Criterion basically rewrote the rule book for racing games with the Burnout series. Particularly with Burnout 3 and Burnout Revenge, the games were less about racing than they were about crashing. Criterion effectively carved out a new racing genre that others haven't been able to match. With an emphasis on destruction, a full-on action game seemed to be an obvious next step for the company and the result is Black - a game that has wowed journos since it was first revealed as nothing more than a tech demo. The final game is just as destructive as promised, but doesn't stand up as well as the technology that powers it.
There's a story of sorts (with live action cutscenes - something of a rarity these days), but it's pretty inconsequential. Black is all about the action, and if you've been drawn to the game expecting chaos and destruction, you won't be disappointed. If you shoot something it will probably break up or explode or smash. You won't see Red Faction-like total destruction, but everything that you want to blow up can be blown up. If you've played F.E.A.R. on a high-spec PC you'll know how much more impressive destruction looks when accompanied by the debris that comes with it. Black nails this too, creating a sense of real-world realism that few console games have managed before. How Criterion got this running on an Xbox, let alone a PlayStation 2, is incredible.
Each area is often packed with explosive cylinders, barrels, cars, crates and all manner of other things than can be used to quickly and effectively take out enemies. Shoot a large gas cylinder beside a house and it'll explode, taking most the nearby enemies with it; spray a load of bullets into a car that a few enemies are hiding behind and it'll explode, sending the goons flying; lob a grenade into a room and it will actually clear it out (assuming the room isn't too large). The explosions in the game certainly feel powerful and can't really be faulted, but the guns (of which you can carry two at a time) are another matter. While you can blow holes in a wall with most weapons in the game, they don't work quite as well on enemies. The game promotes head shots as the way to down enemies, but even this doesn't seem to make them hit the ground with any kind of regularity. You can literally fire upwards of ten shots into a guy from distance and he'll stagger a bit before continuing to fire at you.
Animation also causes numerous problems. While an enemy is performing one of the hard-coded animations to show he's been hit, he's also invulnerable to further gun fire. You can pump twenty bullets into a guy who's on the ground, and he'll continue to get up without a problem. It's quite a ridiculous system and something that shouldn't be anywhere near a modern video game. On occasion animations also look horrible, as if they're missing key frames. It doesn't occur all that often, but spoils an otherwise great looking game.
'... why on earth prevent actual saving once you've reached a checkpoint?'
Checkpoints and mid-level saves. These are things that have become the norm in video games, even on consoles. Halo handled this perfectly, with a great balance between overly helpful saving and stretches so long that you're begging for a save. You could pretty much tell when you were going to reach a checkpoint; it just felt right. Criterion has seemingly ignored what works in this area and limited levels to a few checkpoints at most, often coming after lengthy amounts of time and encompassing numerous tricky sections. This is criminal enough in itself, but why on earth prevent actual saving once you've reached a checkpoint? It's downright ludicrous. Sure, the game isn't that long, but to sacrifice enjoyment in favour of extending length is insane.
The final big problem is spawning enemies. On more than one occasion I found myself with my back to a seemingly closed door that didn't lead to another part of the level. Then, from nowhere, I'd be on the receiving end of gun fire, as an enemy spawned as if by magic a few feet behind me. You could probably play through the whole game and not find this a problem, but it'll depend on where you haul up for best cover against the enemy. You'll have team mates fighting with you for a number of missions (not that they help much) and if you stick with them and take cover near their position, this problem will be avoided.
Reading the paragraphs above you'd assume the game isn't worth your time, but that isn't the case at all. Black is an exhilarating experience. A few hours with the game will leave you hyped up, mentally drained, twitchy and in need of a break. It's intense. You might be doing the same things over and over, and the problems really do aggravate, but it's still immense fun. Blowing stuff up is something that never gets old and this is done so often and so well in Black that it alone makes up for the numerous problems. Many of the levels are also very well designed, meaning you can gain more satisfaction going through a second, even third time, with the knowledge of how best to take out the enemy. Playing through on harder difficulty settings (which require you to meet more secondary objectives) also unlocks extra weapons and Black Ops mode.
With the single-player campaign no longer than seven hours in length (unless you're totally new to the FPS genre) a multiplayer mode would have been a great bonus, but there's nothing at all for more than one player. The destructible cover would have made for some pretty entertaining online matches, either in straight forward Deathmatch or Siege game types. Sadly, it wasn't to be, and makes the price tag a little hard to take.
Don't be fooled into thinking that Black is the new hope in the FPS genre. Its gameplay is about as generic as it gets, but the presentation is so great that the problems that would seriously hurt another game are just about forgivable. Longevity is an issue, but there's a degree of replay value here due to the unlockables and fun environments. I doubt we'll see a better looking game on either system and that alone might be worth the price tag for some.