XBOX REVIEW: BLACK

The expended ammo shells on the box aren't just there for show; it's a hint of things to come. by Vaughn Smith

Please click here to read our other Black Review

March 27, 2006 - Criterion and I go way back, even though I don't know any of the men and women personally who comprise one of the UK's most talented development teams. I was impressed by what they pulled off visually with the Dreamcast's TrickStyle and Suzuki Alstare Racing, and I seem to be one of the only critics who thoroughly enjoyed the maturation of their hoverboard fascination with 2001's AirBlade for the PS2. I think Criterion would agree that they took some lumps from the gaming press in their early days, but the debut of Burnout shut a lot of mouths and instantly made fans of those who had slagged their earlier creations. Even if the fast-paced arcade nature of Burnout may not be your "cup of nitro", you can't argue that Criterion knows a thing or two about kick ass programming. The sales of the Burnout series is a testament that they know what they're doing. Rather than rest on their laurels, Criterion decided to shake things up a bit and jump headfirst into a genre that they had never attempted and Black, their first person shooter available exclusively for the PS2 and Xbox is that lovechild. But is Black a blond, blue eyed poster boy of fun or the red-headed demon stepchild of the gaming world? Read on.

As Black op agent Keller, you are given not only a license to kill, but a license to shoot absolutely everything. That's seriously about all of the back story you're going to need. Once the level starts, shoot everything that moves until the level is complete. But before you think this is a run and gun no-brainer; think again. Running and gunning, even on the Easy level will result in getting you sent back to the "Restart Mission" screen before you can say "What the!". Black provides cover for a reason and you're best to take it every chance you can. However, that cover won't be there for ever - cough! campers cough! - because the enemy will systematically destroy your cover whether you're seeking refuge behind a box, car, stone pillar, wall etc. Luckily you can return the favor. With its lack of mission midway save points, Black cannot be considered an easy game (unless you're playing on easy, and even then I think some gamers would argue that it's too hard). While some levels bless you with a half way point, others do not - and those are long and hard. You will definitely experience playing a level for 30-45 minutes, perhaps longer, only to have your life end due to a careless maneuver. I won't lie to you and pretend that when it happened to me, I was happy about it. I was pissed off. And I was even more annoyed and frustrated when it happened 6 more times. But I still kept coming back for more because Black is definitely infectious. Black does suffer from giving it all to you from the word go, so there isn't the level of surprise awaiting you, but it's still an entertaining albeit frustrating at times romp.

Part of Black's charm is the non-linear fashion of the levels - often times there are a few ways to arrive at the exit and depending on which way you take, the level can be easier or harder. The game only allows you to carry two firearms simultaneously, but you can swap weapons from downed enemies when you come upon them, and come upon them you will. There are no shortage of enemies waiting to blow you away in Black and on Normal and up, the relentless pursuit of these bad dudes will drain on your very will to live. If the saying "It's not over until the fat lady sings" was retooled for Black, it would become "It's not over until every magically spawning AI drone is blown away". The AI in Black ranges from semi-dumb to really dumb. Sure they'll hide behind the odd thing and jump away from grenades tossed in their general direction (the grenade toss is a huge disappointment since it's like a girly throw!) but most of the time they will stand in the open shooting at you - or at the very least, poke their noggins up to give you ample time to plug 'em betwixt the eyes. I found on Easy and Normal I could take many enemies out with a melee bash to the head and save on ammo, but you won't get away with that nonsense on harder difficulties. Criterion supplies you with the tools to be stealthy - suppresors for your guns and the ability to crouch and walk (no prone stance however which would allow you to lie flat on the ground) and these seem to work off and on. Sometimes you'll be able to walk right up to the back of enemy and take 'em out while other times your gun fire will tip off enemies to your exact location even if they haven't "seen" you. You'll find that in many instances in Black, the evil empire will have innate sense of exactly where you are, even if you've been careful to be stealthy.

Unfortunately there are many holes in the AI scripting of your enemies which Criterion attempted to compensate for by making more enemies for you to deal with, hoping that their sheer numbers would provide a challenge. Yes, it worked. Black is extremely challenging, but only because you're always outnumbered. If there had been smarter AI, it would have made Black far more interesting in the long run. For example if you shoot an enemy in the head with a suppresed gun, his buddy standing next to him won't do anything. If you shoot out windows and don't hit your target, they may not be alerted to your presence. To further compensate for the lack of brain power, Criterion outfitted the enemy with bullet-resistant armor. You won't be believe how much abuse some of these dudes can withstand. These guys are seriously protected. I've never heard of a kevlar jockstrap before but apparently they are evil empire standard issue.

Much of Black's action-packed gameplay comes in the form of destructable environments. Everything you shoot will either blow apart or at least leave an impression of a bullethole or evidence of structural impact. The ability to systematically remove the enemies cover is what gives the game its "oomph" factor. If you use your imagination you'll be able to even the odds with a few well placed shots that remove a few enemies at a time from the equation. Of course, the evil empire loves to crowd around vehicles with full tanks of gas and barrels of flammable liquid, which makes it all the more fun to dispel them. Turnabout is fair play and you'll also find that the fence, barrel, table, stone pillar or crate you've been seeking refuge behind is also crumbling with destructive force, eventually leaving you nowhere to hide. Black also passed my "blow out the lights" litmus test. If I'm playing a stealth game, I want to be able to extinguish the light sources if I'm sneaking into a place whether the AI is programmed to react or not. In the instances where the lights aren't protected by a grate feel free to shoot them out. Thanks Criterion. I like those realistic touches.

