Black – Final Review

Black’s central narrative is painfully simple and derivative, being devoid of any ambition, any desire to innovate or offer anything novel. The framework is a protracted interrogation, the protagonist and player character engaging in forced discourse with his military superior, who shows no sympathy, instead being a figure of crassness – he is, in short, a stereotype, the cliched, gruff military man. Given his bluntness, he treats the protagonist with disdain, displaying considerable impatience, questioning the protagonist, Kellar, about his motivations, the precise reasons why he committed insubordination earlier, acting of his own concern rather than following military tradition, which dictates that the soldier be submissive rather than confrontational. In a manner, this narrative resembles that later featured in Battlefield 3, though that title’s narrative, while itself basic and barebones, far exceeds that which is present here. These greatest narrative failings are attributable to the nature of the presentation, the style of the various cutscenes. Rather than being pre-rendered or in-engine, these cutscenes are all live action, and they accordingly appear very cheap, very ugly and unrefined. The developers had certain ambitions for the cinematic, certainly, with various filmic techniques employed here – extreme close ups are common, while cutting and editing can be erratic and chaotic. Even a noir-like aesthetic is sought, the protagonist constantly puffing away at a cigarette, thick plumes of smoke crowding the frame. His voice acting, meanwhile, is completely unremarkable, not abysmal but totally unnoteworthy, making player / player character identification difficult. The discourse between these two central characters has the potential to be compelling, though this potential is undermined by traditionally poor writing – everything is forgettable; cliché abounds. As the narrative progresses, Kellar discusses a shady organization he sought to dismantle, led by a highly villainous figure he supposedly vanquished and silenced, his hated for that figure trumping personal duty and occupational responsibility. Matters are predictable, the narrative lazy. The cutscenes which bookend the various missions are often no longer than a minute or two, ending just as swiftly as they are begun.

Being released on the original Xbox and the Playstation 2, it follows that overall presentation and graphical fidelity would be lacking, lesser, and so it is here. Just as the narrative shows a poverty of ambition, a complete poverty of creativity and whimsicality is also present in the environmental design, the various maps drab and uninspired, characterized by boring browns and greys – vibrancy or any real coloration are completely absent. The advanced age, meanwhile, brings with it considerable limitations – draw distance is traditionally very poor, while overall texture quality is similarly poor. Despite these limitations, some environmental diversity is indeed present, the more open-ended environments being especially notable. Amongst these more compelling environments, a mission which occurs at night reigns supreme, a beautiful, tranquil blue sky up above the player, while a bright moon shines in the heavens, its inherent beauty supplemented in grace by billowing white clouds. Here, the game transcends its technical constraints, though this environment is mostly anomalous, the vast majority of levels devoid of this beauty, the characteristic ugliness resulting in a dampening of the joys which would traditionally accompany exploration, environmental navigation. War torn streets can be interesting in theory, though the brownness of these selfsame streets destroys those potentials. Mountains of rubble accumulate in these more urban environments, funneling the player in one specific direction – the game is almost hyperlinear, hyperlinearity being clung to always, again dampening exploration’s appeal, as such exploration is essentially impossible, the game essentially a straightforward march in one direction, with no veering away from that predetermined path. A sharp imbalance is in place too, in that the claustrophobic interior environments are even more unremarkable and unappealing than the exterior ones. A navigable asylum area is exciting and engaging in theory, but the dwarfed sense of scale is depressing and deflating here. True, any scale characterizing the exterior environments is largely illusory, though still these exterior locations are far more profound than the interior ones. Almost inexplicably, though, the presentation transcends these manifold failings – texture quality is poor, creativity is lacking, while linearity dominates, but the game is never outright ugly, can indeed be beautiful at times, boasting excellent, highly atmospheric lighting, a real achievement.     

