Here’s one of the great paradoxes of the games industry: developers only truly get to grips with the vagaries of squeezing every ounce of power out of consoles when they are effectively defunct. Ever since it first appeared at last year’s E3 Show, BLACK has been firmly pigeonholed as a late-cycle last hurrah for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox and that is what it proves to be. But while you have to admire it, and there would be something seriously wrong with you if you didn’t enjoy playing it, it proves to be less satisfying than it originally promised to be.
The facts are thus: BLACK, billed by Criterion as a “Hollywood-style” FPS, features levels in which pretty much anything can be blown up and deformed, unfeasibly powerful weaponry (which nevertheless acts in a startlingly realistic manner), extremely impressive AI (despite what some reviews from a one-third-of-a-level demo may suggest) and
numerous neat touches, such as extreme blurring of the screen when you reload. It is a single-player-only game, disappointingly – although Criterion points out, rightly, that deformable scenery would lead to a frustrating multiplayer experience.
The game’s plot, happily, is kept to a bare minimum – you play Sergeant First-Class Jack Kellar, a black-ops soldier seeking the elusive John Lennox, an ex-CIA operative who now runs an Al Qaeda-style operation. The mercifully short cut-scenes before each mission show an impressionistic interrogation, in which you are debriefed about the missions, which are actually flashbacks. There is little need to pay much attention to them, although they are quite atmospheric.
It becomes instantly apparent that the whole thrust of BLACK is geared to shooting the shit out of anything you come across. Enemies are plentiful – at times, you’ll find yourself wondering whether the waves of bad guys descending on you are infinite. There’s plenty of Half-Life 2 influence, thanks to a fairly rigorous physics engine – but this time it is used not to provide puzzles (occasionally, you will need to blow up the odd fortified bunker and so on to progress, but there are no proper puzzles) but to take out the hordes of enemies as economically as possible.
The levels are littered with gas canisters, abandoned cars and so on, all of which can be induced to explode spectacularly, wiping out anyone in the vicinity, when you pump them full of enough lead. Grenades and RPGs will let you shoot lumps out
of concrete and, for example, cause statues to topple, crushing multiple enemies beneath them. Closed doors can be opened by a few shotgun blasts or a judiciously tossed grenade. You can crouch behind cover – although cover is often swiftly blown away by enemies, and crouching causes you to move very slowly. There is no prone position to adopt, and you can’t jump. This is purist, shooting-centric stuff.
The levels are long and split into three checkpointed chunks – although, annoyingly, if you make it to the second checkpoint, say, in a level and then turn off your console, you will have to start again at the beginning of the level. You do find alternative paths through levels—which are split roughly 50-50 between indoors and outdoors -- but they are pretty linear.
You can usually tell when a checkpoint or the end of a level beckons, because you will find yourself in a big space beset by wave upon wave of enemies. BLACK is not about advancing stealthily through levels (the only, half-hearted, concession to stealth is the occasional availability of silencers for your guns), but about progressing without dying until you get to epic shoot-outs taking place in arenas which, once you have rid them of the bad guys, resemble Kosovo or Baghdad when their respective wars had just finished.