This Sunday's opinionated retro rant is about Black, the Criterion-built shooter that graced the last generation of consoles towards the end of their shelf life. During the following, somewhat feverish discussion of its impact, or tragic lack of impact, at no point shall we mention that a game released in 2006 cannot be considered retro.
Anyway, Black was awesome. I genuinely consider it the best shooter I ever played on Xbox, and yes, Eurogamer friends, better than Halo. For those who missed out, it was the story of... I can't remember actually. You were a bloke, and you were in Eastern Europe crossing the borders of made up foreign countries. And there were bad men, who were foreign since they often called grenades 'grenada!' before they were killed. I have no idea whatsoever why they were deemed bad men, or why they were trying to kill me. What makes this worse is that I only replayed Black this morning. Here, a mere two paragraphs in, we hit upon one of Black's three Achilles heels. (Achilles, in this performance, being played by a stool.)
Not only was Black's story incomprehensible, it was told in achingly dull inter-mission cut-scenes consisting of a cross general, a grumpy hero, a ceiling fan and about fifteen different puffs of cigarette smoke taken from six separate angles. The idea was that the hero was retelling a tale in which he had shot three hundred people in the head and watched them jump over balconies in response.
Because said tale was told in these mammoth and unskippable cut-scenes, it was certainly my reaction, and presumably that of the world at large, to get up to make a cup of tea and eat a biscuit whenever one came on. Sometimes I'd even have time to start and finish an argument with my girlfriend before the game's stockpile of jarring camera angles and waved secret documents had run out and deposited the hero back into EuroCzechoRussistan.
Compounding this problem, Black on anything higher than the normal difficulty rating was an absolute brick wall of bastard-hardness. It's a game that to this day I still feel was impossible to complete. When everyone was complaining about the short eight-hour run-time (itself a slightly comical criticism in these days of Wanted: Weapons of Fate), I simply couldn't understand it. I devoted two hours a night for two weeks trying to complete the last level and yet never ever managed it. The save system had it that there would be perhaps one or two save-points mid-mission, and on the harder difficulty level you couldn't carry healthpacks. My every evening was spent hiding and whimpering.
Thing is, I love hiding and whimpering more than anyone I know. There's nothing on earth that I love more than a shonky save-game system - the feeling of elation I used to get when taking out two or three enemies in Black when I only had a ribbon of health-bar between survival and progress-munching calamity was astonishing. It's the same reason I loved the original Far Cry so dearly - I believe that the quicksave and the checkpoint autosave have effectively robbed the modern shooter of true tension.
Sure, people get frustrated easily these days - but games increasingly get made to service the attention span of the lowest common denominator. True satisfaction only comes through hard graft, and I'd like to imagine that if I had ever completed Black it would have, in the words of Trainspotting, 'beaten any [CENSORED] in the world'. I'm reliably informed by someone who used to work at Criterion that this would not have been the case, and that in actual fact I would have been very angry - but still, the dream has never died.
Black's third Achilles heel was a lack of multiplayer. A fourth heel that I've just thought about would probably be its insistence that you kept on finding stuff like the blueprints of the Pentagon, terrorist plans to infiltrate the CIA and compromising pictures of the Queen doing a handstand in Eastern European stables. But I've now got myself too excited to bang on too much about such matters. Because not only was Black's technology utterly astounding, and still able to look the next-gen behemoths straight in the face without flinching, but the level design was immaculate.
The early levels were a bit duff, but whoever came up with the idea of blending degradable cover with a gigantic graveyard should be awarded so many medals that they can't walk. Hiding behind the headstones under a barrage of sniper fire with chunks of masonry falling around me will forever remain one of my favourite FPS moments. Likewise the Sniper Alley gunfight in the scrapyard, clearing up in the outhouses that surround the farmhouse, or any of the stuff in the asylum and the dockyards. Everywhere felt so real and so hard-edged that I fell in love with it.
Likewise the lack of a map, or a constant flashing 'go here next' marker, meant that levels - some of them designed to feel commendably non-linear - had to rely on the nous of the level designer and the encouragement of exploration to guide you through them. Remember exploration in shooters? That used to be brilliant. (In this glib statement I am ignoring both Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3. And S.T.A.L.K.E.R.).
Without wanting to be too brutal about it, Black also inspires (or at least inspired in me) the kind of bloodlust that curls your top lip, disables your profanity filter and has you shouting blue murder even when the living room window is open. Taking out its white-masked shotgun guys, with the statutory two blasts to the chest that the game demands, cannot help but elicit a bellowed victory howl - while any near-miss from a smoke-tailed rocket launcher provokes a yelp just as obscene as any only-just-prevented crash in the Burnout series.
The destruction and the explosions may have been matched and bettered since, but the simple feeling of feathering the right trigger to ensure a consistent rate of fire to an enemy's cranium with such an excellently built range of weaponry honestly hasn't. If you have any Microsoft Points floating around then it's honestly more than worth a purchase from the Xbox Originals service.
Black deserves a sequel, but seeing as things have been so quiet on that front for so long, bar the occasional rumour, it's hard to get your hopes up. Black had its failings, there's no doubt about it. It showed more than a little hubris in its conviction that every bugger gave a toss about two men blowing smoke rings into each other's mouths between every level, and those going into it merely wanting a challenge were instead presented with an act still considered illegal some of the more conservative world nations.
What it also did though, if I can get a little flag-wavey for a moment, was demonstrate that British developers could make Hollywood-style first-person set-pieces that were up there with the very best. Well, one British developer could. With all due respect to the TimeSplitters series, sometimes you need more than monkeys - no matter how great monkeys are.
Black, if you are out there somewhere: come home. We miss you. It's fine about the cut-scenes, you can have as many of them as you want. With two ceiling fans. No - three! Three of them. And an angry general waving secret documents in someone's just-breathed-out smoke in the slowest motion that science can muster. Anything. You can have anything. Just please come home. Ignore the people in the thread below that say you weren't as good as I say you were. All is forgiven. Please come home.
Black is still available for PS2 (probably on eBay) or as an Xbox Original for an amount of money that you clearly don't need, whatever your girlfriend/wife/mother/personal conviction says otherwise.