I really failed to put two and two together when I agreed to take on the review for Blackwater. Here I was thinking that I was simply getting an opportunity to experience the newest in gaming technology with the first FPS to fully utilize the Xbox’s Kinect system for every bit of controller input, including aiming weapons, throwing grenades, even taking cover. At least that is how the commercial portrays it – you know the commercial, with the guy diving behind the couch and pulling virtual grenade pins with his teeth? Blackwater is intended to be the fully immersive FPS experience Microsoft promised when they announced their Kinect control system.
Little did I realize that by “Blackwater” the developer’s meant the actual private military defense contractor Blackwater…or Xe, or Academi, or whatever the multi-millionaire Erik Prince is calling his controversial company nowadays. In a strange twist of irony, in an industry that has made it a tradition to revolt against the oppression of the evil private military corporations (Metal Gear Solid, Red Faction, Mercenaries, Resident Evil, Perfect Dark, Far Cry, etc.), Blackwater (the game) is a blatant propaganda/recruitment tool aimed at improving the image of the divisive company. Yes, Blackwater (the game) is a property of Blackwater (the company) – with the Blackwater Company contracting Zombie Studios to make a game to represent their line of work.
Zombie Studios may not sound familiar to most gamers, but the company is no stranger to high-profile military shooters. Having cut its teeth on the inaugural Spec Ops titles in the late 1990’s, Zombie later went on to work with the US Government on a series of military simulators/recruitment tools including Future Force Company Commander, Future Soldier Trainer, and the popular America’s Army. Zombie’s most recent project was the budget-priced, multiplayer-only FPS Blacklight: Tango Down. Given Zombie’s rich history and inside-knowledge of military procedures, they were the natural choice to make the Blackwater game.
So how does it work? It is a mixed bag. Blackwater shines with its impressive, albeit sketchy, use of the Kinect technology – but is hampered by repetitive gameplay, lackluster presentation, and cringe-worthy content. First and foremost, Blackwater is less an FPS and more an on-rails shooter in the vein of House of the Dead. Character selection and general character movement is all controlled by the game, with the gamer limited to controlling only the aiming and reloading of firearms, tossing of grenades, and shouldering up against cover.
Like House of the Dead, or any other light-gun game for that matter, the action consists of little more than the game automatically shifting the player from static background to static background, shooting all onscreen enemies until the level is cleared and the game dramatically transitions to the next scene. Also like House of the Dead, Blackwater features no onscreen indicator of the player character or weapon, only a targeting reticule that tracks the gamer’s pointer finger (not a gun peripheral) with surprising accuracy. Blackwater Kinect technology definitely takes the phrase “point-and-shoot” to a whole new level.
Most of the gameplay take place on the ground, with gamers hiding behind boxes and crates or shooting over half-walls and burned-out cars. This “covering” is accomplished by prompting the gamer to lean or squat to various degrees of success. Every now and then, players will find themselves shooting from the back of an armored vehicle as it passes from location to location. Gamer control is also allowed via a standard Xbox 360 controller, but this provides very little benefit in the long run.
While I was impressed with Blackwater’s technology with the respect to the finger tracking, it was not without its faults. The game seems a bit easy to confuse with moving players and bent fingers – I found that it was important to be oriented correctly to the camera to and maintain rigid arm and hand position during the heated action sequences. Additionally, the actions for reloading (slapping the bottom of the left elbow with the right hand) and tossing a grenade (right hand straight up) only seemed to register about half of my motions. Considering the action is fairly fast-paced, not being able to consistently reload was a real hindrance to enjoyment, especially when failure means a complete restart of the mission from the beginning sequences. Then again, without the forced restart the complete restart the entirety of the Blackwater game could easily be finished in just a few hours – the campaign is incredibly short, even with the alternative routes added to lengthen the already repetitive gameplay by forcing gamers to play through the same few levels at infinitum as they try to collect all of the hidden items scattered throughout the scenes.
As mentioned, the presentation value is definitely lacking – in an industry that was just graced with a one-two punch of Modern Warfare and Battlefield releases, Blackwater’s uninspired cutscenes, static visuals, and meatheaded characters definitely do not impress. The lame scripting is packed with ego-massaging one-liners that are downright embarrassing – so much so that I had to turn off the sound so I could focus less on hating the character and focus more on the gameplay at hand.
If the controls were sketchy with single player, they get downright awful with the local co-op mode, which is all but unplayable. There is one shining star in the form of a party-style challenge mode in which up to eight players take turns trying to top one others’ scores. This mode ends up being the highlight of the entire game, as the competitive nature one-upping friends in a party situation makes it a bit easier to overlook the staid gameplay and mechanical flaws. Whether it functions correctly or not, nothing is funnier than watching a friend finger pointing the screen like an eight year old kid, only to begin madly slapping the underside of his elbow while cursing at the screen – especially when beer is involved.
Blackwater is a definite step in the right direction to providing the motion-based FPS like the one promised when Microsoft announced their Kinect camera peripheral. But between the controversial backstory, the dicey subject matter, the terrible presentation, and the sketchy controls, it is a game that is better left on the shelf. If you want a better Kinect shooter experience, check out Gunstringer.