XBLA Review: Deep Black: Episode 1

Before the explosion of online download services, store shelves used to be stacked full of low-budget, usually low-quality shooters. One would have covers upon covers to rifle through, decorated with generic military men, military men in sci-fi armor, or some combination thereof. Nowadays, most retail-release shooters have relatively high production values, big marketing campaigns and acceptable levels of technical polish. So instead, the Deep Black’s of this world infiltrate their way onto XBLA or Steam.

Deep Black: Episode 1 is a generic cover-based shooter with the gimmick of having lots of underwater segments. Beyond being woefully uninspired in every facet of design, that it comes drenched in technical deficiency plonks it strictly in the “avoid”-category.

The minimalist – as in barely existent – story, is introduced by a brief series of comic panels and involves opposing multi-national factions, a terrorist cell and a faceless weapons corporation. You play an unimaginative suit of future-armor, occasionally emitting unfunny quips and concerns about THE MISSION, SNAKE. Over your radio, a lady with a Latin accent drones similarly bad punchlines and mission info. Together, you gun down foot-soldiers of the aforementioned arms corporation in drab industrial locales, while suspecting a treason in your organization. Or something. The narrative is mostly bland, with the odd dip into entertainingly cringe-y, for example in the characters’ repeated use of “Frag” in place of “Fuck” (Begging the question, do they call frag grenades Fuck Grenades?).

Of course, a poor but unobtrusive story can be remedied by good gameplay. That’s a trait Deep Black doesn’t approach having. The combat here, whether by land or sea, is consistently shoddy, lacking sense of momentum or fluidity. Land shootouts are methodical crawls along restrictive corridors of chest-high walls, where one retreats as clusters of henchmen spawn around a corner, before surgically headshotting them from cover. Over and over. Attempting dynamic, fun tactics swiftly lands you the game over-screen. When it gets bad, there are auto-turrets, or worse yet, robotic Giant Enemy Crabs, whose weak-spots you cannot hit for Massive Damage, and whose defeat comes only by strongly exploit-ey moves.

Underwater fighting is equally dull, though simpler. Maneuvering by water-jetpack, you circle-swim around robo-crabs and submarine drone-things, popping shots. Sometimes, you “hack” enemy drones to fight for you, but it doesn’t add depth. For a game sold on its underwater sections (a questionable idea in the first place), Deep Black’s sea-combat feels awfully hollow, even in comparison to the land-shooting.

As flat as the gameplay design is, it’s worsened by a hefty dose of technical design incompetence – inducing artificially high difficulty. Controls feel stiff and foggy, with jerky motion and awkward stick thresholds. Moving like a toy robot, your character’s animations are un-cancelable and achingly slow, often leaving you unable to intervene as genero-man collapses in a shower of bullets after attempting to throw a grenade, pick up a weapon or melee-kill an enemy. The foes don’t fare better, moving like units from a decade-old RTS (Their ridiculously long death-screams sound like a mildly perturbed Angry German Kid, which is funny though). There’s also a gallery of goofy interface quirks. Favorites include being able to pick up rocket launchers while in cover, but not enter cover with one. The clunkiness ensures you’ll die a lot, and when you finally succeed, you’ll feel relief, not satisfaction.

The campaign is solely comprised of on-foot corridors and water-corridors, with motifs of caves, warehouses and military bases, barren of standout moments to diffuse the stream of annoyance and boredom. And when it ends at an excessive 6 hours, it’s without a word of closure, just a cheap screen telling you to buy Episode 2 when that comes out. Well, if unlike me you find a single other fool to play with, you could try the multiplayer. Maybe it’s excellent. Probably not.

There are more nuggets of terribleness to point out about Deep Black: Episode 1 than any reasonably-sized review could hold. It’s unreasonably difficult for the wrong reasons, it’s parodically trite, and its one attempt at a gimmick is of zero substance. Don’t swim here. 

Pros:

  • The graphical detail is pretty good for an XBLA title
  • The engineer enemies brandishing pipe-wrenches, robotically sprinting at you with kamikaze-like dedication made me chuckle.

Cons:

  • Clunky, frustrating cover-shootery
  • Clunky, depth-less underwater shootery
  • A total vacuum of personality or flavor, enveloping every element of the game.

 

1 out of 5.

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Author: Magnus Risebro View all posts by
Magnus Risebro lives deep in the bowels of Norway. He writes about videogames for Vagary.tv.