Black review: Black

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The Good Really sharp audiovisual presentation. Makes a great first impression. Lots of glass to break.

The Bad Not much reason to play through it more than once. Gameplay feels stuck in a rut. Disappointing story. Often-idiotic artificial intelligence.

The Bottom Line Black's first few levels are exciting, but the action movie formula wears thin fast, and the game's over not long after.

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Black is an explosion-filled first-person shooter from Criterion Games, the company responsible for bringing explosions to driving games with the Burnout series. Like the Burnout games, Black packs in a lot of firepower. It seems like something's blowing up every minute or two, and this helps the game make an absolutely killer first impression. The action, however, doesn't hold up for long. Black quickly falls into a rut that not even amazing-looking blast effects can save it from.

Black's story puts you in the shoes of a soldier named Keller. You begin the game with a cutscene that shows Keller in chains, being grilled by a slimy government type. Every single full-motion video cutscene in the game returns to this interrogation, which sets up each of the eight missions as flashbacks covering the previous four days. Over time, you learn that your objective was to take out some sort of arms-dealing terrorist outfit known as the Seventh Wave, and its leader, an off-the-farm ex-operative known as Lennox. But beyond lots of shadowy, Black Ops-style talk, there's not much to the story. That includes the final confrontation (or lack thereof) and ending, which is almost painfully disappointing in its brevity. One could say, given the game's attempts at re-creating the short-on-story, long-on-muzzle-flash activities you'd find in a typical action movie, that the way the game focuses on the gunplay fits, but even action classics like Commando have at least some closure.

Instead, the focus is on the gameplay, and Black makes a stunning first impression. The graphics are terrific, and yes, lots of stuff blows up. You always feel like you've got plenty to shoot at, and a steady flow of ammunition popping out of every soldier you nail means you don't have to worry too much about running out of shots. Grenades aren't especially satisfying until you realise that you can shoot them to make them blow up faster. Considering that the artificial intelligence bolts away from grenades whenever they're tossed, this is essential to making them useful, especially when you're up against shielded enemies.

The game doesn't require much finesse, instead opting for brute-force tactics most of the time, with some occasional -- and optional -- stealth moments thrown in. This is where your ability to reliably score headshots comes in handy. It would be easier to overlook the game's weak narrative if the action remained satisfying from start to finish, but the gunplay in Black doesn't offer much variety. Since the game's explosions are its strong point, the developers set up a lot of scenarios where there are enemy soldiers standing near something combustible, letting you put two and two together to get them all at once. For a while, this is pretty exciting. But this happens so often that it starts to seem forced. But there are just enough cool moments throughout the game, like shooting your way through a pair of minefields or fighting your way out of a shower room that had to be inspired by The Rock, to make it worth playing through.

Also, for a game that's supposed to put a focus on the guns themselves (the title screen consists of slow, focused animations of the guns firing and reloading), they sure don't feel very different from one another. The key differences between the weapons are range and recoil. Since the game sets up a lot of cases where you're hanging back and trying to shoot someone in the head, recoil isn't much of a factor, because you're squeezing off one shot at a time. And the range factor, combined with a two-weapon carry limit, means you're probably never going to willingly pick up a Mac 10 or an Uzi, because they simply can't reach those long-distance targets like the G36C, MP5, AK-47, or M16 can.

While shooting your enemies full of holes always has its charm, they don't put up too much of a fight. Your foes are dangerous only when you're confined in a tight area and there are masses of them firing on you. On the normal difficulty, the basic trooper has trouble even getting that right. Furthermore, there are a tonne of situations that stick out. You'll find yourself shooting through windows to hit headshots on foes, then you'll round the corner to discover another solider standing right next to the one you hit, still oblivious to the fact that anything has gone awry.

In addition to your primary objectives -- which don't get much deeper than simply making your way through the level -- you'll have to complete at least some secondary objectives to finish levels on the normal, hard, or unlockable black ops difficulty settings. But these objectives are really just loosely hidden objects in the level that you either need to collect or blow up, so they're never involved. However, the objects you find are usually pretty funny. The game is full of a bunch of references to other fiction based on shadowy government stuff, so you'll find objects that can be traced back to movies like Sneakers and WarGames and TV shows like Knight Rider.

The eight levels in Black don't take long to complete. Experienced first-person shooter players will be able to blow through the game in six or seven hours the first time. The harder difficulty settings are, as you might expect, more difficult, though the primary difference is that you can't carry any health kits with you on these settings, so you won't be able to heal on command if things get rough.

Black stands out as a solid graphical showpiece for both the Xbox and PlayStation 2. The game has great lighting, with realistic sunsets and glares. Of course, the explosions are the star of the show. The gun models look pretty good and have authentic-looking animations for reloading, which is a nice touch. The environments, mostly an array of catwalk-filled disused factories, look sharp. The game runs at a smooth frame rate on the Xbox. Though the PS2 version doesn't bog down very often, it happens enough to be noticeable.

Black is designed to sound like a big-time Hollywood action movie from top to bottom, and it does this pretty well. The soundtrack plays a big part here, as it's full of the sort of big-time orchestral music that you'd expect from The Rock or another modern big-budget action movie. The sound effects go a long way toward making the guns sound like they're doing damage.

Overall, Black's strong first impression is bogged down by its repetitive and often-standard gameplay, weak enemy AI, and short length. There are some good ideas here, and the technology is cool, but you can't help but think that there's still a bunch of untapped potential throughout the game.

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