Black? One word. Five letters. Marketing manís dream is that. One letter better than Halo and one customer-confusing word fewer than Half Life.
Guns? Yep, Matrix-referencing ĎLots of Gunsí! Explosions? More fireballs than a 1970s chip-pan incident! Guns and explosions! Shooting things and making them blow up!
Early in its development Black sounded like new-IP-by-numbers. We were promised a rule-breaking FPS with more shooting and more exploding than anything that had ever gone before. And then Black arrived and the early levels didnít play as nicely as the demo. And for some those early levels drew out to a total game experience that felt no more special than any other run-of-the-mill FPS.
Other players never even got so far as the first level - a now infamous opening cut scene goes on, and on, and on, and on, essentially for ever. No amount of button pressing, combo-button pressing or swearing makes it stop. And itís not the good kind of cut scene - the ones that drive forward a story, introduce new worlds or take you to the edge of Hollywood. Nope, this is a really, really, really bad bit of cod James Bond meets Spooks.
So thatís two massive great big, umm, black marks in the Ďbadí column. Thereís a third: you canít save-game mid-level and checkpoints are somewhat random in placement and attainability. Only spin up the Black disc if youíre really sure you can spare the hour.
Oh and itís really very short too.
Black is flawed to fuck. Flawed like the best girlfriend you ever had - flawed so deep that the flaws become beautiful too. Black is an absolute classic, a one-of-a-kind triumph of British videogaming spirit. But it hides that spirit: approached and played like a traditional FPS, Black is very ordinary. Played like an arcade game instead Ė well shit weíre talking something very, very special indeed.
Throw away the sniper rifle and crash through Black like a gun-toting bull in a flammable china shop and itís a riot. Suddenly the lack of save-points makes sense: this is Galaga, or Robotron, or Defender: it is risk and reward. Back in the day you couldnít save mid-level in Spacies and come back when youíd had a little rest - you had to push on until your fingers blistered and your mind went to water. If you lost all your lives you started again. And again. And again. And so you have to here too.
Criterion head honcho Alex Ward told us Time Crisis had been a big influence on the direction he set for Black. I suspect that older games, the score-is-everything classics, had just as big an influence Ė and thatís key to understanding how to get the true ĎBlackí experience. You have to accept that this is an arcade game - you are the ship, now get blasting. Black takes the FPS back to the arcades and does so in glorious style.
Thatís not to say Black is without subtlety - it creates a sound and graphic environment that represents one of the very highest points on the curve for PS2 and Xbox: levels bleed aural and visual atmosphere by the acid bathtub full. The subtlety plays out too in film and TV homage throughout: look closely and youíll see The Matrix, James Bond, John Woo, The Professionals and more influencing design and story.
I say Ďstoryí - thatís not right. Black has a story, of sorts, about some Black Ops thing to stop something or rescue something or whatever but I canít for the life of me recall what it is. Even after having had another blast all the way through at the weekend in prep for this write-up. And thatís sort of the point: Black isnít about story: itís about how it feels to charge through the woods and round the trading estate with your mates pointing sticks at each other. Black is a British childhood game through the lens of arcade machines and out through impossible-odds action movies.
And itís fun. Hold back and play in the traditional FPS style - take cover, clear the room methodically, move on - and itíll bore you. Instead: take-in a deep breath, break from behind the wall and scream at the enemy: shooting, grenade-lobbing and weaving and crash into them as they fall drying to the floor - take the med-kit, restore a bit of health, crunch into the next nest of baddies, spritz bullets, thwack a rifle butt into blurred faces - hurl yourself at the doorway and on into the next chunk of danger. Thatís the Black experience. The biggest flaw of all is that the game still allows you to play it any other way. Of the many players of Black here at Rodent, only two of us found the true Black style on our own.
There came a point, when stuck in the rat-run trenches deep in level three that I thought all was lost. I had two tiny blips of health left, my heartbeat was slow, sticky like old jam, sounds deadened and my vision began to fail and I was near out of ammo. All I had in the world was the last few ounces of adrenaline to power my legs to carry me forward. Salvation, a bit of respite but more importantly a cache of ammo lay up on the side of the trench but behind two shooty bad chaps. Fuck it! In-for-a-penny... CHARGGGE and Iím crunching into the first guy before he has time to properly aim and heís down, no med-pack, shit, something thwumps into me and two bars of health are one. Iím near death but I rain down blows on the second man. This is brutal and thick and fast and he falls just as I range into the gun sights of more enemies and, yes, a med pack drops and I scoop it up, stumbling, carried forward on the shit at the bottom of the fuel tank and I crash into the ammo cache, new clip and turn and spray bullets to down my new aggressor just as an RPG comes fwoomping past my ear and carooomMMM behind me and I leap out to charge to the flanks and to find a shot on the man-behind-the-rocket before he reloads... and THIS is Black.
This is risk and reward writ large: itís like the old days - if you want the glory then you have to make the charge. I fell in love with Black halfway through level three and we stayed together in bliss till the bitter end. Black is a classic. It is a truly wonderful mash-up of the genre and given its huge commercial success looks set to provide the Criterion team with a chance to up the ante still further in years to come.
I canít fucking wait.