I finished Black in just under four hours. All in all, this does not serve as a fair commentary on the game’s length. What I feel I must admit is that I have previously cleared Black many, many times -- not so many as to be uncountable, but enough times to where I’ve stopped bothering counting. I know enemy patterns and I know all the surprises. You can glean from this that I am not the most impartial person that will ever critique Black. I like Black, and I like it a lot. For me, I can very clearly pin my respect for the game upon the fact that it has an impeccable atmosphere behind it that I find almost unparalleled in this generation’s first-person shooters. I am well aware of Black’s flaws, for they are many, but Black is one game where the flaws simply do not affect how fun the game is.
Good level designI found the level design to be streamlined. It doesn’t harbor any revelations, but it is interesting and multi-faceted, and it does provide for many different scenarios across the eight levels. Some of the levels are quite linear, taking place in buildings (indoor levels are especially well done) while some areas are very open, like in the countryside or in large city plazas. The game is linear, but it often doesn’t feel so. I imagine that a more open Half-Life would feel like Black.
Everything explodesEverything in Black blows up. I can’t quite decide whether it’s bad design or whether it’s good design in that it provides for various methods of dispatching enemies. Literally everything explodes: if there’s a sniper or a gun emplacement in a tower, there won’t just be red barrels -- there will literally be a way to raze the whole tower. Brown, nondescript crates that both the player and enemies might take cover behind are utterly combustible. Finally, red kerosene tanks and barrels are commonplace around every corner. The explosions look great, though, so the inclusion of so many dangers is justifiable. I did witness an enemy taking cover behind two red barrels, however, which leads me prettily into the matter of enemy AI.
Enemy AI is quite dullThe only reason the enemies in Black pose a threat to the play is because they have powerful guns and they can shoot straight. Otherwise, they seem to rejoice in standing still, out of reach of cover, and firing openly at the player, or, alternately, simply running up to the player while simultaneously firing their arms. The fact that the few enemies that do take cover are frustrating to dismiss is a good indication that the player isn’t accustomed to encountering enemies who want to stay alive.
The masked enemies are terrifyingAlthough the AI is, frankly, thick, the enemies with the metallic full Phantom of the Opera face masks are scary. They’re scary because they combine two of the game’s flaws: the enemy is a bullet sponge, and the enemy has bad AI; that is, it charges straight at the player. Unfortunately (for the player) it charges with a shotgun. They pose concerns because they pose a danger, and their shots hurt.
The blur during reload is unsettlingHere’s a design choice that is utterly nonsensical: every time the player reloads the screen blurs so as to not allow the player to see what’s going on. I’m not sure why this was included; in reality soldiers do not suffer from blurred vision while reloading, though Criterion may not be aware of this. It only serves as a hindrance: it is of the utmost importance for the player to see where enemies are, but this feature completely destroys that ability. Compulsive reloaders or twitch reloaders will suffer.
Blatant aim assistIt’s possible to hover on an enemy, remove one’s fingers from the sticks, and watch the reticule traverse tens of feet across the screen as the enemy moves. The aim assist feels good during battle but it is noticeable. Also, it doesn’t work perfectly. On multiple occasions I noticed the aim assist locking on to hostiles through indestructible walls and indestructible cover.
Artificial difficulty increaseThe difficultly increase in Black is rather half-hearted: it seems to be that the enemies take more damage and dish more damage with each incremental difficultly level. Many games do this, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. It just makes it hackneyed, and rather wretched.
Ridiculous checkpointingIt doesn’t help that the checkpointing is silly. Every level is in the range of half-an-hour in length (for first-time players), but there are on average about two checkpoints throughout each level. There should be more like twenty. It’s an artifact of the aged game design, but the checkpoints are unforgiving, and are therefore unforgivable.
Fantastic music provided by Chris TiltonBlack features a breathtaking score (and I appreciate how hackneyed the word “breathtaking” is, but I think it’s a fair employment of the term) by Chris Tilton. I cannot claim to have had the pleasure of hearing Tilton’s other soundtracks, but I have repeatedly heard Black’s, and I can unreservedly say that the expansive theatrical action score is utterly fitting and brilliant. I also find that the music is subtle enough to serve as a nice, low ambient companion to other media, such as books.
Sound design is greatAll the sounds in the world are accurately channeled through two speakers. The game is most immersive when one uses a good set of headphones. Every enemy can be placed merely using the acoustics, which is very important for the player. Sound in the environment is well rendered -- birds and wind and the like. I feel I should also mention how great the guns sound, but only because I recognize most of the sounds the firearms make. The corky report of the MP5 is John McClane’s MP5 from Die Hard; the metallic thud of the pistols is plainly Jack Bauer’s from 24. This game is essentially one massive action movie, and it’s very nice for action movie aficionados.
The introductory credit sequence cannot be bypassedAlthough the introductory credit sequence features music from Tilton’s excellent score, it is both lengthy and unskippable, and is probably not the best way to introduce a game to a player before the player has even reached the “Press start button” screen on the menu. Unskippable introductions are more commonplace today, but at least there is an excuse: games have to update DLC, or install to a console’s hard drive. No such excuse saves Black, especially when the lengthy end credits are also unskippable.
