There are many smart, thoughtful people who would posit that the military shooter is one of video gaming’s most pernicious problems; that the genre is the most telling reflection of the medium’s innate immaturity, and that its popularity is one of the obstacles which must be surmounted in order for games to achieve mainstream cultural acceptance as an art form. These people lament the lack of moral nuance, and lambast the glorification of violence and killing and humanity’s potential for acts of great evil.
I’m not one of those people. Sometimes I would like to be, because in a lot of ways I agree with them, but I can’t be someone or something that I’m not. I think shooting things is fun. And luckily for me, so does Black.
Developed by Criterion, essentially Black is to the military shooter what Burnout was to the racing game – a distillation of a genre into its purest, most fundamental elements. Black is about shooting things the same way Burnout is about driving incredibly fast, and Criterion’s design philosophy seems to be encouraging you to shoot more and drive faster in their games than you ever have before.
Shooters tap into a deep, reptilian portion of the human mind which responds to the assertion of power, and in a shooter you feel powerful because you are subverting the rules and moral bindings of reality. Taking a life is perhaps the worst sin one human being can visit upon another, but it is a sin which most of us will never, ever commit. Video games – and shooters in particular – allow the darker side of us to stretch its wings and take control, and we exist vicariously in combat as this powerful, primal version of ourselves. It is evolutionarily vital that this version of our character exist within us, and the shooter is a tool which allows it to manifest and take over without anyone getting hurt.
Black is unashamedly about nothing more than the fulfilment of that power fantasy. It has no aspirations towards delivering great characters or thoughtful scenarios. It is a game about guns. Everything in it is lavished with detail, but the weaponry in particular. Muzzle flashes are suitably blinding, the working parts of the weapons rattle back and forth as the breach ejects spent cartridges, changing fire modes lets you see the selector switch being thumbed into position, and when you run a magazine clean of its rounds the background blurs to further add focus to the new mag being slammed home and the gun being cocked, ready for more action. Bullets ricochet off walls and body armour with flying sparks, explosions bring up showers of dirt and concrete and human bodies, and some of the bigger weapons can smash small buildings into even smaller chunks.
Firearms are Black’s principle cast. These characters are similar to one another, but they each have a distinct personality. The SPAS-12 automatic shotgun has a roar like thunder and likes to fight up close. The silenced MP-5 SMG rattles and clicks, launching bursts from the shadows like corks being popped from champagne bottles. The RPG works alongside his brother the M79 grenade launcher. The M249 LMG will tear a riot shield apart in real time, but he’s heavy and slow and only really makes an effort when he has to. We have seen these guys before, but rarely have they all felt as individually important as they do in Black.
There is a story too, told in cutscenes between missions, which has precisely zero value. It has a purpose, though – to provide context for the guns. The narrative has nothing interesting to say, but it tells us we need to be somewhere, that we need to be heavily armed, and then it feeds us people to shoot.
Perhaps a more appropriate word for “people” is “morons”, because that’s what the enemies in Black are. They run towards you with no interest in self-preservation, rarely take cover, and almost never embrace tactical considerations like flanking or working as a team. They are stupid people there to be shot. They want to be shot. Game critic Erik Kain said that “killing people in video games is actually just solving moving puzzles”, and Black is a constantly effortless puzzle.
Black isn’t even a particularly lengthy puzzle either. It lasts for about five hours, and then it’s over. The only reason to play anymore is to unlock silver versions of your weapons, which have unlimited ammunition. This is a game so dedicated to shooting that the only replay value is finding ways to be able to shoot even more. There is a market for that, and I’m it. Shooting things is, and always has been, fun. Black is fun. There is room in the video game industry for innovation, creativity, maturity, art, complexity, originality, meaning, morality, depth, intricacy, and stories which make us better, more thoughtful, interesting people. But there is always room for more fun.