I read the book, and then I saw the movie. Now I’ve played the videogame. Collect the action figures, buy the lunchbox! I personally don’t understand all the activity surrounding what essentially was a relatively minor skirmish in the annals of American military history. Is it considered an object lesson in underestimating the enemy? Is it because a relatively small American force managed to shoot a vastly superior number of completely untrained militiamen? Or is it because an ordinary mission turned into such a cluster-you-know-what because of a series of poor decisions and cosmically bad luck? As I’ve said, I don’t get it. I can’t believe Vietnam doesn’t have a thousand stories that are at least as interesting. Anyway, Black Hawk Down is now a game, apparently part of a whole Delta Force series from NovaLogic that I somehow missed completely up until now. It’s an OK game if nothing particularly outstanding, and I suspect it will quickly become swallowed in the vast sea of FPS games with nary a ripple on the surface. Darwin’s Law, baby, Darwin’s Law.
I’ve heard comments on the web, in various forums and such, that the AI in the game is truly atrocious. I don’t believe this to be the case. The enemy, and your squadmates, duck, run for cover, and crouch to shoot – all pretty good if somewhat standard fare in the world of bots. It’s their aim that is severely at question. I’ve seen one of my soldiers and one of theirs standing literally three feet from one another, firing madly, hitting nothing. They’re equally likely to shoot each other, their own, or you, and they’ll unload a hundred rounds into a building because a guy is standing around the corner. Mind you, they’ll rarely go around the corner to actually shoot at the guy. In sharp contrast, in the last half dozen missions or so of the game, everyone is suddenly a sharpshooter, and I’m getting cut down by guys I can hardly see through my sniper scope. That’s kind of a bizarre misbalance. Oh, and I guess if you want to take a dig at the AI you can, because if two guys are standing close together, and you shoot one of them, the other one doesn’t seem to care so much.
The single player missions are an interesting mix of capture, destroy, and protect, but the game remains significantly hampered by the general lack of support given by your squadmates and the little challenge offered by the enemy. Of course, given what I know from the book, that was pretty much the case in Mogadishu. The mostly disorganized militia was killed in the hundreds by a force of only a hundred or so soldiers that ultimately suffered only eighteen fatalities. The difference in this case is that you represent largely a force of one, with a bunch of goofballs hanging around that sometimes are a little difficult to keep alive. The missions are heavily scripted and often updated with additional goals as you play through them, but there are ammo and health packs scattered around, so although the missions get longer than originally “planned” they don’t really get any more difficult. There are a fixed number of saves per mission, and you can use one at any time – I never ran out of saves while I was playing. You sometimes play gunner on either a helicopter or a vehicle, but you do not get the opportunity to drive or pilot any of the vehicles. Destroying enemy vehicles is easier than it should be. A single bullet to the head of the driver and the whole thing explodes, ball of fire, tires rolling away. It looks good, but it doesn’t make much sense. The single player game spans only 16 missions, and doesn’t take all that long to complete. The final half dozen or so missions (code name Irene) cover the plot of the movie, with familiar landmarks included. Beyond the last few missions telling the story of BHD, there isn’t really any single plotline running through the single player game. One last note on the single player missions: all the enemies are in scripted locations, so if you go around a corner and someone spanks you with an RPG, you can go around the corner the next time you play with guns blazing to shoot him before he can shoot you. He’s always going to be there, and that cuts down on the replayability considerably.
NovaLogic created this game using a modified version of their Comanche graphics engine. What’s the allure of using a flight simulation graphics engine for a FPS? I suppose it buys you some real range in terms of viewing distance. But a soldier at 200 yards is just a couple pixels, really a tiny dot, so what’s the point? That said, the graphics are the high point of BHD. Mogadishu is a town in ruin, damaged buildings, tin shanty shacks, piles of garbage and burned-out vehicles in the streets. Dust blows, stuff burns, smoke billows, and the sun bakes it all hard and flat. Working your way down narrow, twisted alleys, knowing that around the next corner could be a guy with an AK47 raises the tension a few notches. It promptly falls again when you realize that his chances of hitting you when you go around the corner are just about nil.
Along with the graphics, I was likewise pleased with the quality of the sounds. There’s the close up sounds of your weapons and those of your enemy, but there is also an almost continual background of gunfire as if minor skirmishes are going on elsewhere. There’s radio chatter, and the screams of guys you shoot. One funny note is that there are maybe a dozen different screams, and as you kill as many as 100 guys in a mission, you quickly get to hear them over and over again. The music is much like the music from the movie, which I’ll have to classify as Somalian rock.
I think one thing that would greatly improve this game would be to remove the minimap in the corner of the screen. The minimap gives me an almost godlike knowledge of my position, that of my squadmates, roughly the direction the enemy is shooting at me from, and most importantly, the location of my goal. 95% of the horror of Black Hawk Down was due to the fact that the soldiers on the ground didn’t have that kind of knowledge. They were being shot at from every which way – rooftops, alleys, windows, doorways – and they had almost no idea where they were or where they were going because one bombed building looks more or less like every other. In the game I know exactly where I am and where I’m going at all times. What’s more, I have a complete picture of all the buildings in my area, so I can pick what route I want to take (give or take a few piles of garbage that don’t show up on my map) to my objective without risk of getting lost or turned around in the all the alleyways. That’s a mistake. The game dropped a golden opportunity to make me feel lost and alone, and it’s all on the minimap.
If BHD shines at all beyond the graphics, it does so in multiplayer mode. You pick a character and specialize in a particular skill (medic, sniper, gunner, etc), then go into a vast number of multiplayer game options including XXX. I am left, however, regretting that in multiplayer mode I am unable to use any vehicles, because how cool would it have been to drive a hummer or play helicopter support? Comanche was entirely a helicopter simulation game – how hard would it have been to include the helicopter in BHD? The other thing that I’d like to mention is that when I told a friend that BHD is just an OK single player game, but a significantly better multiplayer game, he replied “How many multiplayer FPS games can the market possibly choke down, especially as they all only have minor differences between them?” And as I think about it, I have to agree with him. There are at this point dozens of FPS games, and that doesn’t even count the sort of FPS RPG games like DAoC and Everquest, and more coming out every day, so how many can people possibly be playing out there? I guess the problems of marketing BHD isn’t really in the purview of a game review, but, to me at least, it’s an interesting question.
BHD. Gritty wartime antics, good graphics, atrocious AI targeting all around, pretty involved missions, nice multiplayer action, generally playable, and almost utterly lost in the background haze of the other 50 FPS games that came out in the last year.