Reviewed: August 24, 2005
Released: July 26, 2005
The past 60 days has been a busy time for anyone who enjoys war games. With no less than three offerings to tempt you to spend your greenbacks, the biggest battle may be at the software store. Perhaps it was fate that Delta Force: Black Hawk Down arrived second on my review schedule, sandwiched between Battlefield 2 and Ghost Recon 2: Summit Strike like a piece of moldy bologna between two pieces of freshly baked bread.
I remember Novalogic back in the late 80ís and early 90ís when they broke new ground (literally) with their voxel technology that was creating some amazing landscapes and smoothly-curved terrain models in their Comanche attack chopper sims, long before Voodoo, DirectX, and polygons. They eventually took that technology into a new series of games based on Delta Force.
Having been in the military for over 25 years now, serving as a proud member of the US Rangers and Delta Force, my ďgame radarĒ goes off whenever any game is announced using the Delta Force name. I had heard about the PC version of Black Hawk Down that had released back in 2003, and while I never got the chance to actually play that version I heard plenty of mixed reviews from my buddies who did play it.
I was hoping that two years and a new system later Novalogic might have this game polished like a fine pair of army boots, but alas, the game has gone relatively unchanged; bugs, glitches, weak audio, and uninspiring visuals all perfectly preserved. What was a dated presentation in 2003 is a major step back in time and technology today on the Xbox.
I was in Somalia in the 90ís, as part of the effort to remove General Mohamed Farrah Aidid from power. While I wasnít a part of those infamous events that sparked all the public controversy, a best-selling novel, and one of my favorite movies, I do have some experience with what did go on over there as well as the types of missions, the environments, and especially the tactics used during this operation.
The movie, Black Hawk Down, dealt with the crashes of two of our choppers and the resulting deaths of over a dozen good men, both as a result of the crash and the creed, ďLeave No Man Behind.Ē Rather than simply recreate these events, Novalogic created a set of 16 missions set in and around Mogadishu where you go up against the Habir Gidr militia.
There was obviously a lot of research that went into the making of this game, or at least the 40+ page manual that is not only the largest manual I have seen in an Xbox game, but also the best quality with accurate information and some fantastic photos and imagery. There are six pages of text and maps dedicated to the history and backstory of Somalia that is downright educational, especially if you havenít been there.
The missions are fictional yet surprisingly realistic in their design and mission objectives. These missions combine with some reasonably good recreations of the city and surround landscapes to create several opportunities for real-life military tactics, but mostly the game devolves into a traditional FPS that favors run and gun tactics.
You can pick from four classes of soldier; sniper, medic, assault, and close-quarters combat, and while these choices actually have some bearing on the way you play the game in multiplayer, you will likely need to choose the assault class for the solo campaign. My own personal proclivity toward sniping had me going with the sniper class at first, which works reasonably well until you get into the confines of the city.
Battles usually consist of large numbers of enemy militia and since many of these encounters take place within the city you are responsible for protecting (or at least not killing) the unarmed civilians. As someone who has seen kids with machine guns and women with satchel charges, determining who is a threat and who isnít can be challenging, although this game does little to try and fool you.
When you arenít fighting on foot you can hop aboard a chopper or a hummer for some rail-style shooting sequences. Iím almost ashamed to admit I enjoyed these, as they are totally arcade in their presentation. You have unlimited ammo and your guns cannot overhead or jam, basically reducing these segments to mere mini-game diversions.
The overall control is functional but itís easy to see this game was born on the PC and ported to the Xbox. The level of precision required to play this game accurately can only be achieved with a mouse and keyboard, so you are ultimately forced to using the auto-aim assist function which takes a lot of the realism right out of the gameplay further reducing it to FPS status. And while it can be quite difficult to spot and shoot those distant enemies, they have no problem putting your head in the crosshairs and taking you down with one or two well-placed shots.
The actual gamepad controls are horrible, at least for me, and I am sure any other Tom Clancy veterans will agree. Controls are inflexibly mapped to the controller and other than changing the invert on the look function you are pretty much screwed if you donít like the default layout. I suppose the one saving grace here is that anyone who is already adept with the Rainbow Six games probably wonít be playing this game anyway, so you wonít have to overcome the steep relearning curve. You most definitely wonít want to bounce back and forth between the two games.
One thing that Black Hawk Down fails to do is get you truly involved with the story or the events. Sure, there is a large backstory but itís so far removed from your immediate mission objectives that it hardly matters. There is also little camaraderie or personal interaction with the rest of your men. All of this combined with the relatively short and weak solo campaign mode has me believing this game was targeted toward the multiplayer gamer.
