How Black burst our ear drums and ruined our trigger fingers shooting PS2’s most devastating firearms

We should all thank The Matrix on a daily basis. Oh sure, Morpheus using one of those Nokia flip-out phones now looks roughly as cool as trying to make a long distance call from a slab of cement with a coat hanger antenna. But c’mon, without the Wachowskis’ classic sci-fi that lobby scene would never exist. And if Neo and Trinity had never turned those office pillars into Swiss cheese, Criterion would never have made a game with the best guns on PS2.

That statement probably seems a touch too definitive, right? After all, there were a lot of first-person shooters on PlayStation 2. What exactly makes Black so special? We’ll tell you, buster: guns... lots of gu... Ahem. Plenty of games have virtual firearms, of course, but up until 2006, no shooter had treated the primal act of firing them quite as fetishistically as the Burnout developer.

When Criterion co-founder Alex Ward originally did the press junket for his studio’s one and only FPS, he came out with some belting quotes. None more so than the gem that Black was going to, “do for shooting what Burnout did for racing – tear it apart.” Now that’s a quote. Turns out, it was a soundbite with real teeth, too. Criterion promised Black would give gamers “Gun-Porn”, and short of dressing a Colt revolver in a PVC catsuit, then asking it to seduce the pizza delivery guy, it could not have delivered on that promise in more emphatic style.

Don’t misunderstand what Black is. It’s not a narratively rich shooter. It’s not a clever shooter. Hell, it’s not even a particularly interesting shooter. No, it’s just a game where you could blast away at a brick wall for five minutes, and be genuinely enthralled by the result. We kid you not. Firing a gun in Black is so exciting, even the process of hitting a brick wall and admiring how the mortar gets chipped away, endures in the memory 11 years on.

Criterion wanted to make a game where you’d be, “able to have fun with a gun in an empty room,” and Ward and co. certainly achieved their mission statement. Whether you’re unleashing shells from a Remington 870 shotgun, blasting away with a Beretta, or unloading round after round with an Enfield L85A1 assault rifle, every gun in the game hits like a sledgehammer obliterating meringue... a sledgehammer swung by King Kong. And that’s entertaining.

Everything in Black was built to showcase those guns. Weapon handling felt supremely weighty. The BAFTA-winning sound design was impeccable – some guns were so loud, you worried they would make your speakers implode. And on top of all that, the selection of primarily Chechnya-based levels were so deliciously destructible, so temptingly blastable, they could only have been built by the same shoddy contractors who put that Matrix reception area together.

Picturing Black without its environment-shattering guns is like imagining a fully-fledged Uncharted sans Nathan Drake. It doesn’t bear thinking about. If Criterion’s shooter didn’t have its fabulous firearms, it would be a very empty experience indeed. The completely forgettable plot about CIA black ops makes your average Call Of Duty story look like a Casablanca-beater. It didn’t really do set piece spectacle. Oh, and the guards were thicker than old porridge.

But... the weapons are ruddy amazing. Even a decade on, Black is still “the game with the guns”. With Criterion scheduled to play a big part in developing this year’s Star Wars Battlefront 2, let’s hope it still remembers how to shoot first.

This article originally appeared in Official PlayStation Magazine. For more great PlayStation coverage, you can subscribe here.

Dave Meikleham
Paid maker of words, goes by many names: Meiksy… Macklespammer… Big Hungry Joe. Obsessive fan of Metal Gear Solid, Nathan Drake's digital pecks and Dino Crisis 2. Loves Jurassic Park so much, may burst at any moment.