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In my opinion the 80s were the peak for excellent action movies. I was born in the late 80s but I grew up watching movies like Die Hard, The Terminator, and Lethal Weapon just to name a few. Good action movies even spilled over into the 90s and while many modern action movies aren’t like they were back in the day, every now and then we get something really good. When it comes to video games, it can be hard to find a game that really captures that essence of classic action movies. Well ladies and gentleman, in 2006, Criterion Games, primarily known for the Burnout series, released Black for the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox. With a story that really doesn’t match the over-the-top action, Black is one of the greatest shooters of the sixth generation era of consoles. For this review, I played Black on the Xbox.
I’m going to be honest, the story here is complete shit and really doesn’t do much to keep you interested. You play as Sergeant First Class Jack Kellar, a black ops soldier. He’s after some guy named Lennox who is the leader of the Seventh Wave terrorist group that make up the enemies of the game. I don’t think you ever actually see Lennox throughout the entire game but quite frankly, the storyline is just very boring and feels like an afterthought. The cut scenes contain live actors, one of them portraying Kellar who is being interrogated by some guy and the events of the game take place four days before this interrogation so essentially you’re playing through a series of flashbacks. Unfortunately, you can’t skip the cut scenes the first time you play through the campaign and even though they’re not that long, they’re so utterly boring that it just feels like they drag on. It’s a completely forgettable story and I believe the ending is supposed to be a cliffhanger. With all of that said, the storyline is the worst part of the entire game.
Black is actually a relatively short game but it’s extremely fun from start to finish. It’s all about guns and explosions and there’s plenty of both. There’s eight missions total, with four difficulty modes; Easy, Normal, Hard, and Black Ops. After completing the campaign on any difficulty other than Easy, you unlock silver weapons for that difficulty mode and those under it. Silver weapons just mean you get infinite ammo. The Black Ops difficulty mode is only unlocked after beating the game on Hard and that’s probably where you want to start anyway because the Normal difficulty is way too easy. On Easy and Normal you can store up to three health packs to use at any time but the higher difficulties don’t have these at all so you’ll need to rely on first aid kits that drop from fallen enemies. These replenish a portion of your health when picked up.
Each mission requires you to complete a primary objective along with a specific amount of secondary objectives. Harder difficulty modes require you to complete more secondary objectives and these actually give you a reason to explore the mostly linear environments. Some secondary objectives include collecting things like blackmail, intel, and recon items. Other objectives require you to destroy things like safes and laptops. Many of these usually reference movies like Sneakers and The Terminator, among others and they only seem to exist for the sole purpose of fan service. Very few of these objectives reference the actual story and with the amount of pop culture references in this game, most of the secondary objectives really feel disconnected from the story.
You can only hold two weapons which can be swapped out with others found throughout the environments and ammo is never hard to come by. The crosshair will turn red when it’s on an enemy and black when it’s on an object that can explode. And there’s a lot of shit that explodes in this game. Cars, barrels, mines, machinery, and electrical equipment are just some of them and enemies always seem to be placed right next to something that can blow up. It really is fun to enter a mine field because if you shoot a mine, it usually starts a chain reaction of explosions of all the mines nearby. When anything explodes, enemies caught in the blast will fly in different directions and it’s just crazy fun to watch.
The enemy AI isn’t actually too bright. In addition to the fact that they always seem to be standing near something explosive, when they spot you they’ll just run towards you and if you shoot them they never really make an effort to move and will just stand there as you gun them down. With that said, the game is all about head shots. Shoot a fucker in the head and it’s an instant kill. Once you get good at this, the game can be a breeze. The enemy variety is actually really lacking and there’s only a handful of different enemy types. You got your standard thugs, dudes with armor and a shotgun, guys with heavy machine guns, and the later missions introduce dudes with shields. Sometimes you’ll have to deal with enemy snipers or guys with rocket launchers somewhere in the distance, but of course they’re almost always standing next to an explosive so they don’t really pose much of a threat. Some missions have silencers you can acquire for various weapons but they really don’t add anything to the gameplay. Shooting enemies in the head with a silenced weapon won’t alert other enemies nearby but the moment you’re spotted or even miss a head shot, all of a sudden all the enemies know where you are. The silencers just seem useless and going in guns blazing is more fun anyway.