Graphics and animation
Black is a technical marvelI don’t think anybody has quite yet understood how Black manages to look and feel so good. Even as a PlayStation 2 game, it is more accomplished than most early XBOX 360 and PlayStation 3 games. To be sure, the ground textures are not magnificent, and there are some troubles with the character models; it’s not so much that there is one flaw here and one flaw there, it’s more to do with the fact that holistically the game does look terrific, and the well rendered gun models and well rendered ally character models importantly reflect on the environment as a whole. Environments are good-looking: the particle effects, and explosions, as I mention shortly below, are, simply put, great.
The explosions still look magnificentI had not recalled how well realized the explosions in Black are. They are spectacular; I suspect that the explosions are better done in Black that they are done in many current generation games.
Enemies will repeat the same animationEnemies shot in the same region of their body will execute the same animation repeatedly. I once crouched behind cover and fired eight or nine rounds at a hostile’s thigh, only to see that hostile do the same animation for all of the eight times save for the last: he would stumble down, place his left hand on the ground to steady himself, and regain his balance. The fact that there should have been craters the size of a man’s fist in the hostile’s thigh did not seem to trouble him much.
Control is heavyI would suggest that this was a design choice made by Criterion, but the control in the game is extraordinarily heavy. There is no sprint button, and the player character seems to slug around -- there’s no momentum, there’s just mass. Aiming is just as heavy. I could not find any slider to increase analog stick sensitivity in the options menu. I have not felt anything like it in modern games. I soon grew accustomed, but the sheer weight of the game is most definitely unsettling, at least at first.
Every gun is greatThere are many firearms in Black. Each firearm has its strengths and weaknesses. I am less inclined to use the shotguns because they are inaccurate and slow, but aside from those two instances, I enjoyed using every gun. My only complaint would be that the different ammunition is very specific. There are no randomized ammunition caches. I love using pistols in games, but there’s just not enough pistol ammunition in Black, and I find that regrettable. (I also like the fragmentation grenades in Black. While they’re not guns, they are weapons -- their strength lies in their range, which is perhaps the most realistic thing in Black. The grenades feel real and are very dangerous.)
Enemies are bullet spongesOne thing I found troubling was the fact that enemies can take a tremendous number of bullets, not just in their extremities, but also in their chests. Above I recall an incident where I shot a hostile eight times in the leg. As frighteningly unrealistic as that may be, the same extends to anybody the player shoots in the torso or in the abdomen. The head is the only assured mode of felling an enemy. This is not just limited to enemies wearing body armor: ‘weak’ enemies seem to shrug off repeated rounds to the chest, ignoring the fact that black shrapnel (which one supposes is clothing or, in the case of other enemies, armor) propels from their person with each shot. There is then the issue of armor-donning enemies being able to sustain several magazines of fire. I am certainly no authority on how people react when taking shots to body armor, but if action films and shows like 24 are to be believed, the body still takes some shock or damage, certainly enough to make a person reel on the floor for some time.
Nothing feels as good as a clean headshotBlack is the only game where I get in the zone and can execute headshot after headshot after headshot freakishly quickly. Typically with games I don’t bother, because it’s easier to aim for the chest. There’s something about the way headshots are designed in Black, though -- perhaps it’s the tangible sound a headshot makes, a ‘plink’ in the headphones that let the player know they’ve hit the target.
Using suppressors has never felt betterThe guns in Black sound great, but I find that using a suppressor provides for a good feeling. It’s bizarre, because as I understand, suppressors greatly reduce the speed and punch of bullets (at least in reality), but there’s no clear effect in Black. It just makes the guns look and feel great. This is all putting aside that suppressors can be found everywhere, and in the most inexplicable places -- right in the middle of a battlefield or on a catwalk underneath a bridge, awaiting the player in every case.
The story and live-action sequences are a little sillyI won’t serve Black a reprieve by saying that one shouldn’t expect much of a story from an action game; nor will I employ the phrase “For what it is...” Black simply doesn’t have much of a story. Strangely, very little is explained at the beginning -- something has gone wrong, players are told; someone has been betrayed, and there’s a unit of several warfighters and they’re chasing somebody, somewhere. There’s also a plot twist at the end that feels a little unfair but is nonetheless surprising. The narrative is paper thin; the blunt rim of a plate could slice through it. It’s not particularly interesting, and it serves as little more than something that barely explains why characters are moving from one place to another. The live-action sequences, which only feature two men, are actually interestingly directed. Not much acting is seen. My only issue is that it’s plainly obvious that voice work was dubbed on top of the actors. Things don’t quite line up right, and it doesn’t sound good. In that respect, the cutscenes are somewhat let down.
I would not be surprised if you, the reader, are confused after reading this summary of my feelings about Black. In retrospect, much of what I think is worth mentioning, and have therefore mentioned, are negative things about the game. It speaks volumes, however, that I feel Black transcends all that. For me, as I have indicated above, I think Black’s design is often less than stellar. That doesn’t stop it from being fun. There are plenty of games that are excellently designed but are not fun. Black is not one of them. I look forward to Codemasters’ Bodycount, the very blatant spiritual successor to Black, and hope it will improve upon the design of Black, but failing that, I hope that it will merely capture the same atmosphere and be as fun as Black is for me.