Black Cover
Platforms PlayStation 2, Xbox
Genre Gun Porn
MtAMinutes to Action 4
Keep Playing? Probably
Buy from Amazon

When I think back to the first time I saw Sonic the Hedgehog running on the Genesis (which I wasn't yet familiar with), I recall marveling at how much better it looked than the Mario games I had at home. I remember the time my brother tried to explain Super Mario 64 to me, and how little I understood what he was saying until I finally witnessed it in action. When I brought home a Gamecube the morning it launched, I was impressed with the speed and fluidity of the Death Star trench run that began Rogue Leader, at least when compared to its predecessor on the N64. But the first time I saw Call of Duty 2 at Toys R Us on an HDTV screen, the only thought that ran through my mind was...

"Really? This is next-gen?"

Yes, the characters were constructed of more polygons. And the textures were clearer. And of course, the higher resolution made everything easier to see. But I just couldn't help but feel a little disappointed, seeing that the the game, and others in the 360 launch library, just didn't seem to bring any worthwhile improvements to the table. In fact, it wasn't until the first time I saw Lost Planet's smoking RPG trails, gorgeous boss monsters, and swarms of flying enemies that the feeling of a new generation really sank in.

On the other hand, many quality games are released at the end of a console's life cycle, once developers have a firmer grasp on the intricacies of the hardware. It is unfortunate that they're often overlooked for the next console's rushed launch titles, but that's reality. EA's Criterion studio, creators of the high-octane Burnout series, attempted to buck that trend with Black, a first-person shooter for the PS2 and Xbox that was marketed as a next-gen shooter for current-gen platforms.

The game certainly looked impressive the first time I saw a friend playing it, some five years ago. Does it still pack a punch, or will Black forever be lost between generations?

Minute by Minute

(minutes are in bold)

00 - Difficulty: Normal. In this difficulty, I have to finish all primary objectives and a few secondary objectives in each mission. I'll unlock "Silver weapons" if I finish this mode, I guess.

01 - A live-action scene: Two men sit in a dark room at a table. The older man says that if the young Sergeant Kellar doesn't cooperate, his actions will be declassified and he'll spend the rest of his life in prison.

02 - Kellar begins to tell the older man about his mission to take out the leaders of Seventh Wave, a group of weapons dealers serving terror cells.

03 - It seems something went wrong in the mission.

04 - 4 Days Earlier...the mission starts. Veblensk City Streets. I'm in a small room with windows, looking out into an alley full of debris. First objective is to find the shotgun. It's sitting in the corner.

05 - "Use the shotgun to blast doors." I like that approach. R1 shoots the door right off its hinges. There are grenades in the bathroom.

06 - People are talking over the radio chatter. I don't really understand what any of it means. I come upon my first enemy, and the pixel-sized targeting reticule turns red. Head shot!

07 - X reloads. Circle performs a melee attack. Square picks up weapons, and I can hold two at a time.

08 - Wow, I am immediately impressed with how this looks and sounds. Glass shatters out of windows in pieces, dust flies out of cement when shot, and bullets hitting the sandbags I'm using for cover sound like a punch to the gut.

Black Cars

09 - Enemies are everywhere, in building windows, down alleys, and ahead in the distance.

10 - Aiming is a little looks like there's no option to adjust aim sensitivity in the controls. That's a shame.

11 - I really like how bullets take time to hit enemies that are farther away. There's a second of hang-time between when the slug leaves your machine gun and when it hits the enemy. It feels more like you're firing a projectile weapon than most games where your bullets are tiny lasers, represented by "shot lines" and hitting their target in the same instant that they leave the muzzle.

12 - I've picked up a health pack. Looks like there are Med Kits that instantly restore health and Health Packs that can be carried and used.

13 - I have recovered some black box. Apparently that was a secondary objective. One of ten. It seems I need to complete three of the ten secondary objectives in order to finish the mission (as well as all the primary objectives).

14 - There's definitely plenty of ammo. I've got hundreds of bullets in reserve at all times, and I'm basically going rambo whenever I can.

15 - A terrorist with an RPG is in the top of a tower ahead. I wish I had a sniper to hit him, but my machine-gun does well enough with single shots. He falls over and shoots a grenade at the floor, causing a big explosion.

16 - Plenty of objects in the environment can be destroyed. Some cover objects are only temporary, and are quickly eroded by machine gun fire.

17 - Things have quieted down. A voice says that the "package has escaped the net." Not sure what that means, but I guess I've got to keep moving forward.

18 - I blew out the gas tank of a truck, and it blows sky-high with plenty of smoke streaks flying out. This is definitely impressive for PS2.

19 - Voices over the radio are ordering "Bravo 3" to hold position, rather than move forward. I don't know if they're talking to me, but I keep going. The screen goes black, and I guess that's the end of the first mission.

