Summary: Tom and Somalia are just like Cartman and Vietnam. Both of them think they were there. So when the Black Hawk Down review came in with this movie misquote in email, we didn't even bat an eye. When I get home people 'll ask me, "Hey Chick, why do ya do it man? Why? Just some game junkie?" Ya know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is. (we think that's just Tom's way of saying he likes the game)
You’re in the Army (Rangers) now
Black Hawk Down, both the book by Mark Bowden and Ridley Scott's film adaptation, is a cautionary tale about the power of the modern military, about what it can and cannot do. It is a requiem for yet another loss of innocence for the United States. It is about the honor and courage of elite soldiers. It is about hubris and mistakes and heroism. It is a chronicle of the terrible debacle that came of our efforts to stop General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who was interfering with shipments of food to the starving people of Somalia. It is a classic of military literature and a great war movie. Black Hawk Down, the game by Novalogic, is none of these things. It is, however, a grand shoot-'em-up action-oriented first person shooter in the tradition of Medal of Honor.
’Do we get to win this time, sir?’
In some ways, Black Hawk Down is a horrible misuse of the source material. There's nothing in here about the moral complexity of using sophisticated hardware to mow down mobs of poorly armed local militiamen. Although many of the single player missions include civilians, there's little disincentive to check your targets before firing. Completely contrary to the point of Black Hawk Down, there's no sense of attachment to your teammates, much less any sense of being part of a squad of highly-trained soldiers. And the military ethic of leaving no one behind, which is what led to the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, is nowhere to be seen here. The manual does a good job of paying its respects to the men who fought in Somalia, but there's no sign of this solemnity in the actual game, which is more Rambo than commando. It ends with you being sent to single-handedly assassinate General Aidid three years after US forces have been withdrawn (Aidid died of a heart attack in 1996 and the game supposes the putative heart attack was actually a Delta Force assassination).
In these regards, and considering this game was released the day the US began the war against Iraq, Black Hawk Down is an embarrassing convergence of poor choices and bad timing. If ever there was a game whose release should have been delayed, this was it. If the game industry wants to be treated with the same respect as the rest of the entertainment industry, it needs to learn to be more sensitive and behave more responsibly. This sort of gung-ho, gun-'em-all-down stuff plays in Medal of Honor with the passing of sixty years. It doesn't play in Black Hawk Down with the passing of only ten years, especially at a time when members of the 10th Mountain Division, the Army Rangers, and Delta Force are fighting and dying. Shame on you, Novalogic.
SIDEBAR: Bruce Willis should stay out of war movies. He just seems to pick the completely wrong material…
The play's the thing
However, having said all that, I'll be the first to admit these issues have no bearing on whether or not Novalogic has made a good game. They have. In fact, they've made a good game that, in many ways, makes excellent use of the Black Hawk Down license. In the past, the Delta Force series has struggled unsuccessfully to find its identity on retail shelves crammed with quasi-realistic first person shooters. Novalogic's games have been caught half-way between cartoony and realistic, with only a token nod towards single player gameplay and some ill-fated uses of voxel technology that shut them out of the latest advances in 3D video cards. But now, with Delta Force: Black Hawk Down, the series has finally come in to its own in terms of graphics and gameplay.
The graphics are based on the engine used for their latest Comanche helicopter flight sim. Comanche 4 was a visual treat that managed to render cities and open terrain with aplomb, sprinkling them with destructible items and fancy effects for explosions, smoke, and water. However, Black Hawk Down doesn't have the spectacular fireworks of Comanche 4. Environmental interactivity consists almost solely of a few objects (cars, barrels) exploding when you shoot them. Smoke and fire are very temporary, as if the graphics have something better to do and can't be bothered to really commit to burning and smoldering. But there is a fantastic amount of flexibility and variety in the type of terrain, especially considering how the game is limited to the North African aesthetic of Somalia. There are very few engines that can jaunt this casually between town and country. One mission will be set on the open sands of a desert with gently sloping hills as far as you can see (the desert setting nicely solves the thorny issue of complex foliage). The next mission will thread through the narrow alleys of a shantytown overlooked by high rises.
’Well, I stand up next to a mountain...’
In fact, some of the more impressive missions do both. The highlight of the single player game is the "Irene" mission, which is based on a sequence from Ridley Scott's movie in which the Rangers and Delta Force embark on their star-crossed mission to capture some of Aidid's henchmen. Beginning at your base, you run out onto the airfield, hop onto an AH-6, fly along the coast and through some hills with a half dozen other helicopters, swoop over the city alive with small arms fire, land on a rooftop, clear out three floors, meet a convoy on the street, and then work your way through the city to reinforce some stranded Rangers, only to see the eponymous Black Hawk being shot down. All without a loading screen to break up the action. It's a spectacular combination of scripting and technology. If only they'd licensed Jimi Hendrix's “Voodoo Child” to complete the similarities to the movie.
Unfortunately, it's locked about half way through the single player missions, many of which are perfunctory 'go here to shoot these guys' affairs. The next several missions after "Irene" play out a few more scenarios recreated very loosely from the movie, but without as much cinematic thrill. The whole thing winds down with a silly contrived attempt to resolve everything with the supposed assassination of Aidid.
