Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Deep Black Reloaded (PC, 2012, Russia): The Art of Drowning (in 3D!)
August 20, 2012, 1:51 am
Filed under: Deep Black Reloaded (PC, 2012, Russia)

In a few years, if I’m alive, I’ll look back at this statement and probably cringe, but here goes: I gotta tell you that I am effing hooked on stereoscopic 3D gaming. I know; it’s all probably just another stupid, temporary, money-grabbing stage in the “wondrous” evolution of videogames. But damn! Have you played a shooter in 3D (glasses and all) yet?

I read a short editorial in “Game Informer” about five months ago which chronicled the author’s conversion from diehard skeptic to fanatical believer in stereoscopic 3D gaming. And after reading, I still remained skeptical. But then I needed a new TV anyway, ponied up for a 65″ plasma (just try to find a screen of that size that isn’t 3D-ready), and bought the glasses. Why not? Putting aside fears of vomiting due to motion sickness and pounding headaches, not to mention sore ears from poorly-fitting eyewear, I popped the new “Silent Hill: Downpour” into my Xbox 360 and…promptly shit my pants. Actually I shit my pants about a dozen times over the next few days as I made my way through the campaign. Even though the game itself was average at best, the stereoscopic 3D was so…freaking immersive. Creepily immersive. Scary immersive.

I already had “Deep Black: Reloaded” on my shelf, and I knew it had a 3D option (it can be played in regular 2D of course, like all stereoscopic 3D games can), but I was in no hurry to play it…that is, until I had finished “Silent Hill: Downpour” and needed another stereoscopic 3D shooter fix. “Deep Black” came flying off the shelf at my face—in 3D! At this point in time, there really aren’t too many 3D games out there (I played “Killzone 3” a year ago, but I am likely to do so again now that I can experience it in 3D). So in some ways, it’s funny that a low-brow, no-name, eastern-European title like “Deep Black” would implement this technology a little bit ahead of the curve. But here it is.

And now a warning: The fact that “Deep Black: Reloaded” can be played in stereoscopic 3D does not make it a great game. But it does help to make it a slightly-below-average “good” game, with both positives and negatives. And, as usual, the game in no way deserves the ballkicking-cringeworthy-Metacritic-score-of-24 it has received by critics (none of whom get the game’s eastern European roots, and not that they’d give a shit anyway). Surprise, here I am once again defending a bad game by saying “Well, seriously it’s not that bad.” Rousing endorsements all around!

Originally sporting the monikers “U-Wars” and “Underwater Wars,” “Deep Black” was created by Biart, a small “aquatically obsessed” Russian developer (all of their 4 or 5 titles, developed with their proprietary “BiEngine,” include underwater play of some kind). Their vision: To recreate a third-person, cover-based “Gears of War” rip, but to dump everybody into the ocean!  Ok, you got my attention—and the attention of a lot of folks actually. After the usual pre-release hype, followed by a slew of very slick screenshots showing a Dead-Space-Isaac-like character being manhandled by some underwater robot (which got some of us unduly excited), the game’s release was a bit lost-on-the-rocks. I can’t precisely chronicle what happened, but I recall it this way: Titled simply “Deep Black,” the game was published in late 2011 for PC by the Italian niche group 505 Games in German without an English patch. Lots of interested English players scrambled about to find an English patch, but there was none. Then, Biart said they were working on patching it for many languages. Then reports of problems with the game surfaced from consumers, including the dreaded “This game sucks and isn’t fun to play and looks bad” problem. Then, several months into 2012, “Deep Black: Reloaded” surfaced, in English and a handful of other languages. Next, it suddenly became available on Microsoft’s Xbox Live service in the summer of 2012 for $10. Retitled once again as “Deep Black: Episode One,” the game (shamefully?) only includes the first half of the campaign, apparently; this is the publisher clearly trying to jump onto the episodic-game-bandwagon and make as much moolah as possible. I mean, what other reason would there be if the entire game already exists and is available for another platform, yes? But, I editorialize….Who knows if console-owners will ever be able to play the entire game. Or more accurately, who knows if any console owner cares enough to bother even thinking about playing the entire game. But since I had access to the entire game in PC form, of course I opted to play that instead.

