Black was an important stepping stone in the development of the modern FPS. But how has it aged?

Black is a first-person shooter developed by Criterion Games and published by Electronic Arts, released for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox in 2006.

We’re about to talk a bit about the development and history of this bombastic bridge between retro and modern shooters, and let you know if it’s worth playing now.

So, let’s breach this door, clear the room, and get into it. 

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

The Development History of Black

The 2000’s were a formative time for first-person shooters. PC was THE platform when it came to cutting edge FPSs, showcasing extraordinary achievements in narrative, graphics, and mechanical depth with games like Half Life 2, Doom 3, and F.E.A.R. Consoles were struggling to keep up. 

It’s hard to imagine now, now that the latest Call of Duty plays mostly the same on PlayStation 5 and PC. Parity is expected by modern audiences, but this was not the case in the 2000s. While GoldenEye way back in 1998 and Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001 proved that shooters could work on consoles, significant sacrifices had to be made to accommodate the lower processing horsepower available and movement limitations of a controller compared to the more versatile keyboard and mouse.

This started to change in the seventh console generation, where games like BioShock and Modern Warfare were comparable to their PC cousins, but the sixth generation wasn’t quite there yet.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

That doesn’t mean the desire wasn’t there though, the desire to replicate the visceral thrill of a PC shooter on the more humble hardware of the consoles. It was in that turbulent time of innovation that the British development studio Criterion Games began crafting a title they hoped would change the conversation around console first person shooters. 

Criterion Games had been recently acquired by Electronic Arts. Their recent successes on Burnout and Need for Speed paved the way for their next big project, and so they set their iron sights on crafting a first-person shooter that could stand toe to toe with PC titles. 

At least…that was the hope.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

Here is a history straight from the source on the inspiration and development of Black, a blog post hosted on the official website from around the date of release in case you want more detail on the creation of Black. 

But to summarize, inspiration was drawn from formative FPSs of the previous generation. The revolutionary GoldenEye was clearly an enormous influence, as was Turok the Dinosaur Hunter, both on the Nintendo 64. But it was 1999’s Medal of Honor on the PlayStation that really got the Gears of War turning for designer Alex Ward. He was deeply inspired by the exceptional sound design found in that World War 2 themed title, and played it through in one action packed weekend.

According to him,

It was that weekend, back on the first Playstation, that the seeds of Black were planted.

On a trip to the good ol’ US of A (remember, Criterion is a British company) Alex participated in the time-honored tradition of heading to a gun range, where he was blown away (figuratively) by the profoundly visceral experience of using a firearm.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

This experience also had a strong hand in the development of Black.

Think about a game where firing the weapon would be like nothing else—where the player could rip the place to pieces and that it delivered a larger than life experience. I was imagining a game that was “Medal of Honor in Russia”—it would have the audio finesse and atmosphere of the first two MoH games but with a Russian setting.

The result was the simply titled Black, released in 2006. It pushed the Xbox, and especially the PlayStation 2 hardware visually in ways few other titles had, and is fondly remembered by many as a standout in the somewhat underwhelming console first-person shooter genre. 

Reviews were mostly positive. Many of those reviews echoed similar sentiments, that the technology was impressive, but that the gameplay was lacking, that the entire package felt sparse. Jeff Gerstmann sums these sentiments up nicely in his review for GameSpot, where he said, 

Black’s strong first impression is bogged down by its repetitive and often-standard gameplay, weak enemy AI, and short length. There are some good ideas here, and the technology is cool, but you can’t help but think that there’s still a bunch of untapped potential throughout the game.

Garnett Lee had a much less favorable take in his review for the now tragically defunct site, saying,

While gorgeous, the veneer of explosive gunfire is a thin layer under which Black struggles to find its identity. Most of its tale is written in ejected shell casings and the burned-out carcasses of vehicles and buildings, but beyond the stylized shooting, the narrative that strings these chapters together might serve as a mediocre episode of Alias, at best.

So this isn’t Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the gameplay wasn’t exactly pushing boundaries. 

Still though, a technology showcase can certainly move units. After all, nobody cared about the story in Crysis right?

There isn’t a clear number of sales recorded, as is often the case with games from this era, but according to VGchartz, Black sold over a million units, making it a moderate success.

