Blackwater Skidrow

This game is practically a war crime.

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While I am sure there are some out there who view the idea of private military corporations as a necessary evil in America's war on terror, I doubt too many of them even have particularly fond feelings toward the company formerly known as Blackwater. The company, which has made hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts working for the US Army in Iraq, has changed its name not just once (to Xe Services) but twice (it's now known as Academi) in the last few years to try and counteract its own bad PR. Not that you can blame them. After years of accusations regarding illegal weapons trafficking, the alleged killings of civilians and subsequent cover-ups, and recruiting practices that saw them employing former members of Augusto Pinochet's death squads, you can hardly be surprised that they'd do just about anything they could to make the public forget about all of that.

Apparently "beard technology" is not something Zombie Studios has quite grasped yet.

Thus enters Blackwater, a video game with a curiously outdated title and a message to the public that lets you know that, hey, these guys aren't so bad after all! When they aren't smuggling guns to the King of Jordan or getting sued by dozens of Iraqi families for "random killings," they're helping out the U.N., rescuing formerly deposed peaceful leaders of fictional North African countries, taking down brutal military dictatorships, rescuing hostages and killing the same five recycled models of generic terrorists for about 90 minutes at a time.

Blackwater feels, for all intents and purposes, like a public relations blast. It's less a video game than an attempt to try and sway the public opinion (at least insofar as the public opinion relates to gamers) back to their side, presenting them as a bunch of selfless, good-natured totally-not-mercenaries who save hostages and deliver food and totally don't kill civilians. How could they, when there are literally no civilians anywhere in this game? It's like they took a one way ticket straight to terrorist town.

As a PR tool, Blackwater is rather vile, not to mention woefully ineffective. It stages life as a Blackwater contractor as something akin to being in the fucking A-Team, minus any of the dramatic flair or clever wit. All these chuckleheads do is crack the same jokes to each other--literally, it's the same jokes recycled dozens and dozens of times throughout the game--while periodically dropping an "Oscar Mike" or other piece of equally ubiquitous military terminology to let you know how legit these guys really are. The dialogue is so stiff and tone-deaf that it makes Richard Marcinko sound like Ernest Hemingway, and that's before it even gets around to actually making cracks about the company's own miserable reputation. Yes, that's right: this game actually makes fun of the fact that people think Blackwater is awful and made up of mercenary killers. There are no words...

Do you like this enemy model? I hope so, because you're going to shoot it about six thousand times.
Do you like this enemy model? I hope so, because you're going to shoot it about six thousand times.

Whatever you may have heard about Blackwater being the first real attempt at bringing a "real first-person shooter" to Kinect, go ahead and disregard any such nonsense now. This is an on-rails light gun game without the light gun. Light gun games are not "real first-person shooters," at least as I understand the definition. They're target shoots where the targets shoot back. This game has more in common with Time Crisis or Hogan's Alley than it does Modern Warfare or Battlefield, and it's not even as good as Hogan's Alley.

For one thing, the aiming is terrible whether you're using Kinect or not. With Kinect, you're theoretically supposed to aim your hand like it's a gun, and effectively live out a way more boring version of this. Except that's really tiring after a while, and also patently unnecessary. You can just lift your hand up a bit so it recognizes that your arms are there, and then you're fine. It's like you're shooting bullets out of your palms, but whatever. The bigger issue is that the aiming reticle is jittery and also slow as hell. It takes seconds (as in plural) to move the reticle from one side of the screen to the other. It's even worse if you play with a controller, though maybe that should be of no surprise. No light gun game translates well to dual-analog sticks, but the fact that it still sucks with Kinect is pretty astounding.

That's the least of Blackwater's gameplay sins. More atrocious are the enemies and level designs, which dart violently between stump-stupid and frustratingly harrowing. Roughly half the enemies in the game will dart out from cover and then just kind of stand there while blurting out lines that sound about a step away from South Park's "Durka Durka!" terrorist dialogue. Forever. They will never move. Only after you shoot every other enemy on screen will they bother to shoot, but they still won't move. As for the ones who do demonstrate cognitive ability, they're still usually pretty easy to blow away, except for a random few who are such crack shots that they can basically pick you off entirely in three shots. This is where cover presumably comes into play, except that the cover mechanics are largely broken. If you're standing right next to a perfectly placed wall, then great, you can just hide behind it until your health regenerates. If you have to crouch, or bend in any sort of awkward way, most times the game has no idea what the hell you're trying to do, and just makes you stand there, soaking up bullets like they were glorious, life-giving sunlight.

If you buy Blackwater, the terrorists don't win. However, the next step below terrorists (mercenaries) do.
If you buy Blackwater, the terrorists don't win. However, the next step below terrorists (mercenaries) do.

Once you do die, you have to replay the entire level over again. All of it. Granted, most levels last between 5-7 minutes, but that's still a decent chunk of content you're going to be repeating again and again, until you either figure out which enemy is randomly really good at shooting you, or you quit in pure frustration. I'm not sure if it's an accidental bonus or something close to tragic, but ultimately you'll only be doing any of this for maybe 90 minutes total. The campaign is ludicrously short, which gives one the impression that this game may have been intended for arcades at one point in its development cycle. What to do when you finish that 90 minute campaign? You could replay the same godawful levels you just played for better scores, or you could try out the barely-stitched-on multiplayer component, though that would entail subjecting friends to this game's various unpleasantries. With friends like you, who needs private military contractors?

All of this misery for $50 a pop. An hour and a half of busted-ass light gun shooting that barely masks the deplorable PR message underneath. In effect, buyers of Blackwater are paying for propaganda. They're handing over money to a shady group of alleged killers for the privilege of being told that these guys aren't shady or killers or anything to that effect. The only good news is that the message is altogether lost in a sea of half-baked gameplay, barely-functioning graphics, and horrible one-liners. I don't know if the folks at publisher 505 Games actually sympathize with these dirtbags, or just figured they could make a quick, easy buck with this thing, but that they, and developer Zombie Studios have even failed to make the compelling propaganda tool they were tasked with is, in a way, kind of perfect. Shame on everyone involved.