Reviewed: June 13, 2003
Released: March 25, 2003
It’s strange how first impressions can make a lasting impression. My first visit of the 2002 E3 show was Novalogic, and the first game I saw out of more than 200 hundred titles that year was Delta Force: Black Hawk Down. I can still remember my private demo clearly, not so much because it was the first game I saw, but because of how impressed I was with the actual game and how closely what I was seeing resembled some of the action scenes from the movie of the same name.
For those who haven’t seen the movies, go rent/buy it right now and watch it before reading further. Black Hawk Down deals with historic events in Somalia back in 1993. Rather than try to recreate actual events from the war or the movie the game expands upon those missions to create something fictitious that is rooted in fact.
Players will participate in many challenging SOF (Special Operations Forces) missions that all lead up to the climactic rescue of the pilots and crew from the downed choppers seen in the movie. There are several key “action pieces” from the movie that have been recreated for the benefit of those who have seen the film, but anyone who enjoys a good strategy FPS title can step into this game without any prior knowledge of the war, book, or movie.
Many of you may have grimaced when you read the words “Delta Force” and “Novalogic” and understandably so. The Delta Force series of games have always been scoffed at by gamers and critics alike, but I encourage you to remember another title from Novalogic, a title that was actually quite good, Comanche. I still remember playing the original Comanche back in 1993 with all its “voxel” goodness. Novalogic is also renown for having one of the better multiplayer services available, NovaWorld, that brings together gamers for all of their online-supported titles much like Ubisoft’s gaming service.
Delta Force wasn’t a horrible game, it just wasn’t executed with any type of flair. But Novalogic has combined all of the excellent strategic aspects of those games and merged them with the graphical goodness of Comanche and tied it all together with some highly optimized network code to bring us one of the biggest and best strategy FPS games to come along in a great while.
Black Hawk Down features a set of unique and varied missions but none of them are really tied together with any interweaving plot. This seems to be the tradition of Novalogic war games where you simply go from mission to mission. When you complete one another is unlocked. You’ll be given a light briefing outlining your objectives for each mission, but there is no real story behind them until much later in the game.
Near the end of the game you will reach the final set of missions that recreate the events from the movie starting with the helicopters flying over Mogadishu, two of which get shot down, followed by the rescue mission and subsequent escape back to the UN safe zone. These are the only missions where I really “got into the game” but even then their presentation was a bit detached from reality.
When you are scrambling for you life in downtown Mogadishu under heavy enemy fire there is a certain level of intensity right up until the mission break. Then you are taken out of “reality” and given new orders and weapons just like any other mission in the game. I certainly don’t mind defined missions but they could have easily been integrated into the game. Rather than magically getting new weapons and ammo I should have to pry them from the cold dead fingers of my enemy. Rather than reading my new objectives I should be hearing them screamed at me by a panicked commander back at HQ.
Without a good story it becomes increasingly hard for me to care about the missions or any of the people I am playing alongside. Games that tell a story like Operation Flashpoint or games that let you build a relationship with your comrades like Vietcong really draw the player into the experience. Black Hawk Down never manages to transcend the boundary of computer game, but when the game is this good perhaps the story can be overlooked in favor of satisfying gameplay.
And that is the strongest thing Black Hawk Down has going for it – amazing gameplay. The missions are all quite diverse and feature enough new and exciting objectives to keep things from ever getting stale or predictable. The difficulty is quite challenging and there are several “stumpers” that will have you hitting the reload key. Saves are limited but not so much that you will find yourself wanting more. Generally, if I had to replay any substantial part of a level it was good penance for being stupid in the first place.
I am compelled to mention the artificial intelligence (or rather lack thereof) in Black Hawk Down, both in the enemy forces and your own. It’s not just bad; it’s bad enough that you will wish you were Rambo on a solo mission. You’ll be wanting to cut loose your dead weight of a team before the first mission is over.
I can forgive poor enemy AI since we are supposed to be fighting a bunch of untrained (at least when compared to SOF) civilian terrorists and misguided citizens, but my own Delta Force team is a joke. Give me Bill Murray and Harold Ramis from “Stripes” any day over these guys. Your team is good for nothing more than driving vehicles for the “rail” sections of the game (no – you can’t drive you own vehicles). They are worthless on mounted weapons, they can’t work as a team, and they can’t shoot to save their lives. Perhaps I am just spoiled after recently reviewing Raven Shield and basking in the unparalleled AI of my Rainbow Six squad.
You’ll have your work cut out for you doing your job and the job of most of your team. In all fairness, they will kill a few targets – perhaps one for every ten you kill and their pathfinding is better than I would expect given all their other flaws. For the most part, your AI comrades basically give you the “illusion” of working in a team with none of the benefits.
The easiest way to avoid the lousy AI is to take your fight online and Black Hawk Down has an excellent multiplayer component. While no cooperative mode is offered there is plenty of good old-fashioned deathmatch, king of the hill, CTF, search and destroy, attack and defends, etc. It’s all good stuff and very stable. Playing on NovaWorld is free and easy and you can almost always find a game to join or host your own and have players coming to you within minutes.
Using a flight-sim graphics engine for a FPS title isn’t exactly a new concept. Innerloop did it back in 2000 with IGI to a relative degree of success. Any problems with that game certainly weren’t due to the graphics. Black Hawk Down is no different and enjoys some spectacular landscape graphics thanks to the powerful Comanche engine.
But using a flight-sim engine also presents some challenges when creating objects that aren’t normally associated with flight sims. The character models are definitely primitive, especially when compared to those of games like Operation Flashpoint or Vietcong. Buildings are generally low in complexity and detail, generally square and lacking any interior extras. Vehicle models are also on the primitive side, with boxy cars and trucks with wheels that just don’t quite look right.
Despite all these deficiencies, when all of these objects start moving around everything just falls into place and looks awfully impressive. By keeping the models simple the artists were able to use some stunning textures complete with bump mapping and real-time lighting effects. Things that need to be detailed are, like the excellent weapon models that occupy the foreground of your screen. This perfect blend of simple models and complex textures allows gamers to run this game at high resolutions with maximum details on the recommended system.
Level design is brutally realistic. A war torn Somalis is created right on your PC with a massive amount of simple yet effective structures, realistic objects, gutted vehicles, trees, bushes, tall grass, water, and anything else needed to put you into this world. Perhaps the best aspect of the graphics is that everything in the city looks really dirty. Not since Devastation have I seen a game that recreates as much ambient free-floating trash that lines the city streets. It makes these environments look “lived in” rather than simply levels in a computer game.
I can still get the SWAT team called to my house by cranking up my DTS “Black Hawk Down” DVD. I can’t think of a better sounding war movie (although “When We Were Soldiers” comes mighty close). Black Hawk Down, the game, comes in a close second with endless gunfire, thumping choppers, growling humvee engines, screaming men, explosions, ricochets, and a unique blend of ethnic and rock tunes.
Expect 10-20 hours of gameplay in the single player missions depending on how skilled you are and how quickly you learn not to rely on your AI comrades. The multiplayer component is strong, and if you enjoy playing war games online then this is going to become a fast favorite.
If you are looking for a good story or intricate plot development then you had better go play (or replay) Operation Flashpoint or one of many other war games other than Black Hawk Down. If however you are looking to play an exciting and intense action-strategy combat game with a bit of historical significance, there is a whole lot of quality gameplay to be found here despite a few flaws and oversights – none of which a good patch couldn’t fix.