There was talk of a sequel, but Black 2 never materialized. Criterion did go on to create a spiritual successor in 2011, for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the similarly straightforwardly titled, Bodycount. I hadn’t heard of Bodycount, I don’t think most have, and hopes of a new title in this series faded.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

Criterion has found continued success however, and is currently working under EA on Star Wars and Battlefield titles, where surely some of their FPS expertise is being put to good use.

Black may not have found the success of its contemporaries like Medal of Honor, Halo, or Killzone, but it did make a distinct impression on many players. Ask anyone who played console FPSs in the 2000s if they’ve heard of Black, and more often than not their eyes will light up and they’ll say something like, “Oh yeah! That game looked amazing.”

And indeed it did. But it takes more than bright flashes of fire and carefully modeled bullet casings for a game to age well.

What is it Like Playing Black Now?

Black is interesting to return to due to its singularity of focus that’s uncommon in modern games.

Black contains none of the narrative ambitions of 2004’s Half Life 2 (or 1998’s Half Life for that matter.) It has no cursory nods toward the human impact of war the way the Call of Duty franchise at least attempted. It has none of the grim-dark art direction of its cynical PS2 cousin Killzone, and none of the gleeful multiplayer mayhem of TimeSplitters.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

To be fair to Criterion, they were really only interested in one thing. It wasn’t pushing narrative boundaries, it wasn’t sophisticated AI or mechanical complexity, and it wasn’t crafting a compelling multiplayer experience.

Black is all about one thing: spectacle. And that’s what sets it apart to this day, for better or worse. 

A Flash (Grenade) in the Pan

Before we talk about that spectacle though, a quick disclaimer on what you’re seeing in the video above.

This footage was captured using a PS2 emulator, upscaled, and using a 60 FPS patch for a better viewing (and if I’m being honest, playing) experience. So, keep in mind that the footage here is not representative of what you would get on original hardware.

With that in mind, many aspects of Black’s presentation still  impress. There was clearly a great deal of care put into the visuals, with sophisticated lighting, remarkable particle effects, enormous explosions with detailed smoke, and destructible environments that really do set it apart from the console FPS pack.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

The main problem with Black’s presentation, though, is a lack of compelling art direction. While technically remarkable, there is very little visual identity to help it stand out. The antagonists are faceless, standard issue combat fodder. The guns, while impressively modeled, don’t feel particularly inspired, and the levels, outside of a few interesting outdoors areas, are pretty straightforward military shooter locations; all corridors, and concrete, and tunnels. 

It’s another way Black falls behind when compared to its peers, even on the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox. The first Killzone is less impressive in some ways, but the dystopian future has a distinct visual style, with the surreal and oppressive landscapes, futuristic weapons, and frightening enemies.

Call of Duty had the distinct identity of being a World War 2 shooter with an emphasis on squad based tactics and larger scale conflicts. It’s also worth remembering that Doom 3, Half Life, and Half Life 2 were all ported from PC to either PlayStation 2 or Xbox in this generation, so Black does have some more sophisticated competition, even on consoles.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

The destructible environments were certainly a selling point in Black though, and rightfully so.

When you breach a door with your shotgun and enter a room guns blazing, the spectacle comes through even now. Grenades explode in a shower of sparks, bullets break windows, and walls disintegrate under the relentless fire of your foes. It’s great.

The visual splendor and visceral satisfaction of player inflicted destruction is something video games excel at, and it still feels good, despite having been done much better since. Again though, this can be attributed more to the technology powering Black than any artfulness in presentation. And that emphasis on technology over art is a foundational, recurring problem throughout. 

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

Another example of Black’s propensity toward style over substance is the excessive use of focus blur every time you reload a weapon. Each time the gun comes up, the camera pulls focus, blurring the landscape behind it while you reload. As you’d imagine in an FPS, you’re reloading constantly and this gimmicky visual flourish wears out its welcome well before the first level is complete.

Like much of Black, I’m sure this looked very impressive at the time, but it does not look impressive now. It’s just irritating. Choices like this point to this game’s priorities: looking “cool” was more important than being fun.

Black may be a technical marvel, but impressive tech doesn’t hold up without the foundation of compelling art direction. Black stands as an interesting contrast to something like Square’s The Bouncer.

Check out our video on The Bouncer to decide for yourself if the art is “good” unique or “bad” unique.

