Review

Black

New boy Stevie paints it black...

Where first-person shooters are concerned, there's a whole host of games on the market that offer that little nugget of originality to dedicated fans, while holding true to the same basic genre motivation. These individual elements of attraction may well include compelling storyline, visceral thrills, gritty authenticity, and moody ambience, but, whatever the case, there's always some specific draw for consumers. And, in recent times, a vast sway of FPS titles have attempted to reproduce the fruitful blueprint created by the genre's forerunners. Yet, with Black, we find a product where gamers can happily bypass the frustrations of another derivative shooter while being flung headlong into a fast-paced FPS experience that admirably blurs the lines of established standards and, as a result, manages to emerge as a pleasingly fresh slice of gaming entertainment.

Most notably with Black, its developers (Criterion) have lovingly crafted a game to quash that shadowy sense of disbelief felt by gamers during FPS gunfights, the whispering voice of doubt that incessantly reiterates the game's limited physical capabilities. In certain 'other' FPS videogames, when players are faced with hordes of merciless enemies, they can simply take shelter behind crates, support stanchions, or stacked barrels to achieve complete covering safety. In Black, the contents and physical structure of these cover-friendly items is fully explored and exploited by player and A.I. alike. Terrorist groups may well have machinery, weapon supplies, or flammables stored in their crates and barrels, so those individuals crouching behind them should therefore not be overly surprised when caught in a fiery blast of exploding contents. Usual forms of covering safety such as concrete supports, posts, pillars, and headstones, are all openly susceptible to the onslaught of gunfire and explosions, and those hiding in their shadows can suffer a grizzly death from collapsing elements and/or resulting debris.

Criterion's degree of detail creates a frenetically charged and involving gameplay ride that, although not as self-assured and immersive as the Half-Life's and Halo's of the genre, does successfully evoke new definition. The many forms of wanton destruction available within Black are effortless in execution, yet never anything less than thoroughly satisfying in effect. Furthermore (and quite cleverly), the entire game's colour palette is extremely sparse where red is concerned, and when players catch a glimpse, it usually indicates an environmental element that can be blown up in grandiose style. That naturally means the gleeful exploitation of oil drums, gas canisters, and huge fuel dump containers at every occasion. Yet the explosive fireworks aren't simply for the sake of shallow entertainment value-though each one will coax a smile of appreciation-but can also be used in a tactical sense to destroy obstacles, vehicles providing cover, charging enemies, and protected emplacements, which collectively only serves to magnify Black's immersion. Every encountered environment throughout the game registers, reacts, and records realistic damage, and every bullet, grenade burst and shower of shrapnel is preserved on surfaces to instil a tangible sense of ongoing destruction. Ultimately, the game does nothing more than attempt to realise its promised theme, which is "Go In All Guns Blazing", and in that sense it succeeds with relative ease. Black

It's unlikely that you'll have visually witnessed a stronger title on the PS2. Graphically, Black oozes quality straight from its cinematic introduction, slickly produced movie segues and mission montages, through to the rendered weaponry clips that exist behind the main navigation menus. The in-game graphics are overflowing with high quality particle effects, atmospheric lighting, and lovingly detailed environments. Useable weaponry is considerable (although initially limited in terms of performance), and it increases at a steady rate throughout the game. Moreover, the arsenal at your command is also a joy to use too; this even includes the usually woeful inclusion of the underpowered MP5. It must be noted here that weapon magazines are much larger than players will be used to; it's not often in videogames that you'll find a standard clip that sports 70 or 80 rounds. Black's usage of this approach and also the general sense of ammo generosity throughout the game, only further strengthens the drive to let fly with the carnage. The act of reloading also invokes a fresh visual thumbprint on the genre because the equipped weapon moves toward camera and adopts a sharply defined focus during the process, while the remainder of the screen is blurred to indicate a switch in attention. This goes some way to instilling a sense of caution amid the frantic gunplay when and where reloading is concerned, especially as enemies swiftly become just as blurred and indecipherable as the rest of the environment. In terms of performance during heavy action sequences, Black's graphics never betray signs of chop, jagging, or slowdown while explosions and shockwaves tear beautifully through environments. Explosions truly rule Black, and it's worth noting that players will likely cherish their allocation of grenades, because hurling them at enemies, into rooms, through windows, beneath vehicles, or at fuel drums results in a visual feast that never grows tiresome and all-but shames every other game's explosive achievements.

Black's musical performance mirrors that of its visuals, and it moves easily between carefully considered atmosphere and huge instances of blood-rushing accompaniment. Criterion has also bravely opted to leave sections of the game entirely devoid of music, instead preferring to centre the game's action through howling winds, battle reverb, and other subtle environmental sounds. This further concentrates the impact of the music when it does make an appearance. Fire fights, explosions, live-action segue acting, and besieged NPCs are convincing but, yet again, most notable are Black's fabulous eardrum-shattering explosions. There is perhaps nothing in the game able to surpass the act of dealing with relentlessly wily and accurate dockyard snipers by targeting the fuel canisters that hang above them on the cranes they're hiding on. Watching and listening from distance as the crane is engulfed and the hapless sniper duly vaporised is never anything short of shockingly enjoyable as the rumble of destruction washes over you.

Every release suffers its moments of detraction; sometimes they prove major, sometimes minor. Black is no different in this respect, but thankfully its criticisms fall into the 'minor' category. Occasionally the game is guilty of ropey A.I., which is one of the cardinal sins in the FPS genre. There are infrequent but annoying moments when believably accurate and battle-hardened foes will wander from cover with no sense of self-preservation, which can hit immersion levels and subsequent enjoyment somewhat. There are also those conveniently stupid instances when nearby enemies in another room, corridor, etc., fail to hear or react to the raucous rattle of gunfire playing out around them. However, your own accompanying A.I. troops are perhaps the worst offenders in terms of stupidity as they're prone to ignoring the attentions of enemies in order to carefully navigate environmental elements. Black is also found wanting when it comes to gameplay variety. There may be a varied arsenal at the player's disposal, and a wealth of specific mission objectives to complete (such as intelligence and recon gathering), but the game's overwhelming drive is placed on the singular aspect of unfailingly destructive progression. That said, and despite the sporadic A.I. discrepancies and somewhat shallow campaign structure, Black still manages to maintain an impressive sense of unsullied entertainment.

There will be some who label Black as an exercise into the realms of exaggeration, a thinly veiled trip into frantic action and easy destruction without any true sense of progressive narrative or other compelling undercurrent. And they may well be right in that assessment. However, as a freestanding FPS experience, Criterion has created Black with nothing short of clearly marked goals along the way. At no point in Black's development did the game ever indicate it would become anything more than what it is: a high-powered homage to the FPS genre in its simplest and most undiluted form. Many of today's games strive for layered intricacies they cannot reach, and subsequently they fall flat in the process, crushing that most valuable of all gaming assets: fun. Black is fun from start to finish, and that's a priceless achievement not often attained in modern videogames. Black

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