The current situation in the Middle East being what it is, Black Hawk Down feels a little close to the bone. We were almost uneasy ducking, weaving and racing for cover in NovaLogic's latest Delta Force release, but questionable ethics aside, the real question on every gamer's lips is whether it can rival the other major tactical shooter out in March, Raven Shield. Can it, or is it destined to recoil into the shadows?
The first Delta Force title really impressed some years back, because we hadn't seen anything like it before. Huge, rolling landscapes driven by a voxel-based engine, coupled with simplistic sniper gunnery and seasoned with one-shot-kill dynamics for tension, all came together in a rather engaging package. The series steadily declined over the years, however, and the last we saw of it was the incredibly lacklustre Task Force Dagger.
Obviously prompted by the book and film of the same name, but not borrowing directly from the scenes therein, Black Hawk Down is a vast improvement from the outset. Set in Somalia, the game sometimes accurately portrays the events that occurred in 1993, when the UN entered the country in order to provide aid for the raging famine that was blighting the citizens, in the face of a collapsed government and factional clan power struggles. The UN's job of delivering aid where it was needed was severely crippled by some clans who would attack and loot aid convoys, relying on starving other warring factions as a weapon. The chief problem was one General Aidid and his Mogadishu-based clan Habr Gedir.
Your operations picks up just at the time of the events that give the game its name, when US soldiers were deployed to arrest Aidid and his lieutenants. Two Black Hawk helicopters were brought down during the operation, and 18 soldiers were killed in a battle that stretched the length of the US involvement in Somalia to months. If you've seen the Ridley Scott film, you'll recall the scenes of horrific and tense fighting as troops are constantly pinned down by hundreds of raging Somali footmen, and the game usually depicts this feeling quite accurately.
To start with, the majority of the game looks the part. Most of the time, you're charged with rooftop and ground-based assaults on shantytowns, where the architecture comprises tin boxes and ruined concrete blocks. NovaLogic has actually done a fine job of making this look good as good as it can, and as you swoop in overhead on board a Black Hawk for the first time picking off rooftop enemies with a side-mounted minigun, the experience is actually quite exhilarating.
There are some wonderful special effects at work too, such as the dust kicking up into your face interfering with your vision appropriately, and the water swirling and frothing as your chopper takes you low. Bullets strike and spark off the tin housing, and kick up puffs of sand, and bullet-riddled vehicles explode with convincing cinematic enormity, sending flaming tyres and debris skywards.
Areas that could have done with some work occasionally ruin the experience, however, such as some strange clipping problems where characters end up with limbs through doors, or the floor of a helicopter for example. Also, character models in general could have done with a great deal more work; your troops are low-poly and quite poorly animated, while the hundreds of Somali soldiers - despite being far more favourably animated than their American counterparts, particularly in the death animations - take their form from a stock of about three or four different models which gets very boring, very quickly.
The game's main tactic is to just fling enemy after enemy at you, as the clan members were not the most sophisticated or well trained of soldiers. The AI on show depict as much, and while enemies will occasionally attempt to duck out of the way or find cover, they're usually just happy to run kamikaze-like toward their deaths in the hope that they can overwhelm you with numbers. Sometimes their thinking really does glitch, however, when you catch one standing in a hallway shooting at a wall, or another standing still and staring at you without flinching.
Your teammates are marginally better equipped in the brain department, and will usually follow simple orders issued to them via the SWAT 3-style command menu with efficiency. Occasionally though, they seem to get stuck in a rut of absolutely infuriating inadequacy.
Most of our problems with the team AI all occurred on one mission where it was our job to clear out a garage of enemy foot soldiers. As we cautiously led our team inside, they were so keen to get on with the job that they completely disregarded any thought of being careful, and barged us into the room headfirst whereby we were promptly shot in the face. Reload; try again. We made it into the garage and cleared it out properly this time, and were notified of masses of incoming troops. We take up positions and the enemies start to flood in. Some of them make it into the garage, but our soldiers seemed more interested in staring at them or shooting at either walls or us than the enemy. The number of times we watched a trooper turn around in the middle of combat and slaughter us for no apparent reason was stunning, and at times it ruined an otherwise competent game for us.
Mission types are surprisingly varied, from chopper-to-rooftop assaults and nighttime stealth raids, to air and ground-based vehicular attacks which are like on-rails shooting sections in which you man a mounted machine gun. Usually, one single mission will encompass a mixture of these different dynamics, and it lends the action a very fluid, on-the-fly feel despite a strictly linear progression and a scripted approach to much of the combat.
The feature-packed multiplayer mode doesn't really engage, sadly. It seems as if NovaLogic has concentrated on packing in as many features as they could, when what we really could have done with was their concentrating on developing a decent Counter-Strike-style game and perfecting it. As it stands the various modes on offer serve as a diversion and not a lot more.
After giving the game a decent amount of play, to compare it to something like Raven Shield would be grossly unfair. They're completely different types of game; Raven Shield is one for the hardcore - minutely detailed tactical pornography, so good it has to be bad for you. Black Hawk Down is simply a fun shooter, with mere designs on being squad-based, instead thrusting you into some sort of crazed Rambo role as chief gunner.
While the subject matter itself is indeed not to be taken lightly, Black Hawk Down is in the end a fun and fairly rudimentary shooter. At the start it fools you with its waypoints and its (barely used) command interfaces and stacks of weaponry, but once you get properly stuck into it there's very little that isn't straightforward about it. There are moments of sheer hellish frustration that marred the experience for us somewhat, but the majority of the game is enjoyable, and overall we would have trouble criticising it too much on that basis.
You might not think that we need another first person shooter in our collections, but when such a simple game can be fun, exhilarating, affecting, tense and stressful all at once, you begin to wonder why you ever needed more. It's no Raven Shield, but it's a return to form for NovaLogic.