That game is also a technical showcase for the PlayStation 2, but has a strong sense of style in addition to impressive graphics that help it stand out with a very distinct visual identity. Whether that visual identity in The Bouncer is good or bad is certainly up for debate…check out our video on that game so you can make up your own mind.

It should be said that Black is far from the only title to prioritize spectacle over mechanics in this era, or the modern era for that matter, but rarely do you see this prioritization so stark, so unapologetic. 

Black only cares about looking and sounding cool and little else. That’s all well and good, but only if it’s still fun to play.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

Black’s Gameplay

Gameplay wise, Black is the most first-person shooter that ever first person shooter-ed. It’s a familiar formula, with very few deviations from the standard “see enemy, shoot enemy” gameplay that stretches all the way back to ID’s 1992 Wolfenstein 3D. This isn’t exactly a criticism; there’s a reason this genre is still enormously popular today, even if the emphasis is no longer on robust single player campaigns and instead on competitive play. 

Black’s straightforward and unapologetic execution on the FPS formula still works, just like Wolfenstein 3D still works, even if certain quality of life elements we take for granted today like signposting and intuitive controls are conspicuously absent.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

It’s still very playable, but there are some serious obstacles when revisiting Black, especially for anyone used to slick, modern FPSs’. Encounter design is simplistic to a fault, deeply emblematic of the “just throw more enemies at the player” approach that was popular in this era.

There’s little variation in the types of enemies, with only a few exceptions such as heavy armor units, snipers, and the absurdly overpowered rocket launcher enemies that never seem to have to reload.

And all of these enemies are bullet sponges, even on the easiest difficulty setting. They usually go down with one headshot, but unless you land that perfect shot (no small feat given the challenging controls) expect every enemy to take multiple rounds to the torso and body before they go down. It’s absurd, it’s irritating, and it’s emblematic of a serious balancing issue. 

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

The enemy AI is pretty straightforward: you enter their activation zone, they see you, they shoot. There are not multiple ways to approach an encounter. There’s very little thought required. Deus Ex this is not.

Black wants you to go in LOUD and to keep moving. Some might admire this pure execution of a tried and true formula, others might find it to be a bit mindless and uninspired. 

For those of you who wish to test your skill against human opponents, you’re out of luck, as there is no multiplayer. Obviously this isn’t really relevant decades later, but it’s remarkable given the prevalence of multiplayer (for better or worse) in just about every title shipping at this time.

One again, it shows Criterion’s clarity of vision for Black: they wanted a visceral single player campaign and nothing would stand in their way, not even the relentless pull of market forces that may have mandated a multiplayer mode as a back of the box feature. 

All that to say, as far as a shooter goes, Black is…fine. Perfectly serviceable, if a bit archaic, even for the time. What does stand out though is the remarkable level of challenge, and the ways Criterion implemented difficulty. 

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

War is Hell

Black is not an easy game. Even on the easiest setting, enemies are relentless and hit hard.

On the harder settings, there are additional objectives that must be completed in addition to the more challenging enemies. These objectives are straightforward; collecting intelligence documents that are hidden throughout the levels for example. It’s clearly inspired by the similar difficulty mechanics in GoldenEye, which came out almost a decade prior.

Those relatively uninspired additions weren’t enough though. I started on normal and pretty quickly went down to easy. The maps aren’t interesting enough to warrant exploration, and the lack of combat options means each firefight became a bland war of attrition.

If you do manage to complete the harder modes (or download a save like I did) you’ll unlock infinite ammo. Running through the levels with infinite grenades is immensely entertaining, though even with unlimited explosive ordinance the challenge isn’t completely mitigated.

The difficulty stands as an interesting counterpoint to modern shooters, which are often designed like a theme park ride. Call of Duty campaigns want you to finish them; they want to smoothly take you from thrilling set piece to set piece, to funnel you into the main attraction: the multiplayer mode.

Black, on the other hand, doesn’t care if you finish the game or not. That uncompromising design is respectable, even if it makes the game significantly less fun to play. 

That lack of concern for the player is in some ways  a compelling throwback to an older era of game design. The narrative of Black also feels like a relic of the past, but in a way that’s much less charming.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

A Very 2000’s Tale

It may seem odd to focus on the narrative in a mid-2000s military FPS, but keep in mind, BioShock came out only a year later, and had a profound impact on what story could mean in a shooter. Narrative took a clear back seat in Black, but it’s such an interesting relic of its time it’s worth briefly touching on, even more so when you remember Criterion is not an American studio. 

