the beginning, it's clear that it simply feels right. It has a refined and well-realised weapon selection the encompass all the favourites (with stunning weapon models) from basic pistols right up to RPGs that all pack the right amount of punch (and sound great, too) The controls, meanwhile, hit a happy medium between the graceful fluidity every fast-paced FPS needs and the tightness required for precision aiming on a console pad, with sensible control mappings and the instant realisation that aiming isn't ever going to cause a problem. Even subtle details like the amount of damage you take, the time it takes to finish an enemy off and the ability to fire accurately from distance are well-judged. You have to go a long way to find anything approaching a problem with BLACK, but we don't like to disappoint.
Arguably the exaggerated, lunging death animations take the gloss off an otherwise visually classy game, and some crippling incidences of slowdown give it a somewhat unoptimised feel at time. Throw in some occasional respawning enemy glitches here and there and, again, it's clear the project could have done with a month or two of extra polish.
Given some extra time, BLACK would have been absolutely awesome. For example, the order of the levels is questionable, with the two least interesting being right at the start; levels which barely hint at the stunning quality of what's to come. From first impressions BLACK definitely lacked a real spark, so don't be surprised if it takes a while for the penny to drop.
But some problems mid-game also frustrate. Most memorably, the game has the occasional tendency to neglect to provide players with adequate signposting to your basic objectives. Seemingly impenetrable obstacles, for example, appear impervious, resisting RPG fire yet bizarrely crumbling with a couple of well-placed grenades; something that could have been easily overcome if the person radioing instructions interjected, questioned your movements or gave feedback when things don't work out.
Criterion also could be accused of lacking inspiration when it comes to providing narrative background to why you're on a particular mission, not to mention its dereliction of duty to offering decent, interesting secondary objectives, and - on a related note - gives precious little incentive to actually track down the required items of random tat. Plenty of games down the years have given players the chance to really get under the skin of who you're chasing and why, but Black simply offers little narrative hook of note. As a result, the game lack context, and this missing 'frame' lends hollowness to your actions. Who is Jack? Who are the people you're chasing? What did they do? Why are you there? Instead, all we get is nearly 3000 terrorists to shoot, and as impressive as that is, players deserve more than pure action alone from a blockbuster title. That said, the pre-mission cut-scenes are of the very highest quality, giving a tempting and frustrating hint as to what might have been had Criterion fleshed out BLACK's world with a similarly inspired in-game narrative.
Also, weighing in at just eight levels and a similar number of hours, it's all over before you know it. Short and sweet, for sure, but light in content even by modern gaming standards, with unlockables that amount to little more than the chance to play it on even harder modes. Needless to say, FPS fans the world over also expect - at the very least - some basic deathmatch and CTF multiplayer in any shooter, and online at that. But Criterion risks the wrath of untold number of FPS fans by ignoring one of its most potent features; fans who would otherwise doubtlessly sing the praises of this excellent game.
Thanks to Criterion's otherworldly technical ability to pull off graphical effects that wouldn't look out of place on next gen machines and some truly inspired set-pieces, BLACK is the most progressive and exciting shooter to emerge on the console platforms for years. Even without the chance to play online with foul-mouthed American teenagers (a blessing, some would argue), and a general lack of longevity within the game, it's obvious that BLACK has more than enough going for it in its potent single-player campaign to recommend the game to anyone who believe that happiness is a warm gun.
8 / 10