Amidst the pages and pages of incoherent scribbling that dot my various E3 convention notebooks lay a few rare gems. More often than not, these memorable lines are belched out by exhausted developers who, after three days of enough vodka to wipe out the liver of a Brontosaurus, have tossed out their scripted presentation entirely. It's just you (tired, jaded game journalist), and them (tired, jaded game developer), trying to make sense of the orgy of pixels you're both staring at.
And that's when you write down the phrase, "gun porn."
Although in the case of Criterion, that probably was scripted. The minds behind the monumental Burnout franchise aren't known for being subtle, so when they got all crazy at E3 2004 and started yammering about how most first-person shooters completely miss the real, kinetic feeling of simply shooting a gun and that they themselves were working on the answer with the enigmatic Black, I went along for the ride. They're good at driving, you know.
It turns out, however, that they could use a lesson or two in first-person game design. While Black certainly lives up to its billing by supplying an unrivaled console FPS engine with some of the most intense gunplay on the planet, it forgets to include all the other stuff, like an interesting plot, decent A.I. or, most astoundingly, multiplayer. Porn is just not as fun alone, with or without the guns.
The game gets its name from the Black Ops team of which you are a most elite member. Told through ultra-stylish, live-action cut scenes of you being interrogated by a comically serious officer, the story covers your attempt to take down the Seventh Wave terrorist group. After you discuss the events surrounding a mission gone awry, you proceed to play through it as a flashback. It's an effective storytelling device, but is unfortunately wasted on a bland narrative filled with enough baffling secret-operative talk to confound James Bond. None of it makes much sense and none of it is very interesting, and it ends in a hail of frustrating ambiguity.
But once you hop into a mission, all that jazz disappears in a haze of smoking gunpowder. Black's true calling card is its frenetic action, which it certainly serves up in spades. The engine powering this bad boy makes a helluva first impression. Nearly everything reacts to a bullet biting into its side, from chunks of debris flying off concrete walls to splinters cracking off wooden beams. Glass shatters, empty shells rattle on the ground and smoke fills the air as you squeeze the trigger, lending a real punch to the action that indeed stands in contrast to many other first-person games. Cover, for instance, is not guaranteed since many of the objects can be blown to bits by both gunfire and grenades (which, in a cool move, can be shot before exploding). Plenty of flammable material can be found littering levels, leading to all kinds of pyrotechnics and some nice moments of sheer destruction. These are the guys who did Burnout, after all, so it's no surprise the engine rocks.
The chassis, though, could use some work. The game's eight missions take place in such riveting Russian locales as the dockyard, the warehouse, the bridge, the other bridge and the asylum that looks just like the warehouse. A few outdoor levels give the game a bit of an open-ended feel, until you realize that all the diverging paths are conveniently blocked so that they end up quite linear. It's not a very satisfying place in which to dole out carnage.
It's also not satisfying killing the poor sods dressed up as enemy soldiers. Typically they stand there and shoot at you, occasionally taking cover but often relying more on their outrageously effective body armor than, say, wits. Unless you shoot a guy in the head, expect to fill him up with nine or ten bullets before he goes down, regardless of where he's been shot. If the guy's holding a shotgun, he can take insane amounts of damage, actually, requiring nearly an entire clip from an SMG to kill. For a game that proclaims the importance of every bullet (going so far as to track every single shot you've fired in your player profile), they sure don't make them very effective. Enemies also fail to respond to nearby activity; you can snipe a guy standing five yards from a buddy and his friend will just stand there, unmoving. Black is the world's fanciest game of target practice.
It's also weird that the real stars of the game, the guns, lack balance. Other than obvious range modifiers (you can't effectively shoot far with a shotgun, for instance), there's very little differentiation between the munitions. You'll mop up the dumb soldiers equally well with an MP5, an AK or an M16, and the magnum pistol is inexplicably a one-shot kill machine as effective as a rifle at a hundred yards. AWP whores, rejoice. Bigger weapons like a sniper rifle and an RPG launcher crop up sporadically, usually just to get you through specific areas.
Each mission features a smattering of secondary objectives, mostly just locating little bits of top-secret intel in hard-to-reach spots. Unfortunately, you don't collect these to unlock anything or even glean much insight into the vague plot, as they are merely vanishing snippets of text.
Due to its linearity, weak A.I. and short length, it shouldn't take a decent gamer longer than five or six hours to blast through the campaign. You can try it on higher difficulty settings, but it's the same game with the same enemies, making it hard to want to do it all over again. So naturally, you turn to the other modes…
…and find them completely missing. There is nothing else to do in Black: no multiplayer at all (not even split-screen), no Challenge modes, no galleries for unlocked art, even. It's just the one single-player game, warts and all, regardless of the platform.
At least that one run-through looks awesome. Whether on the Xbox or PS2, expect great lighting, realistic ragdoll animations and a smooth framerate. Considering the amount of carnage going on at any one time, it's especially impressive Criterion was able to get this thing running so smoothly on the PS2. Black is a beauty, no doubt about it.
It sounds great as well. Gun shots ring out realistically and textures pop with the appropriate effects. A moody score fades in and out to punctuate the action, mercifully without any sort of annoying licensed band crap.
It's just a shame that such high production values weren't extended to the overall game design. Though a graphical marvel, Black is too brief, too straight and too lacking to be considered much more than a cool tech-demo, and the absence of multiplayer hurts it immeasurably. Criterion has definitely built a better gun, but they forgot to include the ammo.