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Suprisingly Competent Blackwater Kinect Title Could Be It's Own Greatest Victim

This week was the first time we heard of publisher 505 Games’ Blackwater, an FPS that would cast you in the role of Blackwater Worldwide mercenaries.

The topic seemed thorny – the mercenary company, now renamed Xe Services, has been at the centre of a multiple of controversies and the subject of highly critical Congressional hearings. Blackwater has been linked to the deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians, and the alcohol-fuelled fatal shooting of a security guard in the employ of the country’s vice president. According to 505, the game was designed in consultation with former mercenary agents, and with Erik Prince, the founder and former head of the hot-button security contractor. Some gamers have been piqued; a NeoGaf thread devoted to the topic of the game was titled “Somewhat murderous scumbag PMC Blackwater gets an FPS.” Is 505 Games trying to court controversy?

As promised in the initial press release, Blackwater was available to be played at E3, and what I found – rather than some more fuel to stoke the controversy – was a surprisingly competent title. It’s not bound to turn the world upside down, but the more ticklish thematic elements have been played down, and what is left is a well-made Kinect title that brings interesting ideas to the table. Unfortunately, Blackwater may find that it has more to lose than to gain by its unsavoury real-world affiliations.

Blackwater is an on-rails shooter that has you alternating between the perspectives of four different mercenary soldiers, each with a certain specialization. In the portion of the game I experienced in the demo, I operated first as a commando, and later as a sniper. While you do not choose to play as just one type of unit, the game will occasionally allow you to choose from one of multiple alternating paths, each of which might emphasise one form of play. What makes the game most intriguing, naturally, is the way in which the Kinect functionality is implemented. Your movement through each environment is automated, and you’ll find yourself pausing before multiple props against which you can take cover. Stepping to the left will cause you to take cover behind the left-most surface; step to the right you’ll cover at the right-most surface. You use one of your arms to aim the cross hairs of your firearm. Instead of mapping a particular movement to the firing of your gun, the designers have opted to have your gun fire automatically when it hovers long enough over an enemy target.

Far and away, it is the auto-firing feature that gives the game character. As opposed to a twitchier cover-based experience, the Blackwater demo forced me to behave cautiously, and with consideration. Efficiency was key – I had to determine which enemies were top priority, and time my movements so that I could scroll over each enemy just long enough to take them out, limiting my own exposure to interception fire.

“We didn’t want to create a Blackwater simulator, but a Blackwater game”, the representative from Zombie Studios, the team responsible for the game’s development, explained to me. The cautiousness imposed by the auto-triggering is the studio’s attempt at marrying a certain amount of realism to the parameters of a title that is meant to be accessible to a wide audience, and fill a languishing niche on the Kinect marketplace. He acknowledged that the game is a highly exaggerated, concentrated bit of Blackwater lore – it’s more Hollywood than Reuters. Set in North Africa, it concerns a high-tension conflict in which the Blackwater team must rescue a UN envoy that has been taken hostage by the operatives of a malicious warlord. At any rate, the story wasn’t emphasised during my time with the game; I was encouraged to wave my arm if I wanted to bypass the cut scenes altogether.

What does one do with a game like Blackwater? The shooting was satisfying, fun and challenging. And – what we’ve all been wondering – at no point was I required to fire at any innocent civilians, or commit any other atrocities. It was Blackwater Worldwide scrubbed clean of all negativity, and – frankly – of specificity. It was the Blackwater brand attached to a game that might as well have borne any other. This game felt like nothing but a vehicle for an admittedly interesting control-scheme. If it reached out to the real world, it did so unnecessarily – and likely at its own peril.

The coming months will tell how the world decides to regard Blackwater, when it arrives on the Xbox 360 supporting both Kinect and conventional gamepad-controls.