Black Review

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Graphics: 7.5
Sound : 7.0
Gameplay : 6.0
Multiplayer : N/A
Overall : 6.8
Review by Ben Serviss
Amid the hype and fervor pending its release, Black has been set upon us. Touted as a purist’s first-person shooter from start to finish, Black promised to be a rallying cry for die-hard fps addicts, placing explosive action and addictive gameplay at the top of its priorities. The reality is a little more sobering—while Black succeeds in being a no-nonsense shooter, the no-frills approach may leave most gamers cold.

The guns are the stars of Black, making the game’s attempt at a comprehensible narrative moot before the first over-stylized cinematic plays. Players take the role of Keller, a bad-ass Black Ops soldier let loose on the trail of the terror group known only as Seventh Wave. That’s all you’ll really need to know, as the moment-to-moment gunplay quickly obliterates Black’s attempts at a detailed plot.

Akin to Black’s simplistic premise, the controls are easy to understand. The left and right triggers respectively lob grenades and fire your weapon; the B button performs a standard melee attack, and A reloads. You can change the rate of fire on a good amount of the SMGs from single-shot to burst fire to fully automatic, and in a nod to the Xbox’s king of shooters, you can only carry two firearms at a time. Strangely enough, you can still accrue ammo for weapons you aren’t currently equipping, a convenient if odd feature. From the pistol you’ll start out with to the many SMGs, machine guns and specialty weapons (like the RPG), it’s clear that much more effort was spent on the gun models than any other element. Each weapon has such a detailed sheen that they almost glow. In some ways it’s a shame, since they end up upstaging nearly every other graphical element in the game.

Black’s presentation effectively parallels the game’s issues—while the menus ooze style as the hyper-detailed gun models discharge in the background, there curiously is no option to customize the analog stick sensitivity. This philosophy of style-over-sense extends to gameplay in odd places, like the blurring effect that annoyingly distorts the screen every time you reload.

When you can see the frantic action, the guns don’t disappoint. The stock SMGs do well enough, with the Uzi and MP5 in particular standing out. The Remington shotgun is mercilessly destructive in the face of enemies as is the Magnum; and the RPG never fails to let out a solid explosion. Perhaps sensing that the pitched battles were too straightforward, the folks at Criterion added secondary objectives you need to accomplish in order to clear the levels. ‘Blackmail,’ ‘Recon,’ and ‘Intel’ objectives require you to collect random items and occasionally destroy sensitive equipment, while ‘Armament’ has you finding ‘hidden’ weapons that are sometimes lying in plain view. Out of all the available secondary objectives in a level, you’ll have to accomplish a certain amount depending on the difficulty level. For instance, on Normal mode you only have to accomplish 3 overall secondary objectives; even less is required for Easy. The secondary objectives are a valiant attempt to add a much-needed wrinkle to Black’s firefights, but fall short of truly enriching the gameplay.

Every so often you’ll encounter a stretch where stealth is suggested, but never forced upon players. Oddly enough, as most enemies in the stealth sections face away from the player, these slices of gameplay eventually become battles against the game’s unforgiving tendencies with headshots. Whether the bulls-eye is too miniscule to get a solid bead or your foes have battle helmets manufactured by Volvo, it almost always takes a few tries to nail a baddie in the noggin even if the shot connects. In a game that boils down to ‘shoot enemies in the head before they shoot you,’ this seems like an artificial way to generate a sufficient challenge.

Black’s much-vaulted destructible environments share similar issues. While some encounters do afford players the ability to shred columns, windows and platforms to bits, even more fights feature only a handful of destructible set pieces. And, since environmental destruction hardly ever factors into the oh-so linear levels, the effects eventually become just another bit of eye candy. As for the conventional eye candy, explosions can be pretty fierce, but the smoke and lighting effects are more impressive.

With all the attention paid to the weapons, the actual humans in the game get the short end. AI ranges from decent to spotty, as on more than one occasion I sniped an enemy while the fellow he was standing right in front of continued staring into space. Friendly NPCs prove to be competent on the whole, though they exhibit plenty of signs to indicate heavy scripting instead of a more intelligent system. Finally, there are only a handful of enemy types scattered throughout the entire eight levels, another factor into Black’s repetitious feel.

Black’s soundtrack fades in and out of the background, sharply accenting the vicious battles. In-game voiceovers are decent, although the booming echo that accompanies anything said by friendlies can get irksome; and the exclamations of your enemies are always in Russian (or at least Russian-sounding) and sound suitably desperate.

In closing, Black’s creators have certainly spared no expense in terms of production value—now it’s time for them to invest in purchase value. A game that can be beaten in a mere six hours and has no multiplayer offering, especially when said game is screaming to be played over Xbox Live, seems like more of a sampler than a full title. Hopefully, if EA and Criterion are allowed more time to develop Black’s sequel, the proper attention can be made to fleshing out the total experience—and not just shining up the guns.