It was sometime between Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms that I swore off World War II shooters for good. I’m so tired of traipsing through bombed-out cities, dodging gunfire in eastern European forests and invading underground bases. So I was pretty excited to play BLACK and revel in some up-to-date tactical action; but aside from modern military lingo and a couple of guns, it might as well be 1942 all over again.
If the battlefields weren’t WWII-ish enough, the game is predominately set in Eastern Europe against a regime of soldiers shouting in Russian dialects. The only twist here is that they’re headed up by an American whose ultra-covert division splintered off into their own rogue cell and must now be eliminated by, uhh, you. Sure, you’re a grizzled, non-descript soldier—you’ll work just fine!
Even from the first tantalizing previews I was worried about BLACK’s storyline. The focus was always on the graphics, and EA reps quickly skirted the topic of plot by making something else on-screen explode. As suspected, the game is held together by one of the vaguest storylines this side of the Lifetime movie network. Stylishly jumpy and overexposed live action cutscenes detail your interrogation as you recount your mission. The only really good twist comes all the way at the end, but it does more to set up a sequel than justify playing the game.
Typical locales and wafer-thin story aside, BLACK does do some things really well. The game incorporates some new particle and fire effects that look downright breathtaking, and the sound compliments with rattling explosions and crisp gunfire. And even though we’ve seen these battlefields a million times before, each has enough visual variety and slick effects to keep things fresh. From the dark Treneska forests to the orange-soaked sunset over the Graznei Bridge, the stages are filled with lots of little details and plenty of destructible objects.
The gameplay is solid, but only because it treads no new ground whatsoever. I was constantly reminded of the original Medal of Honor and—even older—GoldenEye. The majority of the stages are extremely linear, feeling more like a deadly terrorist-laden hallway than a sprawling battlefield. There are a few spots in each that branch off, but they reconvene in short order. Another retro irk is the lack of a jump button, which lets the designers cheap out and block your path with tiny piles of debris and even invisible walls. “I could reach that secret stash of ammo if it weren’t for this wooden fence. I knew I shouldn’t have skipped that day in basic training when they went over climbing really small obstructions!”
Invisible walls we’ve dealt with for years, and the linear level design lets the graphics swell up around you and still maintain a crisp framerate. That much I can deal with, but when the designers go Xtreme and require a shotgun blast or a grenade in order to open a simple door, you know something’s up. That’s nearly the only use for the shotgun, as the game is littered with scripted ambushes that pin you down miles out of range.
Should your gung-ho machismo kick in and send you headlong into gunfire, you’ll find enemies respawning until you take out the main target in your path. Ducking for cover, I hid in a tiny alcove on the flank of a machine gun nest. Peeking out to plan my next move, I suddenly found myself being shot at from behind. I spun around to see an enemy shooting me point blank in the face. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize this was your spawn closet.
Even the ability to shoot and destroy the world around you has been pre-planned and scripted with plenty of red “EXPLOSIVE!” boxes that enemies just love to use for cover. I almost feel bad exploiting the A.I., but when each soldier takes over ten body shots to put down, you’re left with no other choice. Speaking of your computer controlled foes, they behave pretty believably in close quarters; but when there’s lots of debris in their path (or from a distance) they resemble targets in a shooting gallery; mindlessly walking back and forth, waiting to be shot. They also don’t care whether you have a suppressor or not. A few minutes into the “stealth” sections and all hell breaks loose regardless of how carefully you plan your shots.
Worst of all—and most unforgivably—is the total lack of save points. In order to save you must complete an entire mission, some of which can last over an hour. With little direction (and even less dialog), it’s hard to tell when you’re nearing the end. Even the final mission has as little immediacy or direction as the very first. Oh, and there’s no multiplayer mode. That’s really important to some people, but with such a simple, visceral single player game it’s not really surprising that the team didn’t bother.
Sadly, BLACK is a lot like our current American culture: It looks really hot but it’s got no substance. Linear and basic to a fault, the game can’t even hold your attention for more than a few days before you’ve completed it (with harder difficulty the only reward). If you’re not tired of shooting things in typical wartime locales with typical wartime weapons, then give this one a rental. It’s not a bad game and it offers a little fun in its over-the-top action; but even for hardcore FPS fans it’s not worth buying.