At one point two generations ago, Criterion Games was poised to be one of THE big names in games development. After churning through a handful of solid but underappreciated titles with their internal Renderware engine, they struck gold with Burnout and perfected the arcade racing genre in a way that hasn't been matched since. Electronic Arts saw their potential and gobbled them up just before the release of Burnout 3: Takedown. Slowly but surely, Criterion started to make Need for Speed games and faded into the EA machine, and 2006's Black feels like the first step down that road for the studio.
Obstensively, Black was to be to shooters what Burnout was to racing games. The narrative was minimal, a standard tale of soldiers and espionage framed around the then-fresh War on Terror that was thrown into the game at the last minute. The actual draw of the game was its technical prowess, showcasing destructible environments and explosions galore. In its day, the tech was impressive, and blasting through walls in Black has only really been topped by Battlefield: Bad Company in the decade since the game's release. However, if you play old games, you know that technical showpieces never age quite as well as games that are focused on mechanics and gameplay.
Your arsenal in the game is bog standard, featuring pistols, SMGs, and sniper rifles that wouldn't look out of place in Modern Warfare. The shooting is decent, and you have every option you'd expect in a game like this. You can apply silencers to most light arms, and you can switch between single shot and full auto on an AK. The game even pulls a neat trick that blurs your vision whenever you reload a gun. In the long run, the novelty of all this realism wears off quickly, especially in a game that is supposed to be more about explosions than tactical gunplay.
All of this is especially disappointing since you can see hints and teases of Burnout's trademark sense of humor. The collectibles you can pick up and/or destroy throughout the level are all intelligence about laser weapons and hard drives detailing drug busts. Red barrels are seemingly more common in the level design than ammo pickups. All this combined with the ridiculous number of dumb goons you're mowing down over the course of a stage, and any motions towards realism seem that much more silly.
This isn't to say that Criterion's presentation is without merit. Black's focus on spycraft and secret military operations predate Call of Duty's franchise defining shift to modern military shooters, and I can see a lot of Black Ops in the way that Black tells what little narrative it has to dish out. Outside of the cutscenes, you are left with overlong levels that are serviceable, but unoriginal. The storytelling in-game is indecipherable gibberish, and even the cutscenes start to blend together after a while. Without that real drive to complete the mission, I felt that the game was keeping me at a distance, and I found it hard to engage in what was there.
Divorced from over a decade of companions screaming "Oscar Mike" at my character, Black's campaign is forward thinking. It saw where shooters were going at the time, but suffers from the limitations of the platforms it was released on. Black is just on the razor's edge graphically, living somewhere between the blocky models of Halo: Combat Evolved and the recognizable as human characters of Halo 2, which is fine until you remember that Halo 2 is two years its senior. Since its focus is on technical wizardry, its graphics were left to be passable, which is a far cry from what Renderware was capable of on the original Xbox.
As a historical curiosity, Black is a fascinating piece of the larger puzzle of Criterion's rise and fall. As an FPS campaign, it's an utterly forgettable seven hours that has been surpassed time and again by successive entries in the genre. Games like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Timesplitters show that there is room for an FPS that embraces the anarchic glee of Burnout, and it's a shame that Black was not the game to do it.
Black was reviewed on an Xbox 360 via the Xbox Originals program with a copy purchased by this reviewer.
Black is as middle of the road as games come, filled with themes and ideas that have been redone ad nauseum over the years.