For many of the missions you are grouped with a few AI-controlled comrades who manage to serve as distractions for the enemy, but you can pretty much plan on doing most of the work yourself. There are eight commands you can issue to your men, either by going through an overly complex menu system or by using an Xbox Communicator. Itís very similar to Rainbow Six and the voice recognition works surprisingly well, even when your voice changes pitch. All orders must still be confirmed with a button-press, so you canít inadvertently send your men to their demise with an ill-spoken command.
The team-based missions work at a very basic level but they are nowhere near as advanced as other games like Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon, and honestly, you can play and win the missions in Black Hawk Down with or without this added level of team strategy.
Black Hawk Down has obviously been designed with multiplayer in mind. They arenít exactly hiding the fact that this game supports 50 players online since itís emblazoned on the front cover. The game supports four-player split-screen, but things only get worse when you have already-small targets now displayed on a fraction of the screen. Plus, what kind of strategy can you have when you can see the other guys by looking at their window. There is no stealth in split-screen. Since versus modes are of little value in split-screen you might find the co-op mode a bit more entertaining. It uses six squad-based missions from the solo campaign, arguably, six of the best missions, and creates an interesting team-reliant atmosphere.
There is also support for 32 players over Xbox Live or system link, and up to 50 players on special Novalogic servers. Hooking up online is surprisingly easy, but even more surprising was just how many people were actually playing this game. I had no trouble finding numerous games of all types and sizes and most of them were on pretty fast hosts. And if you canít find a player-hosted game, there is always somebody playing on the Novalogic servers.
You have all the traditional game modes; Deathmatch, King of the Hill, Search and Destroy, CTF, Attack and Defend, Flag Ball, and team variations for many of these. Novalogic is also promising an endless stream of new content (maps) in the future, so if you do find yourself enjoying this game then you can plan on playing for a long time to come.
One major complaint (and Iíve heard this from others) is the use of vehicles in multiplayer. First, they only appear in the larger maps, which I suppose I can understand, but choppers and trucks remain on rails, even in the multiplayer games. So basically you are hopping on a heavily armed mass-transit system. And while the enemy can shoot you in a vehicle, the vehicles themselves are indestructible.
Black Hawk Down uses a persistent profile and a rudimentary class system to reward excellence in gameplay. Multiplayer modes are heavily influenced by careful class selection and organized teams that work together. If you get on a server and find 30 guys running around shooting aimlessly, log off and move on.
With more than two years to enhance the presentation I would have hoped for much more in this game as far as visuals are concerned. I can only guess that Novalogic didnít have any high-res artwork to build from in the first place. What was pretty bland in 2003 is downright laughable in 2005, especially when you have games like Summit Strike competing with it at a fraction of the price.
Levels are large and often void of details. What few buildings, bushes, and trees you might spot on the larger levels are low in polys and even lower in textured detail. Enemy soldiers all look and move alike. I can understand you have to keep things relatively simple to accommodate 30-50 gamers, but the graphics in Black Hawk Down are so bad it becomes distracting.
The game supports progressive scan but this only enhances the primitive nature of the graphics, much like putting a coat of Turtle Wax on a rusty Ford Pinto. At least the flicker and aliasing issues are kept to a minimum.
The audio portion of the game isnít much better than the gameplay or graphics. The soundtrack has some appropriate music but there certainly isnít enough of it to go around for any extended gameplay, so it gets really repetitive and annoying fast.
The weapons have adequate sound effects, but nothing nearly as refined as other games in this highly competitive genre. And there were a few glitches where the chaingun sound kept looping even after I had hopped out of the chopper or hummer. I just couldnít hear that much variety in the various weapons and despite the Dolby Digital surround, the game sounded surprisingly flat.
I suppose you canít help but be overly judgmental when you have three games sitting on the shelf targeted toward the same type of gamer and the ugliest of the bunch is also the most expensive. Depending on where you shop you can find Battlefield 2 (admittedly a PC game) for $10 less than Black Hawk Down, or at least the same price, and Summit Strike has recently shipped for Xbox at almost half the price.
But if massive multiplayer battles is what you are after then Black Hawk Down is most certainly your only alternative. Itís just a shame that it couldn't look and play better than it does. Hopefully, the intensity of the larger battles will overshadow all of the other shortcomings.
For all that if offers, the entire time I was playing Delta Force: Black Hawk Down, either online or off, I just kept wishing I was playing something else. Even if I didnít have Battlefield 2 and Ghost Recon 2: Summit Strike waiting in the wings, there are just a lot of other games out there better than this.
At most, I can make a cautious recommendation for those interested to RENT this game. You can probably find out enough about it and play some online battles within a normal rental period and if for some reason you find yourself liking the game, by all means, purchase it. At least a portion of the proceeds will go to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, and that I can endorse.