Say "hello" to my little friend!
The Fly and I spent a magical Sunday joining our views of Black together in holy matrimony. We can finally share our special moment with you, enjoy the Conference Call.
Fly: I suppose I should start by noting that I haven't finished Black. I'm about four hours into it so far, and I'm playing it on the PS2. I'm assuming you played the Xbox version.
Certis: You would assume correctly, the PS2 version of any ported game is inferior and leads me to judge you accordingly. I hope you're happy now, what with all the judging coming your way.
The thing about Black is that four hours into the game, you're probably about halfway through it, if you're taking your time. This may be the shortest, most stripped-down FPS title I've ever played. There's just not a lot of meat here.
Fly: The PS2 is truly the lowest common gaming denominator for any current-gen console release, and that is in fact why I've chosen it for Black. You see, I am a game reviewer amongst my people, and I aim to please the PS2-loving masses. I want the experience at its most unrefined. The fact that I do not own an Xbox is irrelevant.
You've hit on the point that I fear will color the majority of this conversation. Namely, Black's meatlessness. Given its lack of common FPS features like drivable vehicles, multiplayer options, or even the ability to jump, it is decidedly un-meaty. But more on that later.
Criterion's been marketing Black as a new and improved first-person shooter, where the firearms are ostensibly the focal point. They were initially billing it as "gun porn," but they dropped that tag in favor of sillier but less politically troublesome lines like, "Every bullet is your baby." Early screenshots and video hinted that the game is sort of a Burnout with guns, where you can demolish or detonate anything on screen with a hail of bullets from your trusty weapons.
Certis: In that regard, they were not kidding. There is not a lot of subtlety to be found in Black; aside from the occasional opportunity to slap a silencer on your pistol to make some quiet kills, the game focuses entirely on balls-to-the wall gun play and it doesn't make any apologies for it. This is good if you're not worried about silly things like "clear objectives" or a plot that makes sense, but for the rest of us, a better idea of why I'm killing all these bad guys and why I'm in an asylum and why I'm blowing up random laptops and safes would be nice.
The best you see are between-mission, live-action movies that are either really edgy, or else moonlight as educational videos for young, hip dentists. The amount of shots that show incisors is staggering. The dialog that accompanies the gum-flapping is about as overdone as the camera work, offering a thin membrane of plot stretched to breaking over each level area.
Fly: Yeah, Black's "story" is little more than a nebulous afterthought of a plot, contrived to tie a bunch of levels together. It has something to do with terrorists and operatives or something. It was delivered so hammily that I immediately stopped caring, and tried to find something else to do for a few minutes every time one of those awful live-action sequences came on. I desperately wanted to skip them, but couldn't. Even when I died and had to restart a level, the game forced me to watch them again.
Certis: It smacked of a game developer wanting to play director/writer really, really bad. It wasn't completely awful, but it was close. Thankfully, the nitty-gritty gameplay elements are where the game truly shines. The guns are all rendered with care and I can at least confirm the AK-47 sounds spot-on based on my own experience shooting one. The controls are tight and stick closely to the formula Halo used so well; this makes diving into the game easy and immediately familiar. Situationally, you'll encounter some basic obstacles to overcome throughout the game, and they rarely change or offer much variety.
We have guys some distance away shooting rockets at you, we have "room full bad guys who spawn in until you blow up barrier" and your basic kill patrols quietly bits. That's about all and it's totally fine if you're into that sort of thing. Black does it very well.
Fly: Look at you, you just can't resist throwing in that bit about your AK-47 experience, can you? Well, I can vouch from my experience that the game's depiction of blasting through the walls of an insane asylum with an RPG is just as I remember.
As for the gunplay, I think Black does a decent job. I've got a lot of minor quibbles with the game, most of which revole around its failure to do something really engaging with its guns. The simple act of aiming, for example, is pretty generic. Although most weapons offer a zoomed-in perspective, there aren't any views through the gun's sights, which is a bit baffling for a game that supposedly allows the player to interact so closely with its firearms. The targeting reticule is simply a tiny white dot, which turns red when you've got it pointed at an enemy. And the guns themselves aren't anything special, either. They're mostly what you'll find in any other conventional shooter. Except for the aforementioned pistol with a silencer, none of the weapons are upgradable, modifiable, or have attached grenade launchers, laser scopes, or other cool features.
Certis: Except you can see the bullet in the chamber when reloading, which is totally hot!
It's worth noting that you will at times have a couple A.I. teammates in the game who operate without any direction from the player and cannot die. They even kill bad guys once in a while and provide sniper over-watch in one mission, which was pretty fun to watch as enemies suddenly dropped in front of you.
Black shows that the Xbox has plenty of graphical splendor to share with us as it gasps its last breaths. Particles flying off walls, bullets on the ground and bullet holes that remain as evidence of your destruction don't noticeably disappear as you progress. It lends a great atmosphere to the game and gives you plenty of moments to savor when the battle is especially fierce and things everywhere are exploding.
Speaking of explosions and death, I don't care what the terrorist handbook says, do not stand around exploding barrels when you're guarding something. It's silly.
Fly: Even on the creaky old PS2, Black looks very good. The draw distance is impressive, and the game's visual effects and general style lend great ambiance to the game's levels. There's a decent variety of locales to explore, from a huge steel foundry to a misty forest to the aforementioned asylum, and they've all got a unique character. Each level probably lasts around an hour, and after the initial brief load screen, everything else streams in in the background. Though the player's progress through the levels is generally linear, there are often multiple ways to approach an objective. The result is that the levels feel large, varied and organic.
I was disappointed by Black's enemy A.I., which I thought was probably its weakest point. Enemies randomly dance back and forth behind cover and generally don't do anything interesting, like try to flank you or take you out with grenades. In close-up firefights they sometimes seem befuddled, and shoot or dodge aimlessly for a few seconds before running for cover. And "cover" is invariably a box of dynamite, fuel barrel, propane cylinder, or other highly explosive object. The friendly AI fares a little better, and adds a little variety to the game, like you mentioned.
Certis: I DID mention that, I'm very smart.
All in all I think Black is the perfect renter. It's short, tightly focused and not worth paying full price for. Even at $39.99.
Fly: I'll second that, I suppose. I think Black is an average, stripped-down, low-on-features shooter with enough newfangled whiz-bang particle effects, stylish visuals and big explosions to make it worth a look. There's more about the game I could subject to my curmudgeonry, but I think you've got the bottom line, so let's leave it at that.
Certis: Indeed. Last word! Ah ha ha ha ha ha!