Having at least chronicled part of the game’s development and release, right now is when I’d delve into the fascinating backstory behind “Deep Black,” retelling the dark, twisting narrative that drew me in and made this a memorable experience.

But since I can’t do that, let’s move onto something else.

OK, OK. Smartassery aside, the narrative really is…incomprehensible, from start to finish—that is, if you solely rely on the game to tell you the story. However, by doing some serious digging around the game’s website, I found this cogent—albeit uninspired—explanation of the “Deep Black” universe: It’s 2047, and global megacorporations with private armies have replaced governments just about everywhere (“Metal Gear” anyone?). Ishiguro-Himmel Systems (IHS), headquartered in Berlin, is the big daddy of them all. The very few free nations that remain wrestle amongst themselves for dwindling resources. Some nations have joined together to try and dismantle these militaristic corporations; hence, they’ve created two organizations: The United Federation of Gondwana, including South America, Africa, southern Asia, and Australia; and the Global Strategic Alliance (GSA), populated by North America, Europe, and northern Asia.

As allies, Gondwana and the GSA have done their best to keep the big, bad corporate shills from expanding politically and ruling everyone. But then a meteorite falls right into IHS’s hands, allowing the corporate baddies to weaponize it. IHS researchers have found that bacteria within this meteorite excretes an element that cannot be found on the periodic table, and that makes it very dangerous and explodey, apparently. To help control this new element and make sure it doesn’t blow up in their faces, IHS has created an artificial-intelligence beyond anything humans have thus far imagined, called Ichthys.

You are (faceless, smack-talking) Syrus Pierce, an ex-military dude who now works for Charon, which is basically an independent, underwater-based military group that is often contracted by Gondwana and the GSA to do their dirty work against the megacorporations. You spend the bulk of the game rummaging around one of IHS’s secret corporate underwater bases (and later in a defunct nuclear sub, a defunct sewer, and…you get the picture), taking out dozens of IHS’s militia dudes and robot sentries (three varieties, both ground, water, and air) while trying to find out what this new tech is and how it may upset the balance of power in the world. With each battle you win as you get closer to the truth about IHS’s experiments and plans, the AI Ichthys (terribly voiced by some woman, by the way) becomes increasingly cross with you. I wonder what major boss battle looms at the end of the game? Hmmm…..

While that narrative actually sounds quite literary, remember I had to visit the game’s website to get it. In other words, within the game itself, everything is a cloudy blur. On its own, it doesn’t clearly tell you who you are, who the people talking to you in your headset are, who you are fighting against, or what you are fighting for—or really what the ultimate goal is. The game really doesn’t bother with any of that. There is a kind-of-cel-shaded intro to the game that attempts to briefly outline the narrative. But after watching it three times, I still can’t tell you what it actually says. There is chatter between faceless you and the faceless folks on the other end of your commlink—but none of it becomes an actual story within the gamespace.

This is not the first title I’ve played where I’d bet my paycheck on this hunch: The game was made first (the mechanics, the look, the atmosphere, the tech), and then at the twelfth-our some hack (like the office secretary’s 13-year-old son) grafted on some nonsensical un-story—and the result is generally incomprehensible from beginning to end. Of course, there’s no need to tell you that all of the “characters” in the game are mostly cardboard cutouts of people suffering from stiff voice acting (as usual—God, why don’t they learn?), not really even any humor (worth laughing at). Technically, I must acknowledge that there are some halfhearted attempts at characterization; for example, it is revealed late in the game that Syrus Pierce has a serious case of claustrophobia (due to imprisonment during some previous war exercise) and therefore has a bit of trouble making through a series of closed sewers (but he manages with some poorly acted huffing and puffing). It is also revealed early on that he has a sexual interest in his commander (who is nothing but a female voice with a light Latin accent in your headset). But none of it actually creates depth.

