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Black label

A distilled shooter that goes down smooth

3/28/2006 5:36:47 PM

HOT TIP: When facing down an enemy one-on-one, use your melee attack. It works a lot faster than bullets.List all the things Black doesn’t have and it’ll sound like a pretty lousy game. There’s no map screen, for one thing, and that’s annoying till you realize the levels are so linear that you couldn’t get lost if you were playing blindfolded. You don’t commandeer vehicles or hack into security systems. The game is ungodly short. It seems almost criminal that a first-person shooter released in 2006 would not have a multiplayer mode. Yet by stripping away so many of the extraneous features we’ve come to expect, Black proves that dabbling in many areas is never preferable to excelling in one.

In this case, the specialty is mayhem. Black plays like an ode to gleeful, cathartic violence. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman will be working overtime at the Killology Research Group to crank out feverish press releases condemning this one. It’s not that Black is gory — far from it. But its makers grasp what so few game designers do: we want to see our enemies die dramatic deaths. Bad guys don’t fall over and evaporate from view in this game. They flail their limbs and fire wildly into the air. They misfire rocket-propelled grenades at their own feet after taking one in the chest. They fall over guard rails and grab hold at the last moment, little realizing that they’re only delaying the inevitable because you’re staring at the back of their heads down the barrel of your MP5 . . .

Of course, you’ll quickly understand that shooting at your foes is the sucker’s way out. They’re wearing bulletproof vests and can withstand a dozen rounds or more. (Headshots excepted, natch.) Instead, the key is to blow up whatever flammable objects they might be hiding behind, like propane canisters or vehicles. These aren’t wimpy explosions, either. Even apparently wooden crates often contain explosive power sufficient to waste a terrorist or two, and I’m still resisting the urge to grab acquaintances by the sleeve and tell them about the time I blew up a fuel silo with a rocket launcher. It might have been the biggest explosion I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Spend a few minutes with Black and you won’t be surprised to learn that the masterminds behind it, Criterion Games, also developed the Burnout series. Like Burnout, Black takes a genre we’re intimately familiar with, reduces it to its core elements, then cranks the volume to 11. There’s a fetishistic portrayal of the weaponry — when you reload, your character’s vision goes blurry except for the soothing, sharply drawn outlines of your boomstick.AN ODE TO GLEEFUL, CATHARTIC VIOLENCE: Dabbling in many areas is never preferable to excelling in one.

Not that you need to reload all that often. It’s almost impossible to run out of ammo — which is good, because shooting tends to be the solution to every problem you come across. You can open doors only by blasting them off their hinges. When no door is available, you can create one by unloading a clip into the nearest wall.


Despite a few feints at depth, such as a convoluted story involving an al-Qaeda-like terrorist group called “Seventh Wave” and secondary objectives that are really just item hunts, Black’s slavish devotion to its trigger-happy ideal is what sets it apart. Sure, it’s hard to ignore the lack of a multiplayer option. But it’s tougher still to resist the white-knuckle experience the title so fleetingly provides. This is the sort of game you put down and then realize your hands are killing you from having gripped the controller so tightly. So what if it’s only six hours long?

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