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Retrospective: Black

None so.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

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.