20 - Seems I completed the minimum 3 of 10 secondary objectives and killed 80 of the 80 enemies in that mission. I get the option to save my profile now. Looks like there's an autosave function from now on.

21 - Back in the live-action present, the two men talk again. I don't understand this at all. Apparently there was a "fourth man," whatever that means.

22 - Next mission: Treneska Border Crossing. I'm in a dark forest, lit only by moonlight that creeps through the trees. I start with a silenced pistol. I can remove the silencer by pressing Triangle. Seems stealth would be the way to go here.

23 - My character attempts to radio "two-one." Nobody answers. He continues anyway. It's quiet. Too quiet.

24 - There's no map and plenty of branching paths. I'm not sure where to go. I found a cave, though, and there's a guy standing inside by the fire. I greet him with a pistol round to the face.

Black Reload

25 - Seems I wasn't as stealthy as I thought, a few more enemies (Russian, I think?) approach but are just as easily taken out. There's a sign with a red star on it next to the road. I take the lower path beside the road, in the grass.

26 - It seems these guys have better eyesight than I do, as they spot me from far away and open fire. So much for stealth...

27 - The Russian terrorists are kind enough to say "Flank him!" in English so I know it's coming. They emerge from around the treeline, and now I'm fighting off two fronts at once.

28 - Things get quiet when I finish them off, but not for long. Another group spots me long before I know they're there, and the chorus of gunshots begins again.

29 - There's a really satisfying slapping sound when my bullets hit flesh, a split second after the loud bang. I'm not one to usually gush over guns, but this is pretty cool.

30 - I'm taking cover behind a log laying on the ground. Pieces of bark fly off when the log is shot. And it does get shot quite a bit before I take down all the oncoming enemies.

31 - I see a gas tank in the distance. The targeting reticle turns black. I guess black-reticle things can explode? Anyway, I have a genius plan to blow up the gas tank so that enemies come running to see what the blast was all about, then take them out with a grenade.

32 - It backfires, and instead of approaching the smouldering tank, they come right to me. I thought I was hidden pretty well...anyway, they're dead now and I'm at the border crossing, taking on soldiers (or terrorists? I don't know) at the checkpoint from the side of the road.

33 - The alarm sounds, and gunners in the guard tower start hammering the tree I've taken cover behind.

34 - Despite how powerful these guns look and sound, enemies can take eight or nine bullets before they go down. This leads to a lot of stationary burst-firing at an enemy until they go down.

35 - There are a lot of explosive things on the road. It's fun to see which ones cause more damage. It's also very useful when enemies run by and get caught in the blast.

36 - Explosions can cause slowdown, though. Lots of it. I guess that's the price you pay for having all these cool effects on last-generation hardware.

37 - I go upstairs in one of the checkpoint buildings to look for ammo, health, and a better vantage point. I find all those things, but also plenty of enemies to fight inside. I also destroy a safe, which apparently had "evidence of domestic wetwork in D.C." in it. A secondary objective, I guess. That's one of three required.

38 - Health's running low. I search the bodies inside for health packs or medkits, finding a few.

39 - Ooh, a shotgun. It blasts people pretty far. It also seems like the most effective way to blow down a door, rather than emptying a full AK-47 clip. I've found details on how to make a dirty bomb, completing a second secondary objective.

Black Fire

40 - Still taking out enemies in towers and on the road. My shots don't always hit the spot behind the targeting reticle, especially when using the AK-47 against far-away targets. I can tell where the bullets go by the impact flashes.

41 - It's quiet. Guess I killed everybody? Nope, I definitely just heard an RPG. Where's it coming from? I'll have to lure another one out and look for the smoke trail...

42 - Oh wow, he's way up the road. I'm going to need to get closer before I can take this guy out. Time to dodge some incoming rockets...

43 - I make my way to the launcher and take him out with my suppressed AK. New objective: Cross the Vlodnik Canal.

44 - I guess that valley of water up ahead is the canal. There's a bridge to the right, so I'll make my way there. Plenty of enemies open fire by the time I see them.

45 - I make my way through a tunnel. Debris blocks the roadway, so I take the railing on the side. I've made it to a checkpoint, and it reminds me that I have one more secondary objective required.

46 - It's hard to see through all the smoke, so I aim for the enemy's muzzle flash. It seems to work, though it takes a lot of shots to take them down.

47 - My character again tries radio contact, calling for a rendezvous ahead. He decides to continue with his mission despite radio silence. The music is a tense orchestral piece. It's definitely not what I'd expect from a shooter like this, but it's fitting.

48 - Soldiers are patrolling ahead. I can probably take them out quietly...but they see me long before I get the chance, as usual. I think I'm supposed to be able to be stealthy here, but the enemy AI's line of sight is just too good.

49 - I've come to the bridge going over the canal. A soldier is walking up to the road ahead. Again, my stealthy approach fails, and the alarm sounds.