None of this means there aren’t at least some positive elements in the game. (Since when do I simply trash a title and never find anything redeeming about it? Pretty much never.) In this day and age, I probably shouldn’t be too impressed by what I’m categorizing as “positive elements,” but I want to give the game its due, which is my God-given purpose in this life, ugh. While almost every environment and encounter in the game suffers from a severe case of samey-ness (ambushes in gray underground bunkers, mechanical rooms, and laboratory spaces occur ad nauseam), there are attempts at some variation. For example, there are a few catwalk-and-bridge-strewn outdoor levels (which ultimately, due to the underpowered proprietary engine, still feel like indoor levels—the weak draw distance is evidenced by flat, super-fuzzy mountains in the background). One notable (but too short) sequence takes place in an underground parking garage which has been completely flooded, with rotting cars and vans providing underwater cover. The final level takes place on a deep-sea oil rig, which also offers a tiny bit of variety, but much of it looks the same regardless of where you are.

Although it is a double-edged sword, “Deep Black” offers a full-length campaign clocking in well over 25 hours. (Granted, I took my time looking for screenshots…and dozing.) Why is this double-edged? Well, the game could use some serious editing. I know I don’t say this sort of thing often (after all, look at these novella-length posts for God’s sake), but I started fidgeting around the 12-hour mark. Little did I know we were nowhere near completion; level after level after level kept loading (as the confusing narrative unfolded at a snail’s pace), and I seriously thought I was in some kind of time loop. Granted, I’m a generally slow player, but if there were more variety in locations, or more variety in gameplay (such as a puzzle here or there), or even a more engaging (and intelligible) story, I might not be complaining about the game’s length. But “Deep Black” is essentially comprised of shootout after shootout in five or six recycled locations (some of which are underwater), against five or six recycled opponents in different combinations. In other words, the game takes its singular identity as “shooter” quite seriously and offers little else.

On that note, the gameplay does get surprisingly difficult toward later chapters, including a dozen or so frustrating mini-boss fights with large, mechanical crab-like sentries that pummel you with both rapid fire bullets and homing missiles, which can (unfairly) find you even behind complete cover. In my estimation, these encounters are frustrating mostly because the game doesn’t provide you with enough fine (or fast) control of your character to be successful—in other words, the engine simply cannot provide Pierce with enough fluidity or speed of movement. To make matters worse, some of these encounters take place underwater where your movement is even more restricted and your bullets (appropriately) do less damage because of water resistance. Some later areas also sport waves of enemies—some of who uncannily dodge your bullets and several that bum rush you (Pierce does actually have one very basic, but stiffly animated, melee attack, when in proximity to enemies). But ultimately all of this has the cumulative effect of the game feeling too repetitive and too damn long. But maybe it’s not such a bad problem to have. You can always just…stop…playing.

On the plus side (again, elements I probably should not be gushing about in this day and age), the title also supports gamepad, and on-screen controls and prompts change automatically when detecting whether you are playing with keyboard/mouse combo or a gamepad; although the uninspired, standard issue rifle/shotgun/pistol/grenade arsenal dominates, the over-the-shoulder shooting is sufficiently tight, and the guns don’t feel completely underpowered. While you do eventually acquire an experimental EMP stun-gun and a high-tech line gun (that makes headshots a breeze), I usually dumped them for more traditional weaponry. [NOTE: I didn’t figure this out until very late in the game–I thought the game was glitchy, but it is actually an awkward design element. You can only carry three weapons at a time, and if you come across a gun on the ground that you want, you may swap out the one you are holding with one on the ground. However, one of your three guns (specifically the weak, infinite-ammo pistol) cannot be changed out—you are permanently stuck with it. So if you happen to be carrying the permanent-pistol in your hands when you encounter a gun on the ground that you want, the prompt to pick up/change your gun simply will not appear on screen, errrrr.] Overall, the cover-based mechanics are far from new, but they are refined enough to work. Cover is non-destructible, as are all environments.

