Platforms: PC (reviewed)
There just aren't enough underwater combat games around these days, and after playing through AquaNox for the umpteenth time, we were delighted to learn that indie outfit Biart were plumbing the depths of this niche yet compelling sub-genre with Deep Black: Reloaded. This plucky studio has past form with the quirky and underrated Depth Hunter, and attempts to compliment the tactical depth of operating in full three dimensional space with the immediate visceral thrills of modern shooters - all while debuting their brand new bespoke engine.
The end result is a schizophrenic mix of the sublime and the stupid, not to mention the innovative and the shockingly trite.
As a solider called out of retirement to battle against a stereotypical Middle Eastern terrorist cell, you'll need to infiltrate a corporate facility, rescue some hostages and save the day. So far, so stunningly familiar. Of course, Deep Black: Reloaded wastes no time in setting up a vaguely MGS-esque conspiracy and shadowy motives along the way, but the premise is basically just a vehicle to keep you plugging through the campaign. However, since said facility is surrounded by water and conveniently flooded in several sections, Biart are free to show off their unique (and incredibly moist) selling point.
When fully submerged, Deep Black: Reloaded does the business with considerable flair. Your armoured combat suit is equipped with powerful jets that allow you to move and strafe in three dimensions, which offers an intoxicating sense of freedom once you've gotten to grips with the controls. Enemies can attack from any angle, meaning that you'll need to dodge past rockets, dynamically dart behind cover and constantly change your position - a fresh and dynamic take on such stagnating genre. The sumbarine shenanigans are well-paced, with hectic battles against enormous robots contrasting with silently sniping unaware landlubbers with a harpoon gun. Excellent water effects are provided courtesy of the stable and shiny BiEngine, which manages to deliver pleasingly detailed visuals at medium to high settings.
So, like a mermaid, Deep Black: Reloaded is sexy and slick beneath the waves. But once you haul it onto dry land, it coughs, splutters and eventually dies. Unbelievably, over half of the campaign actually takes place out of the water as a traditional third person shooter... and everything is ruined forever.
Gone are the dynamic shootouts and three-dimensional freedom, replaced by breathtakingly lazy recycled corridor crawls against legions of uninteresting foes. Encounters start to repeat themselves after the first handful of hours, compounded by the crushing linearity of blatant invisible walls and tight boxy level architecture - and certainly not helped by some nasty mechanics. A risible attempt at emulating Gears Of War's cover system has resulted in an exceptionally weak set of mechanics that force you to kiss right up against your waist-high box of choice, only to discover that further movement or reloading usually makes you visible to enemies. QTE-based melee attacks are horribly implemented, grenades are borderline broken, movement is stiff and enemies compensate for idiotic AI with ludicrous accuracy.
You'll pray for the sweet relief of an underwater section every single second your boots touch corrugated iron.
A gamepad will be essential if you plan on salvaging any meagre enjoyment out of these sections. Deep Black: Reloaded's controls are clearly designed around a traditional console controller (since it's slated for an XBLA and PS3 release down the line), and the keyboard layout has had little or no thought put into it. For example: taking cover and rolling out of danger are both mapped to the space bar. I shouldn't need to point out the outrageously aggravating situations that you'll get into when you factor in the janky cover mechanics. Worse, restarting the mission from scratch at the game over screen is also mapped to the space bar, meaning that you can accidentally reset several minutes of progress with a careless touch of the key you use most often during the campaign. It's unforgivably sloppy, and these issues should have been spotted in QA.
But the main problem is more fundamental than poor controls, repetition and mechanical gripes. Put simply, I can't understand why Deep Black: Reloaded actually has traditional third person shooting in the first place. Its underwater combat is slick and accomplished, yet the story sadistically delights in making us clamber out onto dry land time and time again. Conventional combat feels completely out of place, more than that, completely unnecessary. I wish that Biart had spent the time crafting new and exciting submarine challenges to enjoy rather than making us come up for air into repetitive, cookie-cutter, me-too mediocrity.
A strong storyline and interesting characters would have helped to ease the frustration, but sadly, Deep Black: Reloaded stumbles and falls at this last hurdle. While the plot is actually fairly reasonable, it's doled out by some painfully po-faced dialogue with totally unlikeable textbook characters and horrendous voice acting. The tone is too hackneyed and trite to ever be taken seriously, yet too dull and po-faced to be considered as an enjoyably hammy homage. There's not enough exposition to satisfy, yet too much to ignore. Basically, it's bad, and we wouldn't have noticed if the gameplay kept us on our toes.
Multiplayer fares much better, and excels underwater as you'd expect. In an interesting twist, you can unlock perks throughout the singleplayer campaign, which I suppose gives you a compelling reason to grind through it.
- Impressive bespoke engine
- Reasonable competitive multiplayer
- Excellent underwater gameplay...
- ... eclipsed by repetitive, nasty, broken, crushingly linear, pointless, infuriating, clichéd, traditional land-based third person shooting
- Limp storyline, weak voice acting
- Riddled with annoying issues, demonstrates lack of foresight and QA
The Short Version: Horrible cookie-cutter third person shooting mechanics ruin what should have been an innovative underwater adventure. Deep Black: Reloaded is graceful and gorgeous when submerged, but Biart's reliance on staid and unimaginative gameplay keelhauls their own creation. It's a crying shame to see so much potential torpedoed out of the water.