The lack of enemy variety doesn’t really matter because the shooting is just so satisfying that even if the enemies were babies, it would still be fun to play. There’s all different kinds of guns and I believe one of the developers at Criterion even labelled the game as “gun porn”. That’s pretty much what it is. You got pistols, sub-machine guns, heavy machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, a sniper rifle, and even a rocket launcher. You can also hold up to a maximum of nine grenades. Specific doors require a shotgun to blow open which is neat at first but eventually becomes annoying. These doors will only open from a shotgun blast and considering you can only hold two weapons, you’ll always want a shotgun on you just in case. Even a rocket launcher can’t penetrate these doors, it’s ridiculous, really. But shoot a rocket into the side of a building, or at anything else, and it usually sets off a chain reaction of explosions. The environments are somewhat destructible although sometimes you can see how the objects will look after they break thanks to the visible seams in the objects. The headstones in the third mission are good example of this.
Everything seems to blow up or break in Black and it’s just awesome. Watching dust and smoke fill the air from walls being chipped away by bullets during an intense gunfight is truly something to behold. The particle effects are really amazing and sometimes the air was filled with so much dust and smoke that all I could see was muzzle flashes from the enemy weapons. The fifth mission in particular has a sequence like this that feels very reminiscent of the famous lobby shootout scene in The Matrix. Needless to say, Black actually looks pretty good for an original Xbox game. The guns are really well modeled with good texture work and the reload animations look great, too.
The sound effects are some of the best you’ll ever hear in a shooter, even to this day, and if you listen closely, many of the gunfire sound effects are taken straight from classic action movies and shows. For example the MP5 gunfire is taken straight from Die Hard. If you’ve seen the movie True Lies, the Uzi should sound familiar. These little touches are fantastic and I fucking love it. This is the kind of game you play using a quality headset or quality speakers. Now maybe it was because I was playing this on the Xbox 360 but some of the silver weapons just didn’t sound right. The gunfire of the G36C for example just sounded distorted compared to it’s standard counterpart. And the MAC 10 Elite would sound like a silenced weapon with the silencer on or off. I don’t know of any way to fix it but at least the other guns sound correct.
The music in Black is hit or miss. The main theme was composed by Michael Giacchino and Chris Tilton. I really have no idea who Chris Tilton is but Michael Giacchino is known for his excellent music in the Medal of Honor series. The theme itself isn’t bad, actually, it sounds very cinematic as does the rest of the music in this game. But during gameplay, music only kicks in during certain sequences. There’s also plenty of voice acting to be heard but considering I didn’t give a shit about the story or characters, I would just drown out the voice work. Sometimes you’ll be accompanied by soldiers but most of the time Kellar talks to whoever using his radio. I kind of wish there was no dialogue because then at least I could pretend something more interesting is going on.
I only have a few problems with the gameplay. For one thing, Kellar isn’t exactly quick on his feet. You can’t jump or sprint which is actually kind of annoying. This means you have to walk around every obstacle and sometimes you turn a corner and a rocket will be fired directly at you. I don’t know if he’s jogging or running but it’s usually not enough to avoid the splash damage. Being able to sprint would be a big help. You can only hope the rocket misses you and goes the distance. Also, there’s no blood or gore. With all of the bullets and explosions, the blood of enemies would be splattered everywhere and it just seems like a missed opportunity. Another issue I have is with the environments and that’s because the locations are just not that exciting. The entire game lacks in the color department and that doesn’t help make the lackluster environments any more interesting. I don’t know, many of them just feel bland. On the technical side, I didn’t encounter any major issues but the frame rate will dip when things get really hectic. I already mentioned the story sucks and like I said before the game is short. You can probably beat it in under six hours on the Normal difficulty mode. But the gameplay is extremely fun so there is a good chance you may want to replay it a few times. The silver weapons are nice but another gameplay mode would have been a welcome addition. There is no multiplayer so you’re just forced to keep playing through the campaign.
Even to this day, Black is one of the best first-person shooters you’ll ever play. It’s short length and completely forgettable story are the only big drawbacks here. I’m usually a stickler when it comes to AI and the AI does suck but the gameplay is so fun that most of the problems found here can be easily overlooked. Thanks to the phenomenal sound work the shooting feels so satisfying and blowing shit up is so much fun that it’s hard not to smile while you play this. I think fans of action movies will get a lot more out of this and if you can’t identify at least one of the pop culture references found in this game then you may want to rethink your taste in movies and actually watch something good. So in the end, I would definitely recommend Black to anyone whose a fan of shooters or even action movies.