Criterion Games was absolutely on fire in the early noughties. Having made an incredible arcade racing series — the brilliant Burnout, of course — it decided to turn its hand to a totally new genre. This is something that you don't see too much of; usually, a studio finds its comfort zone and sticks to it. The team could easily have made a straight sequel to Burnout Revenge, and it would've been wonderful. However, Criterion took a creative risk, slamming the brakes on racers and turning its attention to the world of shooters.
I remember being taken aback when I first read about Black in a copy of Official PlayStation Magazine. A first-person shooter from *checks notes* Criterion? The makers of some of my favourite games ever? What is this? After reading the mag's preview of the upcoming game, it started to make a little more sense. The studio had gone big on destruction and action in its racers, and its aim was to make an equally brash, explosive FPS.
I distinctly remember reading an early design phrase being "overt, not covert". The team was talking up environmental destruction, how it wanted a level of chaos and debris on par with something like the lobby scene in The Matrix. Inspired by classic action movies, Black would be a loud, unrelenting, heart-pounding shooter from the creators of the loud, unrelenting, heart-pounding Burnout franchise. Alright, I could get on board with that.
As an enormous fan of Criterion, I was curious but excited to play this departure from its highly successful output. It turns out my excitement was well placed. Black released on 23rd February 2006, I received it for my birthday, and I played it a lot.
There was a lot of chatter at the time about its presentation, and looking back after 15 years, that is what sticks out the most. Even on the tiny little box TV in my bedroom, Black's sound design was unbelievable. Pulling the trigger on the pistol sounded thunderous; a shotgun blast was like the sneeze of Satan. That sounded cooler in my head, but I'm leaving it in. Anyway, the point is the guns and explosions all sounded monstrous. Paired with what was cutting edge visuals and destructibility — on PlayStation 2, anyway — each mission was an assault on the senses.
Then there was the reverence for the weapons themselves. We've talked about how the guns sounded, but the way they were presented was equally glorified. I fondly recall the reload animations in particular. The world would blur out, putting all the focus on a meticulously detailed animation of, say, slotting shells into a SPAS 12. It was superfluous, but it was also the best.
I even enjoyed the FMV cutscenes despite, frankly, not caring one jot about the story. Even though it all came off as pretty cheesy, I liked that it wasn't too self-serious. This was a game that was all about the action — everything else took a back seat. As someone who hadn't played many shooters at that point, I absolutely loved it.
Taking off my rose-tinted glasses, it wasn't doing anything especially ground-breaking — it was just a very well executed game. Did it do for shooting what Burnout did for racing? I'd say not, or we'd have had a few sequels — but it did strike a similarly aggressive chord. It's strange to think the game is nearly as old as I was when I first played it, and stranger again to think about how shooters have evolved in that time. What would a modern iteration of Black look like? I think, honestly, there's a little of the game's spirit in a lot of FPS titles. Call of Duty and Battlefield especially have run away with the idea of destruction, bombastic action, and realistic weaponry. That's cool, but a Black sequel would still be badass. Someone make it happen, come on.
Do you have fond memories of Black on PS2? Ready, aim, fire in the comments section below.