50 - I'm almost dead now, and the screen goes gray. I can hear a heartbeat and feel it in the controller as well. My health regenerates, but not very much.

51 - Taking cover behind boxes. They get chipped away quickly by enemy fire, and that's making me pretty nervous so close to death.

52 - Thankfully, there are plenty of trucks and gas tanks and pipes to explode. An explosive tank beneath a raised platform causes it to collapse, killing the sentries on top of it.

Black Explode

53 - Finally found a health pack and I'm back to full health. Good thing too, I'm getting hammered by gunfire on this bridge.

54 - A tire that was blown off the truck is standing upright. It doesn't move when I shoot it, though. I guess once complex objects are destroyed or broken down, their pieces aren't interactive. Oh well.

55 - Found a "film list for J.J. Directorate." That's a third secondary objective, so I don't need to find any more. Primary objective complete, I've crossed the canal.

56 - Next objective is to find the rendezvous point at a farm ahead. I try taking out some spotlights on the road. You have to hit the bulb to destroy them, hitting the frame won't take it out.

57 - More anxious string music starts up. There's a small makeshift bunker ahead, and plenty of gunfire coming from inside of it. There's a wall protecting them, so I don't have a very good angle to shoot them. How can I get up to a better vantage point?

58 - I hit a few explosive objects inside the bunker and take out a fraction of the enemy forces. I've made my way around to the side of the fortification, and I have a good view inside of it now while keeping my back against the wall.

59 - I found an entrance on the other side. One remaining terrorist charges forward. I bet he regretted that decision after he heard the shotgun blast.

60 - Checkpoint reached. I'm in a ravine now. Enemies drop down from above and charge in. OH JEEZ THEY HAVE SHOTGUNS. That hurt, bad. They also have body armor, and take a full clip to go down. Things are ramping up here at the end of the first hour.

Black Chunks

First Hour Summary

Minutes to Action: 4

What I liked

I got that boom boom BOOM: I can see why this game was marketed as "gun-porn." I've played a lot of shooters, and few have firearms as satisfying to shoot as Black. Likewise, the work put into in environmental destructibility and impact effects is impressive.

Video: The textures aren't especially good, and some objects are low-poly, but it's a bit hard to believe this game is running on a PS2. The bland, realistic style is bolstered by some impressive lighting, smoke, and particle effects. 

Audio: Black won a few well-deserved awards for its sound design. The warzone sounds damn good. The background orchestra sounds darn good. The staticky radio chatter just sounds regular good.


What I didn't like

Have we met before? All shooters that aim for realism suffer through one big problem in my mind: enemy variety. I've encountered a few hundred terrorists. The grand majority of them were the same man with the same assault rifle. A few had RPGs, a few others heavy machine guns, and one had a shotgun. The stale feeling of repetition was only barely offset by some pretty good stage design.

Story: I have no idea what is going on. I don't mind the live-action framing device, but it feels like Criterion Games designed the game first and then shoehorned a story into it.

Gameplay: As far as shooters go, there aren't a lot of distinctive features to Black. It just does what most shooters do -- shoot!-- only louder.


Other thoughts

Challenge: It seems almost every fallen terrorist had a health pack in his pocket. Still, I was pretty close to death near the end.

Pacing: There have been no in-engine cutscenes yet, only the live-action segments that last a minute or so between missions. When in control, I spent 90% of the time shooting and 10% thinking I had a stealth option, but ended up shooting. At least the tonal difference between the first two missions was nice: I started out with a loud shootout in the city streets and stepped into a quiet infiltration into a border crossing. Okay, maybe it wasn't that quiet.

Fun Factor: So far, the game feels like a summer blockbuster. The special effects and attention to detail are very impressive, but I'd be hard-pressed to say it's unique.

Would I keep playing? Probably. The only thing that makes Black distinguishable in the flood of first-person shooters is a layer of polish, but I have to admit that I'm eager to see more.

Black Partner

Words from Beyond the First Hour: I ended up playing through the rest of the campaign in Black. I didn't really keep track of play time, but it couldn't have lasted more than eight hours. I don't think I would have wanted it to.

Though the scenery changes rapidly from dockyards to foundries to underground bunkers through the eight missions, you'll only come across five or six different guys  -- assault rifle guy, machine gun guy, shotgun guy, sniper guy, RPG guy, riot guard guy -- over and over again, dealing with them all in basically the same way each time. Unlike most shooters with this problem, Black makes a special effort to make every bullet satisfy, and it did stave off déjà vu long enough for me to see Sgt. Kellar's vague story all the way through to the half-hearted ending.

So how much green is Black worth? If you're up for a singleplayer, bargain-bin shooter that rivals many games from this generation's most bloated genre in spectacle and mechanics, then I say skip the 3D screening of the next G.I. Joe movie and see if you can find this PS2/Xbox title for that price. It'll be four times longer and half as dumb.

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