BLACK Review

Know what's hotter than porn? Gun porn, baby. Since it was first announced, Criterion promised that BLACK would not reinvent the FPS genre, but would take it back to its frantic, visceral roots. If it moves? Well, kill it. Storyline? If you want to pay attention to it, sure. Aside from a few teeny flaws and one glaring, hard-to-forgive omission, Criterion has given us a shooter for the PS2 and Xbox (sorry, no Xbox 360 compatibility as of this writing) that is nothing but nonstop fun from the first level to its last.

Before I delve into what makes BLACK such pure fun, allow me to mention what will detract from your gaming experience. First and foremost, there is no multiplayer. No multiplay. In an FPS. None. Huh. Now, the Criterion guys stated over and over again that their aim was to focus on one core aspect of first-person shooters and make it shine. They did that. But the lack of any multiplayer option whatsoever just hurts. While I had tons of fun the entire time I was playing, I would always find myself thinking, "If this game had any sort of multiplay option, it would be perfect." If any genre is synonymous with multiplayer mayhem, it is the first person shooter one, and the lack of this option hurts BLACK.

Aside from the obvious, the reason BLACK's major flaw stings so bad is because the game is incredibly short. If it takes you more than 8-10 hours to finish Normal difficulty, you probably did a lot of exploring and backtracking in the game's larger environments. With longer shooters such as Half-Life 2 and Halo 2 still setting a precedent for a fairly long campaign, anything less than 10 seems to end far too soon. The difficulty levels (Easy, Normal, Hard, Black Ops) do add sufficient replay value to the game, though, as the harder levels are just that: hard. You do not want to barge into any rooms in BLACK with your guns blazing. You will die. Horribly.

If less than 10 hours seems puny to you, the easiest way to extend your play time is by dying. Reason being, BLACK uses checkpoints very conservatively. In some levels, you'll only find 2 or 3, and as fun as each and every moment of BLACK was, I couldn't help but get more than a tad miffed when I'd have to play large chunks of a level over just because my last checkpoint was 10-15 minutes behind me.

The controls for both the PS2 and Xbox versions of the game are airtight. However, if the button mapping doesn't quite agree with you, you'll be happy to know that you can completely customize the control scheme. This was a surprising and pleasant discovery for me, as being a gamer that primarily plays FPS titles on the PC, I always expect to suffer through the lack of customization options (Controls schemes A, B, and C don't work for you? Too bad!) available on console shooters. Only two faults need mentioning. First, there's no jump button. Criterion says that they left this function out on purpose in order to avoid any platforming. Okay, that's cool. I've never enjoyed jumping from box to box (or whatever) anyway. But having to circle all the way around certain structures when I'm used to just hopping over them is annoying, and there are also several areas that force you to descend to proceed, which makes it impossible to go back and retrieve any health/ammo that you didn't need earlier. Second, aside from the button functions themselves, nothing else can be customized. I would have liked to see joystick axis sensitivity at least, since I think we can all agree that it's not much fun taking more than a split second to turn 180 degrees when you're getting shot in the back.

So those are my complaints. Truthfully, everything else about the game is golden. BLACK gives you a shooter that emphasizes action, and it never strays from this focus. There's barely a pause in the action from the moment the game starts, and this is what makes BLACK so fun. There are several weapons that can be found on each level, and ammo aplenty for each of them. In this game, you're not supposed to be hunting for ammo in an effort to survive. That's just not the point. So you can conserve ammo if you want to, or you can fire away at will.

The guns themselves are great fun to use. Automatics take center stage, though power users will have plenty of fun with the Spaz shotgun and Magnum behemoths, as well as the RPG and others. Your gun is your sidekick in this game. You don't even open doors normally; you shoot them down. If your character needs help, the fire button is there to give it to him. The weapons are also used to add an element of strategy to the game. You can't pick up and carry every single weapon you see. You can carry two at a time, plus frag grenades. The game does a good job of making you consider possible situations when you see a new weapon lying nearby. For example, carrying the Uzi and the RPG will help you deal with both close and long range foes, but if you're in tight corridors, would the shotgun be a better choice? Or will you need that RPG at all? They're minor decisions, but they force you to think a little bit, which is nice.

