Deep Black: Reloaded Review
This game was reviewed on a Windows PC.
Biart Studio’s Deep Black: Reloaded promises to immerse the player in a compelling, complex storyline, weaving a subtle science fiction setting with an unusual approach to third-person shooters: it puts a bulk of the gameplay underwater.
Armed with an array of undersea weapons and gadgets, the player shoots his or her way through a global conspiracy involving bio-terror groups, corrupt corporations, and ineffective governments. You play as part of a shadow group operating on behalf of a coalition of corporations and governments vying for control in a resource-starved world. This predictably pits Western Europe, North America and Australia against everyone else.
The geographic battle lines seem a little suspicious in a world where corporations, which don’t exactly need to ascribe to traditional geographic boundaries, are nearly as powerful as governments, and the sea is being actively colonized. With the addition of the “bad guy” organizations – Al-Azrad and Ishigaru-Himmel Systems, among others – having very ethnic, or at least non-white, namesakes, it gives the impression of all the white people in the world against everyone else.
Pierce, one of the main characters, a laconic badass with a chip on his shoulder (courtesy of a botched mission against Al-Azrad, we’re told) is as white as sliced bread and just as thin. He’s pretty typical as far as the characters go, and unfortunately he drives the first chunk of story.
Normally, I’d be willing to give the plot of a small-studio title a bit more leeway, but Biart has been touting the story as richly complex and compelling since the game was announced, and the interesting setting screams for a plot that does it justice. Unfortunately, it never comes to the surface.
Each mission strings you along with a series of loosely-connected and sometimes baffling objectives (going to a server in the middle of an enemy stronghold to upload data you can just as easily take with you on extraction is one example) that just keep on coming. First it’s a rescue mission, then it’s an aggressive scouting mission, then a data retrieval, a weapon theft and/or assassination and so on.
The idea seems to be to make the game complex and mysterious, but in practice it’s just exhausting. Pierce and his vaguely ethnic, talking-head handler bandy about the names of seemingly nefarious corporations, terrorist organizations, and governments as if they have some visceral, immediate importance. However, the sheer number of them, and the bland voice acting accompanying the revelations, makes them seem a lot less important and threatening than they ought to be.
Bottom line for the story is there’s just no reason to care. There’s no compelling threat, no charismatic opponent or feeling of immediate danger to motivate us to continue playing, and any immediacy or danger we do receive is told to us, not shown or experienced. It ends up boiling down to the fact the organization you work for is just another small-minded, morally flexible corporate entity struggling for survival, and as such, isn’t any better than the others it’s setting out to destroy.
All that sort of happens by accident. The missions you’re given, along with the plot twists and whatnot, all lean toward the fact it’s Pierce, his underwater toys, and his massive body count standing between world peace and total chaos.
However, it’s not all terrible, even if the story is weak. Deep Black features some fairly standard third-person shooter features like the ability to take cover on walls and obstacles, and the accompanying ability to fire over and around cover.
Finding new weapons and grenades takes up a good chunk of each mission, by either smuggling out prototype weapons (such as a stun gun in the first) or finding newer, more powerful weapons along the way. You have a limit of three, and they tend to go along formulaic lines – pistol, shotgun, submachine gun. On top of that, you have grenades of various types, as well as your harpoon.
It’s important to note most of the gameplay is split into two chunks. There’s the standard, solid-ground parts of each mission – described above – and there are the underwater parts. These two portions are seamlessly welded together, with Pierce able to transition between dry ground and water without a single loading screen or force-the-player-to-walk-slowly-while-the-next-potion-loads-in-the-background instance. That in itself is a fairly impressive bit of development, but unfortunately, other problems end up getting in the way. However, it’s underwater where Deep Black flexes most of its creative muscle.
The gameplay of the aquatic sections is where your harpoon becomes vitally important. For one thing, it can function as a hook, dragging opponents toward you either from platforms above ground or from areas of cover underwater. This allows you to finish off your enemies with a very cool quick-time melee event. On top of it assisting your martial prowess, the harpoon also serves as a hacking tool, which you can use to lower ramps and stairways, open gates, and hack undersea drones. There are some other pretty impressive moments that take place underwater. Melee fights are chaotic and leave you slightly disoriented, and this can be hectic and exhilarating when you’re surrounded by enemies.
That’s about where the unique quality of the underwater material comes to an end. There’s no real sense you’re actually underwater; some of it has to do with the corridor level design (get to that in a moment), and some has to do with a very player-friendly aquatic environment. It’s too well-lit, too normal; your equipment is too self-contained and reliable.
There are moments where I wish an underwater knife fight ends with Pierce floating around upside down, not sure which way is up and being attacked by yet more enemies, but the game simply refuses to let you get lost in the depths. You’re also totally neutrally buoyant, and even weighed down by what looks like the progenitor of Dead Space’s engineer harness, you don’t sink if you let go of the controls.
It would have benefitted from a Metro 2033-like loneliness, a feeling of you against everything else living in the environment. Everything is just too normal, and feels as if Biart didn’t attempt anything that might confuse or disorient the player at the expense of all the potential.
Some of the gameplay seems to suggest a Splinter Cell-type stealth quality, and even the mission objectives are similar – find info, assassinate ranking targets, disable bombs and find bio-terror weapons – but stealth is impossible. But even if you’re able to harpoon a few unaware guards and pull them underwater without being detected, the rest of the mission is so obviously oriented toward shooting your way in, out, and around each objective or top-secret research facility that it begs the question as to why bother with the harpoon at all. Even the undersea portions are designed to run you along a single corridor in which enemies pop up from behind obvious cover points and file dutifully in toward your line of fire until the scripted sequence stops or you die.
Which brings me around to how the shooter portions tend to work. Shootouts follow a predictable pattern, usually with Pierce encountering a pair of enemies, either guards or other aquatic soldiers (sometimes hilariously toting oxygen tanks even while deep in the bowels of an installation and extremely far away from water) hiding behind cover, maybe with an auto-turret in between. You’ll have to take cover, wait for an enemy to pop his head out of cover, then hold the trigger down and point your gun at the bad guy’s face for three to five seconds. It takes that long for you to kill anyone, unless you manage to sneak up on them and melee kill them (unlikely) or hit them with a grenade.
The problem with the grenade is you can’t aim it without breaking cover, and there’s not a close correlation between where the center of your screen is and where the cursor for your grenade actually appears, all of which renders the grenade as a practically useless bit of kit if you’re trying to employ it while being shot at. The whole thing unfortunately means the combat, which takes up the bulk of the entire experience, is mediocre at best.
Despite Deep Black’s moments of cleverness, the overwhelming bulk of the game simply falls flat. Without pushing its best elements further, without making the undersea portions truly feel as if you’re immersed in water, without implementing any kind of stealth option, making any unique gadgets or exploiting the alien world of the ocean floor for tension or suspense, you’re just left with a bare-bones, formulaic shooter with a clever idea for a setting executed too safely.
Deep Black: Reloaded earns 3.75 bloody harpoons out of 5.
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