Publisher: 505 Games
ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: Available now
The final frontier for shooter games is the ocean, and for good reason. Most projectiles tend to be less than effective when traveling through water, and most heroes have to breathe. Developer Biart has taken a step into this brave new world with Deep Black, a traditional third-person shooter that spends almost as much time in the deep blue sea as it does on dry land.
In the year 2029, the United Nations has broken into two factions, mostly divided by the equator: The United Federation of Gondwana (in the south) and the Global Strategic Alliance (in the north). Eighteen years later, secret agent/commando Syrus Pierce is sent to a Gondwana underwater installation to rescue hostages and retrieve vital intel. When he arrives, he discovers no hostages, but is sent in anyway to search for unspecified weapon technology. As Pierce’s mission continues, he finds that there’s much more going on than his handlers are sharing with him.
Deep Black plays very much like any shooter you’ve played in the past, except that the underwater scenarios require three-dimensional thinking; up and down is just as important as left and right or forward and back. Your gear allows you to stay underwater indefinitely, so there’s no need to surface for air or depend upon an outside air source. You start out with a pistol with unlimited ammo, and you have two slots available for more powerful weapons (certain other firearms can be held until they run out of ammo, after which they’re automatically dropped). You also have a device known as a harpoon, which is a short spear at the end of a 20-meter cable. The harpoon can be used to drag enemies underwater to be more easily dispatched with your handy combat knife. It’s also used to hack door and ladder controls, and to reprogram attack drones to fight with you instead of against you.
Once you leave the water, Deep Black becomes a standard cover shooter. A minimal HUD is tucked nicely away in the corner of the screen, and a marker always points you in the direction of your next objective, so there’s no real danger of getting lost. The usual exploding red barrels are everywhere, joined by lantern-shaped electric power sources that can be used to shock enemies if they’re too close. You can always tell where the next shootout is going to occur; just look for areas with lots of available cover. Enemy AI is nothing special; they stay behind cover and peek out just enough for you to plug them, although some of them will rush you if you stay in the same position for too long. The proprietary Biengine delivers serviceable graphics quality, although the game takes a serious framerate hit when too many things are going on at once. The sound design is excellent, with very satisfying explosions, solid weapon sounds and good use of multichannel audio. And, surprise of surprises — no collectibles! No searching every nook and cranny of every scene for glowing, unnecessary items. Quite refreshing.
But like every game, you only continue to the end for three reasons: you’re a reviewer and you have to finish it, you’re a trophy/achievement hound and you have to get them all, or you really are having fun. Unfortunately, Deep Black stopped being fun about halfway through. Actually, it started a fast downturn in the fun factor just after the first of the story’s five acts. There’s a very brief break between acts, and your ammo is not replenished. The end of Act 1 uses up quite a bit of resources, and Act 2 starts with a miniboss battle, so you have to carefully scrounge around the environment for ammo before fighting the boss (in this case, an armored underwater crab robot). From here, the difficulty level ramps up sharply, reaching frustration levels that will have most players searching YouTube for solution videos. Making matters worse, the controls are sluggish at unfortunate times; the cover button is slow to activate just after melee combat, making you vulnerable to cheap, one-shot kills by the enemy, which happen much more frequently than they should. You don’t get a target reticule until you press the aiming control, so you’ll waste valuable ammo if you don’t center your target on the screen before you fire. Your sticky grenades (the only ones in the game) inflict no splash damage on the enemy, so you have to hit them directly with the grenade. There’s no sprint button; instead, Pierce moves automatically from walk to run if he takes more than a few steps in the same direction. There’s no skill involved in melee combat — wait until the enemy is close, press one button and he’s dead (except for the beginning of Act 5, when you can spam the attack button and still get killed). Drones that you’ve hacked can sometimes get stuck in corners and refuse to fight. Checkpoints are poorly placed, dooming you to play extended sections of a level over and over again (a save-anywhere function would almost literally cut playtime in half). And the multiplayer mode is a non-factor. Only two modes (deathmatch, team deathmatch), five maps and nobody playing; two weeks after launch, there were only 138 players on the leaderboard, and only nine of them had recorded more than 25 kills.
Very few shooters have dared to take the action to the sea, and Biart seems to like the venue (all of the developer’s games so far have had underwater settings). But no matter where a game is set, players are unlikely to stick it out to the end if the experience becomes more frustrating than fun. Deep Black‘s highest difficulty level is called Insane, and that’s a very appropriate term; I easily spent 20 hours finishing the game on Normal, so I can’t imagine what the last two acts are like on Insane. Deep Black looks nice and plays fairly well despite its control issues, but the difficulty drains almost all of the fun out of it long before the end.