The environments may be drab, the reasons for exploring those environments may be lackluster, but the gameplay proper is mostly successful – if highly repetitive, the game fast growing tiresome and tedious to play, even as the overall playtime is very slight; any potential allure fast disintegrates. Black handles like any traditional first person shooter, featuring the expected conventions of the genre, though the control scheme is rather odd and awkward, different from others of the genre; different, but intuitive, easy to adjust to and master. A two-weapon limit is in place, greatly hampering opportunities for experimentation, cutting down also on flexibilities in combat, though conversely forcing the player to make many tactical considerations – swap from one weapon to another, and gameplay can be altered somewhat, some weapons providing the player with greater flexibility, potentials for success, others being very useful but highly situational. Gun modelling is excellently done, the weapons very rich in detail, the developers seeking to insert more creative flourishes in their weapon design, all the while refusing to depart from realism. Such creative flourishes are visible whenever swapping weapons, a brief, stylistic animation accompanying that act. Switch to the sniper rifle, for instance, and the protagonist will fiddle with the lens cap, adjusting the object in preparation for more accurate shooting. Switch to one model submachinegun and the protagonist will extend the weapon’s stock – these details, so minute, are very impressive, though their inclusion actually has an adverse effect upon the gameplay proper, in that these weapons are unfirable until the animation is completed, making combat finnicky, destroying smoothness. Combat generally can be quite frenetic, and this slowed weapon swap speed, this unskippable animation, places the protagonist at considerable disadvantage. The weapons themselves oftentimes feature immense recoil, and the learning curve centers around managing that recoil, a worthwhile endeavor – master these patterns, and combat success is a certainty; fire blindly, do not measure fire rate, and death is likely, even as the overall difficulty level is very slight. Learning these complexities of recoil and fire rate is consistently very rewarding, and with the exhaustive nature of the arsenal – a litany of submachineguns, assault rifles, shotguns, pistols and other more niche weapons are equipable – combat is absolutely the game’s greatest contribution to the genre, not necessarily elevating it, but refining it considerably; much enjoyment is to be had here – initially.   

Despite the punchy, impactful nature of the guns, their great diversity, Black’s combat is not exactly abounding in depth or complexity, being very simplistic. Some depth – and novelty – is present when considering the health system in place. The game was released in a moment where full regenerative health was not commonplace, and accordingly the health mechanics can seem like a relic from a different era, but this status as a relic is not exactly a negative but is in actuality a strange sort of positive. In this title, two principal ways of recovering health are present – firstly, while exploring the environment objects are discoverable which restore health automatically; secondly are objects which can be collected and added to the inventory for future usage. Generally, these systems encourage slower paced gameplay – running in wildly oftentimes means total disaster, success being nigh unachievable if the overall stock of health packs is low. Seemingly, this result in a slower, more cerebral experience, though ultimately the gameplay is let down by one considerable failing – enemy health values. Some aspirations for realism are certainly present, in that almost all of the opposition can be dispatched with a headshot or two, meaning that method of targeting is by far the most efficient, but if not directly targeting the head, enemies can endure an absurd amount of gunfire before dropping, reflecting a complete break from realism, creating immense frustration, as enemies absorb sometimes an entire assault rifle magazine before eventually expiring. Armor plating logically lessens the damaging qualities of gunfire, certainly, but not to the extent depicted here, while even fully unarmored enemies boast such inflated health values. It is difficult to overstate how much this simple decision compromises gameplay enjoyability; it is a major blunder, an oversight which is somehow preposterous, a mistake which could easily be avoided.  

Even still, with their exaggerated health enemies are rarely very threatening, overall difficulty slight, though periodic difficulty spikes are present in fair abundance, the challenge level skyrocketing before dropping again. Multiple different difficulty modes are present, but changing to a harder difficulty level half way through the campaign would likely have disrupted the overall experience – in a way, then, I regret not playing on hard from the first, though the in-game description of that mode paints it as being almost excessively challenging; there is no middle ground. Certain enemy types do remain threatening throughout, however, rocket-launcher-wielding enemies being especially problematic, owing to the devastating nature of their weapons, their great blast radius, and these enemies generally feel very cheap, out of place, while something similar could be said of the enemies which wield sniper rifles, which can drop the protagonist in a bullet or two. Amongst the most threatening, though, are the more heavily armored foes, those who wield shotguns. In addition to possessing absurd, impossibly inflated health values, their damage output is immense. They are most easily dispatched if the player also wields a shotgun, a weapon which is often dangerous to use; being a pump action, it follows that fire-rate is low, and missing a shot then leaves the player dangerously exposed until the pumping animation is completed – it is a very skill based weapon, and is thus very enjoyable to wield, is oftentimes crucial to succeeding in the scenarios which possess abundant difficulty, while grenades, carriable in fair abundance, are also central to success, efficient dispatchers.       

