‘Black’ (2006): First-Person Shooter Ahead of its Time
For a long time now, the Call of Duty franchise has been the standard for modern military first-person shooters in video games, but they owe a debt to many groundbreaking titles that came before, including Black, an award-winning game that is often forgotten but remains one of the best of the sixth-generation era.
Developed by Criterion Games for Electronic Arts for the Xbox and Playstation 2, Black takes place in present day Ingushetia and Chechnya in the Russian Federation. The story is told by black ops soldier Sergeant First Class Jack Kellar (voiced by Marty Papazian) in flashback, four days after the events depicted. Kellar tells of an arms smuggling and terrorist operation called the Seventh Wave who are reportedly behind a number of deadly terrorist attacks. Initially hesitate to tell the story, he is told that if doesn’t he will be imprisoned and disavowed. He goes on to detail the missions and how he learns that the leader of the Seventh Wave is actually a former CIA agent who faked his own death. Kellar spends the game chasing him down and by the end, a twist reveals an unexpected surprise and a promise for a next chapter (that has yet to come . . . sort of).
Players complete missions in standard first-person shooter mode, able to carry only two weapons at a time, which is typically two less than the current norm. This means players must focus a lot on strategy. One reason this matters is because of the game’s use of destructible environments, where many objects can be exploded or otherwise crumbled. This ranges from columns and stone fences to the sides of buildings, creating a lot of variety in approach as not only can the player crush or destroy an enemy, their own cover can also be disintegrated. This puts a lot of emphasis on the weapons, one of Criterion’s central tenets in making the game. Guns are modeled with exacting detail and feature a depth-of-field and blur during reloading, which makes for some very realistic effects. That is all old-hat nowadays, but back in 2006, it was unheard of and mind-blowing. Guns available are basic sidearms like Berettas and Desert Eagles to sub-machine guns like HK G36Cs and MP5Ks to shotguns and two-handed machine guns like the M249 Saw and M60. There are plenty of explosive weapons as well, including rocket launchers like the RPG-7 and the M203 Grenade Launcher. It’s good to make things go boom.
This attention to detail extends to the effects of the gunfire as well, with bullets leaving real-time, visible damage. The experience is very immersive (even after ten years). Black was one of the first games to truly capture that cinematic feel gamers were longing for, and while the story is threadbare, purposefully so, the action and motivation for progression is high. That stems a lot from the gameplay and visually stunning environments. Touted as having the best graphics of the console generation, the interaction and level design for Black make these graphics all the better. At the time, it was like nothing console players had ever seen. Even today, it’s really impressive. Mix that with Academy Award winner (Up, 2010) composer Michael Giacchino’s stunning score and this is one you won’t soon forget.
The only real issue with Black is its short story, which can be completed in less than 7 hours and of course, its total lack of multiplayer, a decision that absolutely capped the lifespan of this otherwise excellent title. Looking back, it showcases a lot of what was coming in shooters, with cover-based options, chaotic gameplay, destructible environments and guns, guns, guns. The fun in this genre is wholly dependent on how well the player is challenged in navigating through and completing objectives to which Black does a superior job, offering plenty of scenarios for varied weapons use and tactics. While a sequel was never made, many of the game developer behind Black came together for 2011’s Bodycount, a supposed spiritual successor that didn’t fare well with critics. If you still have your Xbox or Playstation 2 hooked up and want to taste a bit of the future in a game of the past, dust off your old consoles and get your mits on Black. It’s a great weekend game.
Developer: Criterion Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: First-Person Shooter