Criterion is best known for its unbelievable racing series Burnout. They took arcade racing to the next level and gave racing fans exactly what they wanted -- high speed, fast cars and huge smashes with insane graphics. Burnout is one of the biggest franchises in gaming today, and Criterion is one of the biggest names. So what does the developer who's owned the racing genre for the past few years do? They take their penchant for destruction and put it in a totally new genre which brings us to their latest game, Black. Black, on the surface, seems like a very generic shooter, but once you experience what Criterion has done, you realise that this is one of the coolest, if not most complete games you've ever played.
Black focuses around a conspiracy story involving the CIA and a group known as Seventh Wave. Played retrospectively, the storyline is displayed through a number of live action cut scenes with some of the best voice acting and camera work you will ever see. It may seem repetitive and all the same, but Criterion has really managed to capture what it may be like for secret agents who find themselves on the wrong side of the US Government.
Black, as you may have guessed, is played in a first person format and in some ways doesn't do that much different to other games. The best way to describe Black is Serious Sam with a realistic story. The main goals of Black are to get from A to B alive, however depending on the difficulty level, you can also be tasked with other goals such as recovering blackmail evidence and intelligence on the enemies you are taking on. At the lowest difficulty level, you just have to complete primary goals, but crank it up and not only do you have to deal with harder enemies, you also find yourself running around the huge levels trying to find small bits of information. It does add to replay value which is important considering Black does not have multiplayer.
The other big feature of Black is, like Burnout, the whole level is practically destructible. We aren't talking about blowing up fuel canisters near enemies, its more along the lines of leveling buildings and taking out structures. The game heavily promotes this due to the fact the AI has an insane level of accuracy. Normally we would criticize developers for this approach, but Black can be forgiven due to the aforementioned destructibility. The first time you see a building or vehicle explode and shatter into millions of pieces, you will be in awe at the power on display. This is most definitely a game where spraying windows with bullets to hit an enemy hidden behind a wall is worth trying.
While Black is primarily a single player game, you will at times be part of a squadron. These levels tend to be tougher than others, which is why it is good you can leave the AI to be the point and scout and hide behind their invincible bodies. The AI is also pro-active. If a sniper is covering you and see's someone about to shoot, they will take them out rather than just sit there. We were a little disappointed that a lot more of Black is not squad based, but Criterion has done the best they could considering how ambitious this game appears to have been.
One thing we're not to sure about the game is the levels and level design. There are ups and downs but the best level appears to come very early on in the game. For some reason, a few of the levels remind us of Half-Life 2 with the colours and textures used. As well as this, the game continually moves on through the same area rather than taking you all across the world. This of course enhances the storyline, but has forced Criterion to be quite limited in how different each level looks and feels. Another thing we're not too sure about is the structure of the game, unless you appreciate the small nuances that Criterion has included to differ this game from other first person shooters.
Where the game really impresses is the visuals. If you can shoot it, it will break. Walking up to a building and progressively shattering the windows gives some of the most advanced particle effects ever seen. Another interesting move by Criterion is to blur the screen during reloads, obviously giving the impression that while reloading you concentrate on the gun rather than you're surrounds. It's not just the explosions which impress either with high levels of detail for enemies and the player character. However, another nod to Half-Life is the fact that in the game you never actually see your character.
BLACK was hugely hyped by EA and perhaps it didn't live up to it as much as many may have liked but it still remains one of the better shooters. Criterion has also proved beyond doubt that they are a developer who can do more than racing games. If you like Burnout and like first person shooters, buy this because Criterion has done to FPS what they did to racing games, all over again.
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