Perhaps the two strongest elements involve the stereoscopic 3D, which is well done (and not overdone), and also the pretty-damn-near-seamless-underwater-to-land-based-play. Regarding the 3D, there are only a handful of shooters with this mechanic at the moment, so “Deep Black” automatically gets to sit on the throne. The 3D helps the otherwise weak, toy-like environments pop a bit (see the discussion below), and the 3D effects do help to generate atmosphere (probably way more atmosphere than the game deserves). The other unexpected surprise is the smooth, clean transition from playing underwater to playing on land. On average I’d say the game is split about 50/50, as Pierce jumps in and out of the drink while navigating through IHS’s sprawling underwater base, sewers, sunken subs, channels, and the Pescadero river. When underwater, you need to jet past volcanic eruptions, seek cover from other submerged, gun-toting enemies, and dodge mines and robots which zoom at you from various tunnels and caves. On land, you’ve got a typical, low-brow, cover-based shooter that is unremarkable. But transitioning from the underwater sections onto land works flawlessly. In some instances, you must flood a room in order to swim to an otherwise inaccessible area, and the water mechanics work well, though it really isn’t used quite enough. (“Hydrophobia” comes to mind in the much-hyped-water-physics-crappy-games-department, and I must say that I was a bit more impressed overall with this mechanic in “Deep Black.”) The land-water-land physics worked well, and the land-water-land camera worked well. (I know games have done this sort of thing before. The open world of “Crysis” especially comes to mind for me, swimming past the enemy while fully submerged in the river, and then emerging onto land in sandbox fashion, flanking them, and taking them out. But it was nice to see this dinky little game manage to get the mechanics right too.)

Oh yes, there are gameplay elements that don’t work—you might say downright broken. One of those is hacking robots. When underwater, Pierce has a harpoon which can be attached to various robots to reprogram them. When reprogrammed, they stop attacking Pierce and instead will fight on his side. Yay, sounds great! Too bad the mechanic is nearly impossible to successfully manage. Imagine this: Under the water, you are attached to a bullet-spewing robot by a harpoon and a 30-foot cable that is electronically reprogramming that robot. You cannot swim away from the attacking robot because the harpoon will detach. So you float there, absorbing bullets for about 3 seconds while the robot is reprogrammed. To make it all the sweeter, while shooting you in the face, the robot is also shaking back and forth to detach your harpoon, which it does quite well and often. You can attempt to reattach the harpoon and start the process from the beginning, but the bullets don’t stop. Guess what all of this adds up to? Lots of frustration and blood in the water. Lots. These same robots can be shot and blown up, but they are bullet sponges—clearly the developers want you to try and hack them instead. I chose to stay at a distance and empty my guns.

Not surprisingly, there are graphical limitations in “Deep Black” which belie its origins as an eastern European game, and this, I’m pretty certain, is one of the main reasons (but not the only one) why this was tossed into the bin by most reviewers after about 12 and a half minutes of play. Actually, I suspect this is where “Deep Black” fell prey to its own hype. God knows, in order for any developer’s fruits to be acknowledged in the overstuffed cornucopia of videogames these days, hype must be employed by everyone. Of course, hype is another two-edged sword. The desired effect? Increased sales, of course, once the game hits shelves—and it works.  But the negative impact—of not being able to live up to the hype—can be devastating. We are all aware of at least one guilty-pleasure title whose pre-release hype hooked us hard—and then we were crestfallen when the game was nothing like what we were promised. So here’s the question: As we know, well-funded, high-profile, triple-A, western titles can fall victim to pre-release hype. So, what chance does an eastern European game have when–after showcasing absolutely spectacular screenshots of a snazzy, sci-fi, underwater, cover-based shooter in order to gain a foothold in the market–it actually plays like…well, like a typical, low-tech, clunky, eastern European third-person ripoff of a western game? Answer: That crappy little game has zero chance at all of surviving its own hype machine.

