Hype is a killer. Rarely, if ever, can anything live up to it. Especially video games. Both Fable and Enter the Matrix fell far short of Peter Molyneux and the Wachowski Brothers’ boisterous claims. The innovative (though some would say “clunky”) control scheme of Killer 7 derailed Capcom’s hype machine within days of the game’s release. And Daikatana—well, let’s not talk about Daikatana.
This time around, the culprit is Black. Like Molyneux, the Brothers Wachowski, Capcom, and John Romero (Daikatana‘s daddy), developers Criterion are to blame for the incessant excitement. I mean, really, when a studio calls their game “gun porn” and claims it will “redefine” a genre, they’re generally blowing smoke. But despite numerous letdowns, we inhale. It’s just too bad we can’t exhale and get our money back.
Black is too straightforward to redefine the FPS. In truth, it’s as one-dimensional as Serious Sam, but with a more serious (pardon the pun) tone. Whereas the latter is loved for its simplicity (because it makes no claims otherwise), Black is not. It wants to play with the big boys, like TimeSplitters: Future Perfect and Half-Life 2, but lacks the firepower.
Both HL2 and TimeSplitters are exciting first-person shooters set in living, breathing worlds. The characters are worth caring about because the developers took the time to inject life into them through well-developed dialog. Black lacks this. Instead it’s like a porn star: seemingly pretty, but the harder you look the more rundown and used-up and unappealing it becomes.
With every death and explosion, bodies and debris are strewn all over the huge, gritty urban environment without so much as a hiccup. As they fly, however, you take notice that, while the visuals are beyond belief, everything is drab and lifeless and lacks the sense of wonder that Half-Life 2 brought to the genre: it’s just a grey city made up of millions of polygons in which to shoot your pistol, not a once vibrant world that has come under fire.
An interesting feature is the alleged destructibility. Say a group of hostiles are defending a building and returning your fire. There’s no obvious way around them. What do you do? Simple, really: destroy the surrounding walls. They crack and crumble and come crashing downward. Crushing your adversaries. Unfortunately, however, it’s poorly implemented. Often I found myself shooting at the environment, believing Criterion’s claim that the world was fully destructible. It is not. Instead the developers have chosen what can and cannot be destroyed, making the effort a waste of time, bullets, and health (though you may be aiming at the walls and cars, your enemies are still gunning for you).
The story is as clichéd as any B-grade action flick: some terrorist group is threatening to destroy civilization, so some American agency sends in the faceless Jack Keller (not to be confused with Jack Bauer) to do their dirty work. This dreary story is told through some truly appalling live action cutscenes, which apparently are meant to immerse us further into this “gripping” international tale of death and mystery.
On top of this, Criterion believed that kills should require full clips of ammunition. For an M16, that’s 20 rounds. Then they added in the utterly pointless reloading blur effect. Every time you go to reload your weapon, everything on the screen—save the gun—blurs. This not only makes you vulnerable, because you’ve slowed down, but it also makes it nearly impossible to focus on your enemies’ movements. By the time the effect has washed away, your target will have moved, say, ten (virtual) feet to the left, but you won’t know that until he’s pumping 20 rounds into you. Worse still is the reloading of the Magnum. This presents Jack with the biggest risk, as he takes the time to admire the bullets before actually loading them.
Gun porn, after all; one naturally has to admire his large piece before firing round after hot round into another’s face.
It’s a shame that Criterion let hype get in the way of Black, because they obviously began to believe it themselves and overlooking glaring, fixable flaws.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/black-2006/