The game’s greatest failing is related to its mundane, highly repetitive nature, the player engaging in essentially the same actions at the narrative’s opening as at its conclusion – milieus may change, allies may change, while the appearance of the foes may also change, but the gameplay is always the same – move forward and shoot at the opposition until all hostile targets are dead; that, and that alone, is Black. The game does not realize that louder moments are more impactful and resonant when they are paired alongside quieter, more introspective moments which are devoid of the overly bombastic; Black is intense always, to a fault, the player rarely provided a moment to breathe, to explore the world, to engage in discourse of any kind; all throughout is hostility. A reprieve or two would elevate the narrative and gameplay considerably, would help to stave off the commanding repetition. Today, developers realize the importance of gameplay diversity, even and especially in the FPS genre. Now, such a game may feature many diverse gameplay experiences – open combat may be commonplace, but now included are stealth experiences, vehicle sequences, basic puzzle-solving, or, if the game is of a more open-ended sort, protracted moments of exploration. None of this diversity is present here, and the game’s potential gameplay strengths are ultimately squandered. Some lazy attempts at stealth are included, many weapons supporting an equipable silencer, but there is essentially no reason to strive for undetection, which is essentially unachievable anyway owing to the perceptive nature of the AI, which is programmed rather cheaply, whether when speaking of stealth or of open combat. As the narrative progresses ever onwards, these flaws only worsen in severity; the final few missions are completely disastrous, stale, terribly stale. Consider the penultimate mission, which transpires atop a sprawling bridge, the ultimate objective being a crossing of that bridge. The end result is essentially a steady march forward, the player moving in one predetermined location, shooting at foes only to receive permission to begin again the steady march forward – it is painfully basic, and here again the game displays its frustrating hyperlinearity. Shoot at the surging troops, dispatching them all; take a brief break of thirty seconds; begin again the shooting process – that is what characterizes this mission, disastrous, completely devoid of any depth, and while collectively the game is not of such of poor degree, many similarly pointless sequences are present, do dominate. Had there been a brief platforming sequence, seeing the cautious navigation of the bridge, again the mission would be improved. But it is not to be, cannot be, owing to the highly restricted mobility options, the player incapable even of jumping, cutting down on player flexibilities in combat, while verticality broadly is completely absent. Such a sequence, again, would serve only to make more enjoyable the return to open combat, the resumption of hostility. But all that remains is painful, dull repetition, as the same actions are completed, only to be recompleted a short duration later.    

Black’s most resounding – perhaps only – achieved is related to its gameplay, which is foundationally very strong, guns being weighty and enjoyable to shoot, being also rich in detail and in variety, featuring notable kick and excellent sound design, that sound design elevating the overall shooting experience. The expansiveness of the arsenal maintains somewhat gameplay freshness, though ultimately stale sameness consumes everything, no matter how frequently weapons are changed, no matter if different combat tactics are embraced. Environmental destructibility seemingly plays a vital role in the gameplay, most surfaces and objects destructible if subject to sufficient gunfire or sufficient explosives, though in actuality this destruction engine is, as is the case with so many other of the game’s systems, painfully basic. It enables a more stylistic component to emerge, but the system is simply not as well-developed as might be desired. The organic nature of this destruction, the cinematic dimensions it enables, does compensate for the cinematic failings characterizing the narrative proper, but ultimately these systems are mere window dressing, having little actual impact on the gameplay. True, cover can in time be destroyed outright, necessitating a shift in location, but the system generally seems gimmicky, even as it contributes to greater combat intensity. Despite the gimmicky nature of this destructibility, its inclusion helps the game carve out its own distinct identity, particularly useful and valuable in such a crowded genre, a genre which is now more dominant even than as was the case at the game’s launch. The game is let down further by its especially frenetic nature, being loud continuously, the cutscenes which would typically serve to break up loudness being not only cheaply made, but also impossibly brief in length – the game is too loud, and this loudness grows insufferable as the narrative continues. If these cutscenes were removed, meanwhile, absolutely nothing would be lost. Indeed, if they were replaced with a simple text description, improvements might be made – the game’s narrative, in its present state, tries too hard, and that ambition only makes more painful the narrative failings. The game itself is very short, completable in six or so hours, though seeming far longer than that brief playtime, owing to the tediousness of the entire affair; completion of the campaign was like a relief, never a good admission. Various optional difficulty modes are present and unlockable after initial completion, perhaps in efforts to incentivize repeat playthroughs, though it is baffling to consider how anyone could actually be eager to replay the campaign. Ultimately, Black is plain and inoffensive, doing nothing which is innovative, merely existing. Some enjoyability is attached to the gunplay, while environments can occasionally soar, but enjoyability generally is fleeting.   

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