Because they're so scripted, there's not a lot of freedom during most of the missions. Although there are wide swaths of land laid out before you, you're usually kept on a fairly tight leash. Most of the firefights are simply direct assaults, without any options to flank a position or take an alternate route. Try it and you'll get a reprimand, followed shortly thereafter by the mission ending because you've "gone AWOL".
SIDEBAR: I’ve been catching Inspector Gadget on TV here and there, I can’t believe it’s still playing…
Military intelligence [sic]
But these missions do accomplish what they set out to do: namely, dropping you into heated gunfights with bullets whizzing around your ears and lots of people shooting at each other. You have friendly teammates on most missions, but they behave accordingly to a very limited set of orders and some dubious AI. My favorite "where were you trained, soldier?" moment occurred after someone told me to use a grenade to blow a door, only to stand there and watch the grenade after I dropped it. That's right, Einstein, it's going to explode and you're going with it. Of course, considering the enemy AI is even more dubious, it's in your best interest to not put a lot of thought into it. Just approach everything as a wild Somalia-colored shooting gallery, complete with stray crocodiles and a few dungeon crawls through enemy bunkers.
Each mission allows only a limited number of saves, which serves to heighten tension without straying too far into the realm of frustration. There are some instances of having to memorize insta-death traps, such as RPG launchers on rooftops or oddly placed .50 caliber machine gun nests covering tight corners in bunkers. Good work using all that firepower to cover a ten foot corridor. You'll also have to power through some gameplay that's essentially set on rails, but most of these are forgiving and mercifully brief.
Reporting for online duty
At any rate, the saving grace of the single player game is that it's fairly short and serves as an appetizer before digging into Black Hawk Down's real long-term appeal: multiplayer. Novalogic's Novaworld technology provides solid netcode for surprisingly lag tolerant connections. Unfortunately, their ingame browser is a pain to navigate, taking forever and a day to query the available servers. Then it gives you plenty of opportunities to accidentally back out and have to query them all again. When you join a server that's filled up, it puts you in line to join rather than telling you it's full. The Novaworld browser wants to teach you patience.
Although you can play Black Hawk Down as a deathmatch game, it fares much better with one of its many team-based modes. Team king of the hill is a wild and frantic way to concentrate a lot of firepower in one place. The capture the flag game, on the other hand, usually spreads the action out. Each team has a base and up to a dozen scattered flags. You job is to gather your enemy's flags and bring them back to your base while preventing the other guys from gathering your flags. There are also objective-based maps where you have to use satchel charges to destroy the other team's gun emplacements. Many maps have forward spawn points that can be captured so you'll respawn closer to your objectives and get back into the fighting faster.
SIDEBAR: The leg operation scene in the movie was just… too much… way. too. much.
Permission to roam freely
The ingame interface seamlessly integrates a zoomable overhead map with selectable waypoints that make it easy to orient yourself. It's amazing what a difference this makes after playing multiplayer games where you spend your first ten matches getting beat up as you try to figure out the level. In Black Hawk Down, just pull up a full screen map, take a quick look, then use your inset minimap to find your way around.
Whereas there are all sorts of restrictions on where you can go in single player missions, there are no such limitations in multiplayer games, which are essentially giant playgrounds out in the desert. Many missions have indestructible Humvees and Black Hawks that run pre-set patterns. In most games, these are basically mobile gun platforms. But in some of the more clever maps, the Black Hawks serve as transportation between different areas of the map. It's a real thrill to be on a helicopter with a bunch of your team members as it comes roaring in low and fast below the level of the rooftops in the middle of an enemy base. Finally helicopter insertions done right.
Since there are no accuracy penalties for firing while moving, Black Hawk Down encourages running and gunning over careful tactics. There are only a handful of weapons available, most of which don't seem to differ substantially. However, different classes are limited to different loadouts. One of the classes is a medic who can revive teammates sooner than they can respawn. Some classes can take advantage of an M203 40mm grenade launcher slung under the barrel of an M16 or CAR-15 carbine; you don't want to leave home without one of these. Among the secondary weapons are an effective flashbang and some really insidious claymores. The night vision looks great, but it's almost entirely useless in multiplayer games.
After each round, players are rated based on an experience point system that rewards achievements like headshots and reviving injured teammates. There's no gameplay built around these experience points, but they make for much more interesting stat tracking than something like Battlefield 1942, where players are only rated for kills and most newbies just want to fly around in a plane regardless of whether it helps the team. Black Hawk Down, on the other hand, at least ranks the team members at the end of a round from most helpful to least helpful. Novalogic has been doing multiplayer gaming for a long time, and their experience clearly shows here.
SIDEBAR: The Vulcan gun comes in many different sizes – 5.56mm, 7.62mm, 20mm, 30mm and 37mm. The knockback on anything but the 5.56mm would kill a man if he tried to fire it without a supporting structure of some sort.
SIDEBAR: Nothing quite like Hamburger Helper and a pound of beef for breakfast.
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