Please note that much of the content of this article surrounds my efforts to actually play the game in the first place. Scroll down about half-way if you’d like to get straight to the review.
Spending a lot of time and effort just to play a game is not something that is new to me. Anyone who has done any significant PC gaming over the years has probably had some bad experiences though things are generally better now than they used to be. The last time I remember having serious PC issues was back in 2007, when I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to update the video card software on my laptop so I could play BioShock. I ended up playing the game for an hour that day. And it was around five years before I finally saw the game to the end. All that effort for very little game time though it is fair to say that I learned a lot in the process.
The last time I can remember putting a great deal of time and effort into playing a game involved my Wii. When I first moved to Japan I brought along my Wii. At that time I still had a regular CRT television and the apartment I lived in also only had an old CRT. The Wii would only display through the composite cables flickering in black and white. I found a box that converted a componant signal to VGA and then found another converter that converted VGA to composite. Through a complicated mess of experimentation and a bigger mess of cables, I was able to get a PAL Wii displaying a stable colour picture on an NTSC television. There was noticeable input lag and the colours did bleed somewhat but it was playable right up until I got a better television. At the time, it was still much cheaper than buying a new television or a Wii.
These were the two most difficult experiences I had but they have nothing on the experience that led to me writing this article.
Many years ago I watched my brother play Black on his PlayStation 2 and I was fascinated by it but not interested enough to play it myself. A little bit later, I ended up owning that same PlayStation 2 and all the games that came with it. After watching a positive review of Black on Classic Game Room a few years later, I went to play it only to find the PlayStation 2 had disappeared. Another brother (I have four), who I had lent it to, didn’t have it any more. He may have sold it, he may have lost it, it might have been stolen – I don’t know.
The PlayStation 2 had disappeared somehow while I was living in Japan so I decided to look elsewhere and when I found out it was available for Xbox 360, I decided to buy it. Unfortunately, the region settings prevented this as Black was only released on PlayStation 2 in Japan. I turned to emulation but my computer couldn’t run the game properly.
A few years ago, I bought an original Xbox to try out some of the exclusives and decided to take the risk of buying a US copy of Black, hoping it wasn’t region locked. It was and by this point, I had almost given up on playing the game. Could it be really worth this effort? I considered buying another PlayStation 2 but ended up settling on modding my Xbox so I could finally play it.
Modding an Xbox console can be quite easy with the right tools and software but not if it’s an Asian region Xbox. I started the process by rewiring one of my controllers with a USB input so it could be read on a computer and I could transfer the mod files to a memory card. The first problem with this was that the software could only be read on Windows XP, which resulted in me spending time on an old computer getting it to work. I did this (or at least thought I had), but it turns out the Japanese versions of the games with the exploit will not work. I also didn’t realise I had to update the firmware which also took a bit of fiddling around to do. And I later found out that even if I had the right software, the files I had downloaded weren’t the required mod files anyway. By this point, I had all but given up.
Then after a time I found an Asian version of Splinter Cell for sale online and ordered it from Singapore. I then ordered a cheap cable that could be used to transfer the files and found a handy guide on YouTube with links to all the relevant software and tools needed. After following it, I was successfully able to mod my console and began playing Black the very same day.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way as I love to say. Was it worth the effort though?
No, it wasn’t.
Black was released on Xbox and PlayStation 2 in early 2006 with the Xbox 360 out and the Wii and PlayStation 3 on the way. Developed by Criterion Games who were then and really now, best known for the Burnout series. At the time of release, Black became perhaps the last technical high point on the aging consoles. It was also one of the first original Xbox titles made playable on the 360 and a game that I remember remaining in stores, a long time after release.
As impressive as it was ten years ago, the game has technically not aged well for the most part. I add “for the most part” quite deliberately as the sound design still holds up well today. Like many games at the time it features an orchestral soundtrack which pipes in at certain points in the games eight levels. The booming sound effects for the various weapons is what made the game stand out at the time and still does today. It was apt that the North American cover simply featured the logo surrounded by bullets. Every firearm has unique sound effects to the point that you can identify what enemies are using easily. As most of the game is spent depressing the right trigger it is well that this is the most notable aspect of the design.
The impressive sound effects aren’t limited to the weapons with environmental destruction also playing a significant part in the game. Shooting objects and windows can often be as fun as the regular gunfights with the excellent sounds heard when shooting out windows and turning crates into splinters. There is even some limited use of live action video and voice work which is minimal but well-implemented.
As impressive as Black’s presentation is, it is sad to say that there just isn’t much more to it than that. The entire game is a brief single-player experience that even at the time was noted for being short. Unlike most shooters then and now, there is no multiplayer component and the single-player campaign is over in around four hours with little to extend it. There are multiple difficulty levels and side objectives but the latter are merely fetch quests in practice and the former raises the difficulty while requiring more objectives be completed. The campaign’s story is also generic giving only vague purpose to each area you depopulate and destroy. The lack of multiplayer didn’t affect me with both the Xbox Live and PlayStation Network servers long ago shut down, but it did effect the game’s longevity at the time and ultimately it’s legacy.
I’m glad I was able to finally play Black but it certainly wasn’t alone worth the effort I put in to play it. While it’s sound design remains impressive, the rest of the game really shows its age. Black isn’t a bad game by any means and it’s short length and cheap price (assuming you have the right console), makes it worth checking out if you don’t have to go through what I went through. So if you like FPS games, have the consoles and see the game for a few dollars, I can definitely recommend it.
On a final note, all the effort that went into modding has opened many opportunities to play other games I’ve missed that are rare or region-locked. So I’m glad I did it anyway. As with my other experiences, I certainly learned something in the process too.