Before development even started on BLACK, the team at Criterion came to the conclusion that they were going to mimic the most blast-happy Hollywood blockbusters with their new first-person shooter. By all accounts, they’ve succeeded in that goal. BLACK has big guns and bigger explosions. Loud booms and louder firefights. Lifeless enemies whose bodies fly a dozen feet in the air and bad guys who careen from catwalks with all the grace of a professional stuntman. But a funny thing happened on the way to their blockbuster: Criterion forgot to make a game that was actually fun to play.
Don’t get me wrong, BLACK has its redeeming qualities. As you read in our preview, the team wanted to let players “explore the world with bullets,” and the final game lets you do that with such a destructive streak that it’s hard not to laugh out loud and grin sadistically while blowing an enemy stronghold to kingdom come. But much like the Hollywood action films Criterion was trying to emulate, just because there are big battles in BLACK doesn’t mean the final product is all that compelling.
BLACK definitely has a narrative, and it’s actually a rather good one. As a member of a black-ops team, you work your way through a series of flashbacks as your cutscene counterpart explains his actions to the lone government official who can save him from spending the rest of his life in prison. Criterion is clearly proud of its story, because there’s no way to skip the between-level cutscenes, but when the presentation is this Hollywood-esque, it’s easy to forgive the level-loading trick. But once the cutscene ends and you’re actually playing each level, it’s painfully obvious that BLACK is Criterion’s debut first-person shooter.
Without a doubt, BLACK is a great first outing for a developer experimenting with a genre. But when that first outing happens to appear in the most popular videogame genre, its shortcomings stand out like a bright red fuel tank next to a moonlit tent. For instance, the enemy intelligence is to a large extent non-existent, as foes will somehow fail to hear grenades exploding 20 feet away from them, and although they are quick to take cover, once they emerge from their shelter they somehow forget where you were. The guns, too, are relatively ineffective, as it takes 18 (or more) point-blank shots from an AK-47 to drop someone. I realize BLACK is all about mass destruction and clip-emptying battles, but that’s a bit ridiculous.
The worst offense, though, and the one that showcases the game’s inability to stand out from the crowded FPS pack, is its repetitive gameplay. Without fail, each level involves linear objectives that change during the course of the mission, and most of the objectives serve little a purpose other than to give you an excuse to blow-up more stuff. As odd as it sounds, the guns really are the main character in BLACK, which explains the compulsion to use them to destroy every part of the environment. But after a few levels, the blowing-up of stuff starts to get boring. After all, even the best Hollywood action flicks don’t go for more than two hours.
At least the game looks good, although for some reason it looks more jaw-dropping on the PS2 than it does the Xbox. In both versions the environments are diverse (and absolutely huge), and the explosions are remarkable in their detail and splash damage. But the details within each environment, while good, repeat many times, and the stereotype of carbon-copied enemies rings true with five basic enemy types. In terms of other first-person shooters on the PS2, BLACK looks great. But compared with some of the other recent FPS games on Xbox, most notably Far Cry Instincts, BLACK looks somewhat pedestrian.
One graphical touch, the blur effect when reloading guns, was an ingenious move on Criterion’s part. If you’re reloading a gun in real life, your attention would be focused on the gun, not necessarily the enemies around you. The blur effect, then, makes perfect sense as it tries to imitate your blurred peripheral vision when watching the enemies. Unfortunately, the blur effect is a bit too heavy-handed, and it actually made me queasy after a while because it was so disorienting. Had it been toned down, it could have been one of the best introductions BLACK made to the FPS genre.
Criterion wanted to shake up the genre and offer something new, but in the end, BLACK plays just like any other average first-person shooter. Except that it doesn’t have a multiplayer mode. BLACK is a good first outing, but it just doesn’t seem to offer much more than a few more booms and exploding barrels. And we already have enough of those to go around.
- Gameplay: 7.5
- The ability to blow everything up is great, but the actual gameplay is your standard FPS fare.
- Graphics: 9 [PS2], 8 [Xbox]
- Again, explosions look great. Overall, the PS2 version looks better than most games on that system, but the Xbox version isn’t quite as hot.
- Sound: 7.8
- It’s loud. And, um, loud. Things go boom, and they sound loud. Need we say more? Voiceovers and music are average.
- Replay: 5
- Blowing stuff up is a blast (pardon the pun), but eventually you’ll want to move on. Not having multiplayer is a liability.
- Overall: 7.5
- Taken as a whole, BLACK is just your average first-person shooter, so an average score is what it gets.