It won’t be long before a first person shooter franchise takes over the world. The FPS clubhouse is certainly filling up swiftly, with a multitude of titles trying to squeeze in the door and show their mettle. There are certainly some high-quality titles, BioShock having produced a particularly compelling latest entry, but really I think that at the moment we’ve only really got two big boys. Battlefield and Call of Duty have been running the show for a while now, and some of the more lazily designed efforts (I’m looking at you Medal of Honor reboots) should keep them from worrying about a usurpation for at least the time being.
Both DICE and Activision have become industry superpowers over the last few years, that’s undeniable. But even if you think I’m overreacting when I suggest that it’ll be global dominance next (let’s see whose laughing when Captain Price is suddenly running for the presidency), one thing that can be said with certainty is that a world run by either franchise would be decidedly dark and gritty. Now, I’d be mad to suggest that the advent of realism within gaming isn’t a winning formula; they’ve been such a resounding success both in sales and the sharpness of their technical execution, but that honestly never used to be the case.
I’ve been gaming for the best part of 15 years, so I can say with some confidence that something has changed. Shooters were so much more vibrant and wacky, and never did anything as ridiculous as trying to take themselves seriously. Just to prove my point, here’s my idea of the sort of conversation that might take place between CoD and the hilariously unsophisticated Timesplitters. “My characters are persistent throughout the story, and even show emotional growth that allows the player to project onto them.” “My characters are cowboys. And teenage goths. And aliens. Oh, and I think you can play as a dinosaur as well.” I think the change in attitude is clear. And while I’ve had so much fun with both, I wanted to know why the genre took such a radical turn. What was ‘genesis’ for the realistic shooter?
Happily, I know the answer. And even more satisfying is that the title in question happens to be one of my own personal favourites of all time. All the way back in early 2006, EA published a game titled simply ‘Black’, as in Black-Ops, a severely dark FPS that saw the player take on the role of Sergeant Jack Kellar. Framed as a series of flashbacks, Kellar tells of his efforts to uncover an arms smuggling operation, seeing the player guide him through some nicely varied missions in Eastern Europe. It was met with a sincerely muted and ever so slightly reluctant thumbs-up. Critics seemed to hover around the 7/10 mark, impressed by the detail of the weapons and with an approving nod towards the games unique selling point of destructive environments. What’s that? Interactive maps and realistic gun design? Sounds suspiciously like the main ingredients of our current big selling franchises.
With regard to the review scores, everyone knows that all the greatest artists aren’t fully appreciated in their own time. But even so, I have always been surprised at just how easily it slipped under the radar, both then and now. I checked as well; you can’t even get it on PSN download. It’s a disgrace! Retailers should screen anyone who wants to buy a modern FPS and make sure they have played Black first. That way, players can learn their heritage and respect their elders; this was the start of something BIG.
And I think EA may have even known that. The design was quietly sophisticated, trying to make sure that there wasn’t such a harsh shift from wacky to gritty. Hidden in every level was a ‘bonus’ gun, which tended to make the level easier or changed the necessary play style, and there was even a ‘Silver Weapons’ mode on level select that allowed you to replay completed missions with unlimited ammo. The best of both worlds, as far as I was concerned, and it softened the impact of several changes that could have been considered quite radical. Headshots killed in one, no matter what the weapon, but body armour and metal masks varied the enemy difficulty without compromising the ‘realistic’ tag. The kick was horrible on shotguns and snipers, and every round fired was accompanied with a rejected shell, a beautiful example of the attention to detail that made the game so real.
As for why I love it? Aside from everything it has done for the genre, it takes a place in my personal Hall of Fame simply for being so utterly gripping. The set pieces made use of every last ounce of PS2 hardware, peaking in three wonderfully imagined sections. The insides of an industrial foundry, with moving cover and frantic fire-fights didn’t need the technically superior graphics to keep my attention, because it captured the essence of the game so beautifully that I could almost smell the coal fires. Emerging into a vast concrete expanse of the factory earlier in the mission was even better; the echoing, isolated shots did more to keep me on the edge of my seat and fully immersed than anything I had ever experienced. And just when I thought I couldn’t be any more impressed, the game gave me a sniper rifle and told me to defend a graveyard. Horribly tense silence, fleeting figures darting between the headstones, panicky and ill-timed shots. It was a hideously underrated, highly polished masterpiece of level design that I have yet to see bettered.
Black was easily one of the best and most unique experiences I’ve ever encountered in gaming. And even apart from my own nostalgic love, I think it made a generation of titles what they are today; essentially, a license to print money. So it makes me sad to think that Black, not even given a download option, is forever sentenced to go dusty on the shelves of second-hand games retailers. The only comfort I can take is that at least I’ve still got a copy to show my grandchildren.