Criterion a name that you would normally associate with Burnout rather than guns, guns and more guns. Well, that's set to change now that they have rolled out with EA and Black. They brought their expertise in adrenaline fuelled destruction onto the field with First Person Shooters and the result is a definite step in the right direction.
Special Operations is the bag for Black, you play the story through the eyes of one of these Spec Ops and what a twisted X-files like story it is, only without the aliens and strange paranormal phenomenon. You have been accused of...well...let's just say that Tom Clancy would be proud of Black.
The story is told through live action cut-scenes, these seem to be a nice way to tie the various missions together - as you're interrogated about the happenings by an arrogant investigator - you recount what happens at each juncture by playing the game, it's a nice little trick that blends the story and game together.
Black is rather like Criterion's other offerings, it's not an intelligent tactical stealth shooter; Black is a violent tour-de-force of real-world guns and over the top Hollywood style explosions and effects. It doesn't have a complex control system and it doesn't endorse safe play where you sit and pick foes off with a sniper rifle from half a 'klick' away.
There's no jumping or jumping based puzzles, there aren't any puzzles at all, no key-carded doors and no complex physics to manipulate the environment. It is just you, sometimes some AI buddies and your guns vs. a veritable swarm of angry and accurate enemies. That doesn't mean that you can't use the environment to your advantage, Black actually encourages you to shoot things, lots of things, some of those things explode and some of those things explode violently.
You pick out those kinds of interactive objects through the reticule, which turns Black when you find something tasty to pepper with gunfire. It might only be a fuel drum that kills one guy, or it could be a fuel drum carelessly left next to a landmine, which in turn is in proximity to a bunch of others. Black likes to throw in chained explosions to reward the player with volumes of noisy eye candy.
In Black you come under fire a lot, there are so many bullets flying around that certain sections of the game make the Lobby Scene from The Matrix look rather shabby and dull in comparison. The missions are linear and you don't have to do much except pump your trigger finger, hurl grenades and fill the air with streams of hot smoking lead!
Black isn't trying to be the next Halo or Half Life 2 and comparing these games would be like comparing a banana and a hand-grenade. It sets out to create an explosive gameplay experience where you don't have to think, apart from perhaps using the environment creatively to eliminate large numbers of enemies rather than trying to take them on one at a time. There are certain sections of the game where you're going to get swarmed by a never-ending wave of bad guys, until you achieve an objective (usually blowing a heavy bunker up, or lasting until the waves of enemy troops are exhausted) and can proceed.
There are several difficulty levels for Black, right the way from Easy to Black Ops mode - each one has a series of objectives, and sub objectives. The harder the game mode the more objectives you have to fulfil - there are rewards for doing the harder levels of the game and those are unlocked at the end of the game's story.
Black harkens back to the good old days of the arcade shooter, like say Operation Wolf except its using new FPS technology and has a definite flair for the dramatic.
Black's engine is a nice one, it's been designed to display a good constant frame-rate and provide a decent level of detail especially in the eye candy department, fans of over the top explosions and realistic looking real world weapons are going to love this game since it boasts an impressively rendered arsenal, pistols, machine guns, sniper rifle and the obligatory rocket launcher are all brought to life in polygonal splendour.
It's a busy game and the engine copes with a lot going on, the swarms of enemies that attack in waves and the sheer level of destruction from the weapons as they leave smoking holes, pock-marked walls and shattered concrete as the gun battles rage are reminiscent of such games as: F.E.A.R
The graphics engine provides lighting, shadows and special effects by the bucket as the pyrotechnics kick in from a grenade hitting a fuel drum, in turn igniting something like a giant truck parked close by carrying ammunition.
The models in Black are all of a sufficiently high detail. It has been said that the guns in black have more polygons than one of the cars in Burnout Revenge, and when you look at them in action you can see why - they are in a word gorgeous, as far as guns can be described as such. The attention to detail has been lavished on the other models in the game, enemy soldiers and allies all have a good solid look to them, good realised textures and the background environments have just as much detail.