Ultimately, once you leave static screenshots behind and enter the game proper, it immediately becomes clear that it simply cannot stand toe-to-toe graphically with even budget western titles. These problems are multifaceted, though I’ll focus on two, and neither of these problems are easy to explain. But I feel compelled to try.

The first, and biggest, problem is one that I’ve encountered in other low-tier titles by eastern European independent developers before (namely the relatively unknown games “Scorpion: Disfigured” and “Morph-X,” both of which I discuss on this blog). And that is, even though the environments in the game are well-rendered and proportionally correct, everything still feels toy-like, tiny, small, unreal (and I don’t mean Unreal). The crates, barrels, desks, fences, computer terminals, floors, walls, doors—all of the flotsam that constitutes the environment seems undersized (and I don’t mean out of proportion with the character), insufficient, without weight or depth or detail. I realize that might not make a whole lot of sense and seems too general a statement, but the easiest comparison I can make is that although you do walk around in a thoroughly rendered 3D environment (with stereoscopic 3D as an option, no less!), it feels like you are steering your character (who moves more like a marionette than a person) around a 3D dollhouse, a collection of tiny places that doesn’t feel real at all. It doesn’t matter how careful the moody lighting is (and it is, most times, quite well done), how thick the mist is creeping around every outcropping of rock, the beads of water rolling down the screen, or even the rather excellent and simple transition of underwater-to-land-based play in “Deep Black”—every single location still feels like it is made out of cardboard or papier mache—thin, insubstantial. What precisely contributes to this effect? I have no idea, but I would love to talk to a computer programmer, or maybe an artist, to figure out what is missing, or what would be required to fix the problem. Maybe my brain is what needs rewiring.

The second graphical limitation in “Deep Black” is also difficult to explain (and is also rampantly present in those two aforementioned titles). So instead I’ll use some analogies to make my point. I’m a big fan of 70s and 80s sci-fi. I recently invested in the “Space 1999” Blu-ray collection, starring the oh-so-serious-(once)-real-life-duo Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. The Blu-ray set was released a few months ago. Originally shot on 35mm film (I believe?), it has been gloriously restored in high definition, and it looks like it was shot yesterday—simply beautiful, pristine, and so-funky-70s-space-retro all at the same time. On the other hand, when I’m doing my daily sweaty trudge on the treadmill, I usually watch a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who DVD, and let me tell you those BBC-shot-on-raw-video shows look as dreadful as ever. Of course, there’s the nostalgia factor, and I love Classic Who to death, but that raw video look is admittedly cheap and unrefined (and “cheap” was the point, of course). This kind of overall “cheapness” is what the graphics in “Deep Black” suffer from. It is as if the game in general is lacking a final kind of spit-polish that would bring the whole package together. It is almost like a pretty good oil painting that the artist neglected to brush on a finishing shellac to make the elements cohere better, or like a pretty good song that still needs to be professionally mastered in order for the final mix to gel correctly. Whatever that “something” is for a videogame, “Deep Black” does not have it. The pieces of the game—I’m just talking visually—don’t cohere very well, and the whole screen looks ajar or unpolished. Lack of textures? Lack of color? Lighting askew? I don’t know, but everything looks a little too raw–like ugly, raw video almost. If you package this problem together with the tiny-dollhouse-like-quality problem, it is no surprise that we’re looking at a bottom-barrel Metacritic score here from reviewers who are used to the fit-and-finish pizzazz of western titles.

My final suggestion regarding “Deep Black” is this: If you are one to suffer through these underdog games, try to play it in 3D if you plan on playing it at all. In its standard, non-stereoscopic form, I would imagine the game is much less intriguing and immersive. Also, if you plan to make it all the way to the end, make sure you’ve got 25 to 30 hours set aside. It won’t necessarily be half-a-week filled with variety and spectacle…but it gets the job done.