The propagandistic fervor of the post 9/11 world had begun to give way to more cynical takes on military interventionism in the mid-2000s, and Black is an interesting example of this shift. It still presents a hyper-glorified and glamorous view of military action, but it’s also tinged with distrust, with betrayal, with nefarious Federal agencies and slimy, clandestine operations.

The presentation of Black is an intriguing fusion of the eccentric and borderline ludicrous paranoia of Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid and the saccharine patriotism of Call of Duty, and the results couldn’t be more mid-2000s.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

The story of Black has a novel (for the time) framing convention. Before each of the eight missions, there are live-action cutscenes that take place in a single room, with a shadowy agency head interviewing a badass soldier who is retelling the events of the game.

Here’s a summary of the story from Wikipedia:

Black is set in Ingushetia and Chechnya, Russia. The protagonist is Sergeant First Class Jack Kellar (Marty Papazian), an inadequately disciplined member of a CIA black ops unit. The unknown interrogator (Paul Pape) questions Kellar about an arms smuggling terrorist organization and gang called the Seventh Wave who have been responsible for a number of terrorist attacks and homicides. Kellar is soon shown that, unless he co-operates, he and his actions will be declassified, meaning he will be convicted at court-martial, dishonorably discharged, and imprisoned for life. Though initially resistant, Kellar agrees to tell his story.

That story is what makes up each level.

The live-action cutscenes in the game are impressive for the time, and were a clever way to frame the story with a limited production budget. Because it all takes place in a single room, with only two actors, the footage does a lot of heavy lifting, and the quick edits go a long way toward disguising the simple, and at times juvenile, storytelling.

The use of live action combat footage presumably sourced elsewhere is a pretty cynical way to add grandiosity to the clearly humble production however. It’s unearned, given how little Criterion cared about the story, and feels out of place in an otherwise profoundly goofy game. 

Black uses provocative imagery without taking the time to contextualize it in any meaningful way.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

This isn’t unique to Black to be fair, and companies like UbiSoft still fall into this trap today, using controversial imagery in games like The Division, or Ghost Recon, or FarCry 5 while steadfastly refusing to have any sort of political stance to justify the use of that imagery. 

The story of Black is profoundly forgettable, but the way it’s presented is an interesting insight into not only what other countries thought of American interventionism at the time, but the state of the global conversation around war in the mid-2000’s.

Should You Play Black?

If you’re interested in the history of the FPS genre, then definitely. Black is an interesting turning point from the older style of run and gun shooter to the more set piece and narrative driven direction the genre would take.

As a historical oddity it’s interesting, but for anyone outside of that admittedly niche group of console FPS historians, there isn’t a lot to recommend Black in the modern era. It’s simply not that fun to play after decades of refinement of the formula. 

The primary selling point of Black was never the gameplay; it was the sheer spectacle and technical extravagance. 

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

I’m grateful to developers that prioritize technological advancement, who put blood sweat and tears into chasing the laudable goal of fidelity and cutting-edge visuals. They are pushing boundaries for the medium, and that focus is commendable. There is a price to pay for that focus though.

Visual splendor quickly loses its luster as technology advances. Without the critical bedrock of unique and compelling art direction, technical achievement fades into obsolescence, and as more sophisticated hardware emerges that effort produces diminishing returns.  

Video games do not have the luxury of timeless visuals in the way film might, unless developers made a concerted effort to utilize aesthetics that are immune to the ravages of time. Think The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker or the Resident Evil remake on GameCube for generational peers of Black that have aged gracefully. 

Some games look great decades after release. Black is not one of them.

Screenshot from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox video game Black.

Black was an important, and undeniably impressive step on the path toward creating the modern military shooter. It deserves to be commended for that.  

Criterion’s goal was to impress with spectacle. And they did, but as the years pile up like spent shell casings, that simply isn’t enough. Black cannot compete with its first-person shooter peers that had the foresight to pair groundbreaking technical achievements with mechanical complexity and a broader focus on art. 

While many of those games live on as essential FPS experiences, Black is more like a flash grenade…a brief explosion of brilliance that faded swiftly as time marched relentlessly forward. Once our eyes adjusted, there just wasn’t much left to see.

A contributor to the Forgotten Code collective.

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