Black features linear levels for the most part but these are often fairly open and while you're always going to know which path to take, other paths can lead to secluded areas where the developers have placed interesting side objectives. The levels in Black are also fairly big; some of them take quite a while to complete if you are trying to nail every single objective and every single bonus objective. There's also no protection or escort missions, this game is all about you doing what you do best - destruction and chaos. Overall the level design is spotless with each environment being packed with interactive exploding objects and atmosphere, there's a definite feeling of being in these locations and the attention to detail on the buildings is good, the architecture looks as though it would exist in the real world rather than the fevered imaginations of the game's designers.
Black's physics engine is best described as Hollywood, it is well over the top and provides some gloriously destructive opportunities while still feeling as though it is believable enough, you won't find the same levels of destruction in Black compared to say Red Faction but the game comes close. Walls explode, chunks of concrete are blown off left right and centre, each weapon causes a different effect to the environment and enemies react differently when shot too.
There's the obligatory ragdoll system in place for enemy deaths, and they are satisfyingly over the top as well. The way Black likes to do things can be summed up by the first level, when the glass is shattering from gunfire and you use a shotgun to take a door off its hinges, grab and AK-47 and start shooting at a nearby car.
The car explodes and takes out the nearby enemy soldier, the physics system hurls the soldier backwards Hollywood style and you're left with a big smile on your face. You eventually come to a building where soldiers are shooting at you from the lower floor, you can't get a good shot but you have a hand grenade, you toss it into the lower window, it breaks the glass and detonates setting off the boxes of ammunition in the room they're using as a base.
Windows are blown out and soldiers come screaming out of the blast, one might catch onto the edge of the windowsill (You can always shoot him) if he's lucky or fall to his death arms flailing madly. The whole scene goes off just like out of a movie and there's fire and smoke everywhere, ultimately its satisfying and leaves you with a smile on your face.
Black's animations are some of the best, not just the model animations which are excellent but the animations for the guns themselves - these include the flying shells as the weapon fires, the moving parts and when you reload your character checks the clip before slotting it home and so on. Switch to the sniper rifle and the guy pops off the protective lenscap cover.
There are lots of spot animations that make the game come alive, but it has to be said that Black's finest animations which are showcased as the game loads and appear as animated backgrounds while you prepare to go into the missions - the weapons steal the show and should make the eyes of any gun nut shine brightly.
I am in two minds about Black's AI, the enemy AI at times seems to be as dumb as a rock and will rush at you, rudimentary dodging and weaving. Then at other times they will take cover behind crates and so on, firing and then moving to a different cover. Of course it is doubly funny when they crouch behind something destructible like a wooden table or even better to the side of a big box of ammunition, just waiting to be filled full of lead.
They also have a definite preservation instinct when you lob a grenade, they won't just stand there and look dumbly at it, they'll run as fast as they can away from the danger and this can lead to some funny moments if you stun them before they can run, shoot them in the foot and they'll stagger - toss a frag to the side and then watch them try and clear the blast area.
They will also try and grab on to ledges and railings if they get shot or knocked off, hanging there for a few moments. I haven't seen them climb back up, but this is because my killer instinct kicks in and they get a helpful stream of gunfire to put them on the ground.
I think the best thing you can say about the AI in Black is that it does its job and provides a decent challenge, at times it feels decidedly too human.
The sound engine to Black renders up the various guns, explosions and ambient/spot effects nicely - every weapon sounds good and meaty, they have a distinct audio signature and no two guns sound the same.
Black has a dramatic and effective score, with the option to use your own custom soundtrack and replace the music in the game. There's something quite satisfying about shooting a whole bunch of bad guys to the strains of Disturbed or something similar. The music to Black is orchestral in nature and isn't one of these with a jarring/annoying techno sound track that throws you out of the feel of the game.
None, nada, Black is a single player game and that's it. It is LIVE aware.
I always have one of these sections, for my Jerry Springer like musings. Black is a good game, it's a refreshing no-nonsense shooter in the mould of the good old games of old. Black doesn't try and be anything else, and I salute the developers for this - Black is also short, if you're a good gamer you'll blast through these missions in a couple of days.
Black also screams sequel when it gets to the end, which isn't that bad, but it also doesn't really satisfy - sure you can unlock some stuff by replaying it but in the end it really does just boil down to shoot, rinse, repeat and shoot some more.
It has great production values and is a good game if you want to see a step in the right direction for the old FPS.