The environments provide an awesome playground that will truly make your gun porn experience worthwhile. Almost everything can be shot up and destroyed in this game. One level, known as Sniper Alley, often finds you holed up in towers overlooking a graveyard. You'll see enemies swarm in and split up into two groups: one that fires shots at you to get you to come out of hiding, and the other that does some hiding themselves while their comrades distract you. The latter group ducks behind headstones and coffins. What's a lone wolf to do? Destroy the headstones and watch them look around with a classic "Oh hell!" look on their faces! In the same level, I swapped my sniper rifle for an RPG to deal with some far off enemies with similar weaponry. As I fired my rockets at their positions, entire floor of the building they were perched on would detonate. It was... well, satisfying, to say the least. The environment itself is essentially your best weapon against the enemies; at times, using the guns is no where near as fun as looking around to see what else you can use to kill your foes.

And kill them you'll want to. The enemies can be vicious on the higher difficulties of BLACK. They'll retreat when they find themselves alone, and also coordinate attacks (like the Sniper Alley reference I made above) to flush you out if you're hiding. Some of their armor is absolutely insane. One guard, whom I've affectionately named "Jason" because of the white mask he wears over his face, strafes around you with a shotgun and will take several rounds to put down—even two or three with a shotgun of your own. Stealth is given a backseat in this game, but it has its advantages. Crouching and moving will predictably allow you to sneak up on foes, and head shots combined with a suppressor for your weapon of choice (you've gotta find em first) will keep a lot of the heat off you for as long as you can manage to stay quiet. As I mentioned before, you do not want to play Rambo in this game. The odds are not in your favor.

Not to worry, soldier. You won't always have to go this mission alone. Interestingly, Criterion seems to have addressed the lack of multiplayer fun with the addition of squad mates in some of the campaign missions. On the plus side, from what I've seen, these guys rarely die. I've seen them take RPG shots to the face and merely crouch to avoid the falling rubble from splash damage. Not very realistic, but if you let them proceed you, they can attract at least some of the fire from the many enemies in every level. However, they're kinda... well, dumb. They won't always follow you when you need them to (sometimes this is scripted, but sometimes it's not) and at times you'll see them blindly firing in any direction they feel needs some attention. Overall, they're great cannon fodder, but their usefulness is limited.

The graphics in BLACK are truly a sight to behold. As I'm sure many other gamers did, I questioned Criterion's decision to release the game on the "old" Xbox and PS2 platforms. Wouldn't it be better to save such a sweet looking game for next-gen hardware? Nope, not at all. The main benefit of releasing on older hardware is that, by this time, everybody and their dog knows how to crank all the performance out of it. In fact, I'd venture to say that BLACK looks almost as good (in some cases, better) than anything currently available for the Xbox 360. All sorts of graphical effects have been used in order to provide the most immersive experience possible: the screen will gray and redden when you're close to death; your vision will blur when you're close to a loud explosion... and the explosions look really, really good. They'd better! There are plenty of them, after all.

One problem that was far more prevalent on the PS2 than the Xbox was the slowdown many of the heavier hitting sequences caused. While this is understandable—the PS2 is the oldest of the last generation of consoles, after all—it does annoy at times, especially when moving and turning can already feel a bit sluggish.

My favorite aspect of BLACK is, unequivocally, the sound. This, combined with the graphics, pulled me into the game, and I was all to happy to be dragged along. The guns sound crisp, as does the shattering glass, splinter wood, and plentiful explosions. If you have a surround sound system, you owe it to yourself to have BLACK. Not even the biggest and baddest Hollywood action movies can compete with what BLACK will do to your senses.

The music is good as well, but to be honest, I turned it off in the middle of the second level. Don't get the wrong idea; it's very well done. But in certain games, I feel that a soundtrack serves to remind you that you're playing a game, which isn't cool at all. I did the same thing in Half-Life (1 and 2). I couldn't tell you about either score, and I can't tell you about BLACK's either. But again, what I did hear, I enjoyed. I just felt it detracted from the immersive experience I was having.

If you own an Xbox or a PS2, and you're a big fan of FPS titles, you owe it to yourself to add BLACK to your collection. If it would have had multiplayer and had been just a few hours longer, I'd say BLACK would be perfect. It's close enough where it stands, so do yourself a favor: go get some gun porn. Criterion makes it okay to pleasure yourself.