If you haven't gotten your fill of first person shooters and love things that go boom, I just might have a game for you - if you're willing to take a less-than-stellar game at a nice, reasonable price. Black is developed by Electronic Arts-owned development studio Criterion, the guys who made the Burnout series of racing games. This time, though, they've decided to branch out into first person shooter territory with Black. While this game will give you a wonderful first impression, it quickly wears out its welcome with repetitive action and live-action cutscenes that depict what seems to be a deliberately vague plot.
The story in Black starts out with the soldier you control, Keller, getting grilled by some high-ranking government official. As Keller talks about the last four days' worth of events, you'll get to play these scenes (there are eight fairly large levels in total). The game gradually fills in the basic skeleton of the story: Keller was sent to infiltrate an Eastern European terrorist organization called the Seventh Wave, but his refusal to follow orders makes for some real problems.
Black has tons of explosions. It's tough to expect anything less from the guys behind Burnout, which features more cars crashing than pretty much every other game ever made. And if there's one thing that Criterion can put on the feature list for Black, it's that there are more explosions per minute than any other first person shooter. Sounds great, sure, but it turns out this actually starts working against the game. How could this possibly happen? Well, after the 93rd explosion, which will happen about 20 minutes into the game, the explosions stop having an effect on you. You'll just keep going and even ignore most of these blasts. Essentially, Black is in overdrive for most of the time you spend playing the game, and its nearly-constant frantic pace ensures that you'll be desensitized to the action long before you're done.
This is not to say the action's bad, because the gunplay in Black is very solid. Guns get lots of bullets, and you'll get a good selection of stuff that one would expect to see from Eastern Europe. What's annoying, though, is that the game constantly expects you to blow up stuff to kill nearby soldiers, which means that your idiotic opponents are conveniently standing next to fuel barrels almost constantly. Did I mention that there were so many explosions in this game that they completely dull you? Even barrels with bonfires in them blow up huge when you shoot them. Unless someone had just thrown a few half-used aerosol cans into the barrels, the last time I checked, shooting at a fire doesn't cause an explosion - well, in Black it does!
When you're required to actually shoot people in Black rather than just the combustible things near them, you'll find that the headshot is key. One or two shots to the head will take your enemies out, and that's certainly preferrable to shooting center of mass, because in this game you'll need to unload at least a dozen bullets into someone to kill him. Got that nice pump-action shotgun? Put it right into his chest and pull the trigger, and - get this - he'll commonly fall down and then actually get back up, requiring another shot. The weapons look and sound great, but they feel incredibly weak because of this.
While Black will often give you multiple paths and ways to get to your goal, the lacking AI really kind of kills the fun in trying the same thing in different ways. Far Cry was a first person shooter that did this right, because the enemies could be killed regularly from huge distances, you could traverse a huge area, and your enemies would also run to get help. Here, your enemies just don't really care when glass shatters near them, and it seems that when one guard gets hit by a headshot, the only reason the guard standing next to him is alerted is by some sort of scripting. It all feels a bit stiff and rushed; it'd have been nice if Criterion could have given us an AI system closer to Far Cry than to the original Wolfenstein 3D.
Black tries to add a bit of replay value through extra secondary goals and more difficulty levels. But since these difficulty levels only get tougher by stopping you from carrying around extra health kits, they're not terribly different from the normal difficulty. And the secondary goals usually just require you to either blow more stuff up or find various bits and pieces that are hidden (badly) throughout the levels. There's a pretty fun unlockable feature that I won't spoil here, but suffice it to say that if you didn't enjoy the game the first or second time through, this unlock isn't going to help much.
There are certain aspects of Black's presentation that are really slick. Background videos in the menus show some very nice-looking guns being fired, bullets and casings flying around, things like that. The soundtrack is done by a real Hollywood orchestra, and it does have a nice effect in-game. It's too bad about the game's strange live-action cutscenes, though, because if done right they could have really added something to the game overall. And the radio transmissions that go back and forth throughout the game are also weird and pretty annoying, and really just don't seem to fit in well with the rest of the audio. Finally, the last battle in the game is very disappointing; after only maybe six hours of gameplay, you might just be wondering where the rest of the game is. Sadly, that's it.
With a lack of multiplayer modes or any decent replay value, Black falls flat. It's got some great elements in the presentation and some sweet explosions, but after seeing one of these every ten seconds of combat, you'll most likely be yawning. The action's passable, but efforts to give the player a bit of choice just don't work well. I like EA's low(er) introductory price of $39.99 for Black, but even that seems high considering what you get in the box. Pass on this one unless you just haven't had enough explosions in your day.