Back to Black – Criterion’s signature shooter

For those of you who weren’t clutching controllers in the early 2000’s, Black may have slipped you by without much notice. But for those of us with Sony’s black box or Microsoft’s monolith, this was a game of legend.

Criterion making an FPS had always been big news. They claimed to “do for shooting what Burnout did for racing – tear it apart”. Obnoxiously loud and powerful guns? Check. Destructible environments? Check. Immense explosions and gorgeous visual effects? Oh yes, plenty of those. Criterion promised to impress, and they delivered spectacularly.

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The game was released across PS2 and Xbox in February ’06, and the reviews were unanimously positive. The Official Playstation 2 Magazine UK rewarded it with 9/10, and Metacritic scored the game 79/100.

Even before the game started, you were rewarded with a cinematic soundtrack from Chris Tilton – famous for Mercenaries: Playground Of Destruction‘s soundtrack – working with composer Michael Giacchino who cut his teeth with the scores for the Medal Of Honor and Call of Duty series.

In Black, you could only carry two weapons at a time, although you could pick up any weapon found in the game – which forced you to be strategic in weapon choice. Any land mines or grenades can be detonated by shooting them, and maps were littered with items that exploded when shot. Bullets that hit buildings/terrain/objects left visible damage, which varied in size according to the weapon fired. Instead of having to shoot out entrenched enemies, you could blow them and their cover to smithereens. A locked door blocking progress? Blow it off its hinges or go through the walls.

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The guns themselves were rendered with incredible detail, and this emphasis on the appearance, functions, and sounds of the weapons led Criterion to affectionately label the game as “gun porn”. The maps themselves felt big and open-ended, even though there were only eight levels. Granted, there were linear paths, but the levels still felt huge with impressive visual effects and draw distances. Enemies would come from all angles, taking cover or running-and-gunning. In the thick of it, your adrenaline soared as you fought to stay alive. Timesplitters has always been praised for being frantic, but Black took it to a whole new level by being cruelly unforgiving if you got things wrong. It was intense.

“The MP5 in the game has the sound from Bruce Willis’ MP5 in the original Die Hard”

This was helped significantly by the sound. Explosions were bass-heavy and sounded powerful. All the weapons echoed their movie counterparts complete with massive muzzle flashes. Bullets that hit enemies sounded like someone hitting a steak with a claw hammer. Sound, Criterion ruled, was paramount to immersion because in the real world, you can hear what you can’t always see and in a game, this makes the player feel somewhat vulnerable but constantly focused. You would always be able to hear the RPG being fired before you had a chance to see it, for example.  If you had this game playing through surround-sound speakers, you’d be forgiven for glancing over your shoulder every once in a while.

Criterion later admitted that the sound effects for the weapons in the game were based on action movies. For example the game’s MP5 has the sound from Bruce Willis’ MP5 in the original Die Hard and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Uzi lends its noise to it’s in-game counterpart from True Lies.

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As well as being loud, the game’s AI was intuitive: destroy their cover and they’d move out of range or try and flank you. Take cover, and they’d harass you with sniper fire or cut you to shreds with heavy machine guns and frontal assaults. The further into the game you got, the better their aim appeared to be, and killing them took an increasing amount of damage. The game even introduced guys clad in body armour or sporting riot shields, both of which had individual weaknesses – just spraying them will bullets wouldn’t work. They’d also hound you when you were reloading, so you could never afford to be caught short.

During the frequent reloading, Black kept the gun in focus but blurred everything else, giving an impressive depth of field to the game. It helped build tension, especially if you were under fire, and its originality was widely praised by critics. Similarly, if your health fell below two bars, the screen turned black and white, time slowed down and the sound of the character’s heartbeat became the dominant noise and was synchronized with controller vibrations. Originality was paramount, yet it didn’t stop there.

“The sound designers developed the “choir of guns” concept. . . this was unheard of in movies, let alone in games!”

Criterion realised that in the chaos of gun battles, the mix of sound and music try to compete for prominence. To avoid this, the sound designers developed the “choir of guns” concept. In a traditional FPS game, each weapon model would be assigned a different identifiable sound, whereas Black assigns each enemy/weapon combination their own “voice”. For example, if there are three enemies firing upon you, one would be assigned a low voice, one a medium voice, and the final one a high voice. This allowed all weapons being fired in any particular scene to harmonise – with each other and the background music – and deliver a unique sound for the game. This was unheard of in movies, let alone in games! It was so successful that Black‍ ’​s sound was nominated for “Best Audio” at the 2006 BAFTA Video Games Awards, and went on to win “Best Art and Sound” jointly with Criterions’ Burnout Revenge at the 2006 Develop Industry Excellence Awards.

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Despite all this, Black is not without its niggles. The big one being the inability to jump, even if environments suggest you’d be able to. Complete the game on the normal difficulty and you get infinite ammunition which couldn’t be turned off, plus the grenade arcs were never what you’d thought they’d be. In some of the more complex levels, it had a tendency of taking you into ambushes without warning or stopping you from back-tracking. This would be fine if the game didn’t reward you for finding hidden weapons and intel as secondary or bonus objectives.

If you haven’t played it, I recommend it. Just so you can play an important piece of FPS history. Black paved the way for the more-realistic shooters where weapon detailing and cinematic effects/soundtracks became standard. Turn up the speakers before you start, and I promise you won’t regret it.