There should be a label somewhere on the box that reads "concentrated gaming, add water before playing", for that is precisely what Black is - a first-person shooter condensed from what would ordinarily be several days of play into several ear-splitting hours. Criterion's certainly done what it set out to do - put the bang back into a genre at risk of becoming a mite stale. It has stripped away the flim-flam of HUDs, tactics, gadgets and different vision modes, returning to a simpler, more honest time when guns did the talking. But it's come at a price, too. Pure, crunching, fantastic action this may well be, but a lot has been sacrificed along the way.
Black is essentially one dazzling set-piece after another, strung together with the loosest of stories told via flashback. Traitors, sleeper cells, Eastern Bloc paranoia and macho military mumbo-jumbo punctuate the action, trying to give some kind of coherence to the onslaught of violence. You'll not want to take too much of it in, of course - the hunt-for-a-traitor-within-your-midst storyline is something of a disappointment. The ending is far too abrupt and unsatisfying too, but we'll get to that later.
First up, the killing! Criterion's promise to take shooters back to their roots has seen ladles of attention lavished upon the mechanics of holding and firing a gun (and all the destruction that follows once you pull the trigger of course). Black has the finest collection of weapons we've seen in an FPS. Everything feels properly weighted, with just the right dose of recoil, and accuracy. The detail of each gun is astounding too (apparently, each one has more polygons than a Burnout car). Ammo belts protruding from guns swing as you move, or tiny belt clips on sub-machine guns rattle lightly in their casing. After boasting that Black is supposed to be 'all about the guns' Criterion had to go to town, but we've a feeling the developer's been a little too zealous about getting the weapons 'just so'.
See, the thing is, the guns in Black, as good as they are, should be secondary to what you actually do with them. The big problem is though, every time you reload (which is, unsurprisingly, very often), everything in the foreground goes out of focus while you're forced to watch the reload sequence. It takes little more than a second or two, but it is horribly off-putting. In the heat of a battle, if you're caught in the open and made to reload it's as though your glasses have fallen off. Why Criterion thought we'd want to endure these eye-aching moments of seeing the screen blur in and out of focus is anyone's guess, but it looks like a poorly made last-minute decision. You'll notice the demo has none of it. We just reckon someone thought the gun models were so impressive we wouldn't mind having to watch the painstakingly detailed reload sequence every 30 seconds or so. It's a bad idea, and you can't turn it off either. You should be watching what they do, not watching the weapons themselves.
As an exercise in destroying the environment, though, Black will not be seconded in the current generation of games, nor many of the next-gen either. Just about everything you see you can obliterate, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is precisely what Black is all about. It's an excuse to shoot and blow things up in the most glorified way possible. Trucks laden with oil barrels, parked cars, heating ducts, pillboxes, walls, windows and walkways can all be grenaded or shot to merry hell. None of it is actually physics-based (although being so over the top, how could it be?), but as far as scripted explosions go, this is more fun (and more ridiculous) than The A-Team. Waiting for bad guys to take shelter behind a truck before lobbing a grenade after them is great fun - but chucking one through a window is gobsmacking; a second or two of silence followed by a muted 'whooomph', as the entire front side of the building bursts outwards. It's relentless, fast-paced and undeniably good fun, pretty much as Criterion promised it would be, sure. But just as the game starts to crank things up a gear, when you're fighting tooth-and-nail to stay alive against a volley of RPG fire and armoured soldiers, Black abruptly just ends. And if you thought the Halo 2 finale was a cop-out, wait until you play this. It's a deflating sucker-punch of an ending alright.