Considering Criterion hasn't created a FPS before, you'd never tell by playing Black. Controlling your characters movement while shooting is as smooth as flying down the highway at top speed in Burnout Revenge. The only complaint I can level at the control is the automatic blurring effect when reloading. It's a cool effect, I'm not arguing about that, but it's not so cool when you're in the middle of a firefight and you auto reload and for a few seconds you can't see anything. It's more than a little disorienting. That's more of a visual complaint than a control issue, but it does hinder gameplay and can definitely mean the difference between life and the restart mission screen. One thing I'm not crazy about it is the height of the character or more accurately, the height of your weapon. There doesn't seem to be much difference between the standing and crouching height. In some cases it looks like your character must be the size of Vernon Troyer (aka Mini Me in the Austin Powers movies).

I don't think Criterion has ever made a bad looking game. Even going back into their roster of projects from yesteryear such as TrickStyle and Airblade, Criterion has always pushed the envelope graphically and Black continues that tradition. The game looks hot on both Xbox and PS2. Am I annoyed that I can't play it on my Xbox 360? Yeah, but to be honest, the game looks so great on the current gen consoles that it's really only a minor complaint. In fact it's games like Black that allow gamers to say "See? There's no reason to go next gen yet...look at Black." Plus you can't argue with capitalism. What would you do? Make a kick ass game for a new system with a small installed base or a kick ass game for the two hottest systems available with an installed base of tens of millions of gamers? If you said the former, you're an idiot. A poor idiot with no sense of how to make cash. Black's live action cutscenes which expand on your character's (agent Keller) plight to stop the Seventh Wave are simply all right and fall into caricature pretty quick.

Not only is Black a visual dynamo but the soundtrack is out of this world. I'm not sure who wrote the soundtrack but it's performed by a Hollywood orchestra and the quality is instantly apparent. The other audio portions such as sound effects (gunfire, explosions etc) are done as well, but the radio transmissions you receive in battle are annoying and far too loud. In fact, they are so loud that I was thinking that's exactly what was giving away my position. How could they not? Turn that bloody thing down!

With no multi-player modes, replay value is a little low compared to most FPS releases these days, but if you take into consideration the non-linear paths and uber-challenge of the harder difficulties, those who enjoy what Black had to offer the first time around will like experimenting the second and third time. Black does suffer from playing all of its cards early in the game, in effect, giving you not a lot to look forward to in later stages except for more enemies and new surroundings. Once you've played the first level you've experienced all of what Black has to offer. That's not to say it isn't entertaining, perhaps just slightly disappointing. You certainly can't complain about the lack of action which requires a fair amount of patience, strategy and even luck. I'm definitely willing to cut Criterion some slack as this is their first attempt at a FPS and they've shown that they've got what it takes. I hope they're given further opportunity in the future to expand on Black and turn it into a franchise equally as successful as Burnout. I know I'll be in line to buy the sequel.

Features:

  • Overt Action BLACK operatives do not hide in shadows or sneak behind walls waiting for the right time to engage their foe. They destroy the wall, the enemy, and anything else that gets in their way.
  • The Guns Are the Stars: An explosive arsenal of bleeding-edge weaponry lets you experience the awe-inspiring power of the world's most exotic lethal firepower.
  • If You Can See It, You Can Shoot It
  • Reduce cities to rubble in a world where virtually nothing is impervious to your bullets.
  • Get Your Blood Pumping: Adrenaline is your friend. Visceral, destructive action sucks you deep into the gameplay as you blaze and blast your own path through open-ended environments.
  • BLACK-Style Kills: Use destructible worlds and explosive objects to take out enemies in cover, frag multiple enemies at once, or just wreak massive destruction for its own sake.

By Vaughn Smith
CCC Site Director

Rating out of 5
Black (Xbox)
4.6
Graphics
Serious graphic muscle. Everything looks great and blows up real good. I could do without the fancy "blurring" effect when you reload as it makes you vulnerable to attack.
4.5
Control
Virtually flawless in the control department. You'd be hard pressed to tell this is Criterion's first FPS.
5.0
Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is fantastic. Spy-tinged tunes with a hint of vibrato flute? Love it. The telecommunications broadcasts are too loud and obnoxious. Gunfire and explosion make up for that.
3.0
Play Value
Black loses points for lack of multiplayer, although the 4 difficulty levels and non-linear stages offset this. Co-op play would have been fun too.
4.1
Overall Rating - Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.
 
Click For Media
System: PS2 (shown), X
Dev: Criterion
Pub: EA
Release: Feb 2006
Players: 1
Review by Vaughn

Review Rating Legend
1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid
2.0 - 2.4 = Poor
2.5 - 2.9 = Average
3.0 - 3.4 = Fair
3.5 - 3.9 = Good
4.0 - 4.4 = Great
4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy
5.0 = The Best