The 1993 U.S. invasion of Somalia and the harrowing events that followed form the basis of NovaLogic's Delta Force: Black Hawk Down. Not to be confused with Mark Bowden's best-selling book or the subsequent Ridley Scott film, the game is an original take on Operation Restore Hope using fictional characters. As in previous Delta Force titles, players must guide a team of soldiers from a first- or third-person perspective while engaging the enemy and fulfilling mission objectives.
It takes a few minutes to figure out what kind of game Delta Force: Black Hawk Down really is. It opens with a solemn video showing the plight of early 90's Somalia, and if you rummage through the game's manual, you'll find some history on the region, detailed info on the equipment and tactics used by during U.S. soldiers, and lots of other terms suggesting "realistic" gameplay, such as "rapid aim fire" and "room takedowns." Even a quote on the box calls it "a serious tactical shooter."
Don't be confused, however: Black Hawk Down is no simulation, and barely a tactical shooter. It's a balls-out action game that has more in common with Medal of Honor: Allied Assault than America's Army or Ghost Recon. And you know what? It's a good game to boot. A few frustrating moments spoil the fun here and there, but overall Black Hawk Down is an entertaining shooter and an encouraging step forward for the Delta Force series.
To understand the scope of Black Hawk Down, a brief history lesson is in order. In late 1992 and early 1993, U.S. troops were deployed to Somalia as part of a UN effort to help a country being decimated by famine and civil war. Providing relief was a tough job due to warring clans, with the largest Somali militia led by Mohammed Aidid. A number of U.S. operations cut into Aidid's hold on the area, but he remained a problem and eventually the U.S. formed Task Force Ranger to deal with it.
On October 3rd, 1993, Task Force Ranger was sent on a mission to capture several of Aidid's top lieutenants near the Olympic Hotel in Mogadishu. What started as a routine mission ended up as the bloodiest U.S. battle since Vietnam, in which two Black Hawk choppers were downed, 18 soldiers were killed and 84 others wounded. The events of this day were later recounted in Mark Bowden's best-seller Black Hawk Down (and the subsequent Ridley Scott 2001 film).
With this in mind, it's interesting to note that Delta Force: Black Hawk Down is not a licensed product or cheesy merchandising tie-in to either of these products. In fact, the game's first ten missions are set in the months leading up to that conflict, with the events of October 3rd playing out over the last five missions. (A sixteenth fantasy "bonus" mission is available after the final credits, in which you attempt to take out Aidid.)
Despite the entire game being set in the sandy streets of Mogadishu, Black Hawk Down's missions somehow manage to maintain a unique feel without getting too repetitive. You play a variety of anonymous soldiers, from members of the 10th Mountain Division all the way to Delta Force, often fighting alongside other soldiers.
In some ways, Black Hawk Down's mission objectives could easily be confused with Medal Of Honor: Allied Assault: protect a convoy; destroy a bridge; take out a radio tower; sink a ship; capture high-ranking enemy personnel. Some of the missions require you to use night vision almost exclusively, and there are even a few moments where you may be required to protect a fallen teammate until a chopper can airlift them to safety. Most of the time, you'll be running around on foot, but a number of missions also have you riding along the ground in a Humvee or in the air in a Black Hawk or "little bird" chopper. A compass in the lower right is perhaps your most valuable tool (aside from your weapon, of course), constantly directing you to your next waypoint and even showing the location of enemy fire.
Even with objectives changing constantly in the heat of battle, Black Hawk Down is basically a shoot-the-bad-guys affair and there are a LOT of bad guys. True to the actual conflict, you'll often find yourself totally outnumbered with as many as hundreds of enemies chasing you down, often riding on the back of trucks with .50 cal machineguns, and it doesn't take more than a few shots to put you down. You can only carry one primary weapon throughout a mission, you're totally unable to pick up enemy weapons, and ammo and health boxes are scarce. Complicating matters is a save game system that only allows you to save a set number of times during each mission.
This might sound unnecessarily difficult, but in practice, these elements blend quite well. I have no idea what things were really like on the ground in Mogadishu, but Black Hawk Down creates a sense of utter chaos and panic that you have to fight to keep under control. You can't just run out in the open, or you'll instantly get cut to pieces; nor can you quicksave every 10 seconds. Health and ammo boxes seem to appear when you need them most, providing a much-needed boost just when things are looking their worst. In the middle of all this action, you'll suddenly find yourself engaging in strategic resource management, trying to make sure you have enough health, ammo and even save games to get you to the next key waypoint.
Since your character can't survive more than a few hits, the tension level in Black Hawk Down is usually high on the white-knuckle scale, especially in the larger outdoor levels where enemies can be waiting behind any corner (or sniping from any rooftop). Thankfully, you're still about 9 or 10 times stronger than most of the enemies you'll face, who usually drop with a single bullet; even technicals (trucks, jeeps, etc) explode after just a few shots.
More than just strength, however, your character is clearly smarter than anyone you'll meet in Mogadishu. Sometimes enemies react to gunfire, sometimes they don't. Mostly, they just run around in the open, waiting to get shot, with AI routines no smarter than your typical Serious Sam baddie.
And, despite an entire page in the manual on "team orders," your squadmates aren't much better, often standing around idly when they should be firing at bad guys. You can rarely order them to attack when you need it most; the only time they lead the way is when you get the special "room takedown" icon, which is more of a novelty throughout the game than anything else. Most of the time, your teammates let you take the lead and use you as a human shield (hey, maybe these guys aren't that dumb after all!) No, the only time anyone does anything smart is when they've specifically been programmed to do so, which leads to some of BHD's most troubling issues
The biggest problem with Black Hawk Down is that it simply doesn't play fair a lot of the time. Fighting against the superb enemy AI in Halo or Half-Life was practically a sport unto itself; you usually knew where the enemies were (or you had tactical methods of flushing them out), and no matter what the odds, a properly trained soldier always had some hope of surviving any battle intact.
There's no such hope in Black Hawk Down. Like Medal of Honor's infamous "Snipertown" level, traps are laid throughout the game, often making it next to impossible to get through a level without getting killed a few times. You will die often in Black Hawk Down, and usually it will happen so fast you won't even know what window or rooftop the final bullet came from. You can peek around corners all you want, but it's almost mandatory that you sacrifice yourself a few times just to figure out where the enemies are, which is neither realistic nor fun (especially if you haven't saved in a while).
One particularly frustrating mission comes about halfway through the game, when you're approaching a beach by boat with a team of soldiers. You're spotted from the shore and enemies immediately begin bombing the beachhead. There's virtually nothing you can do about the mortars as you attempt to navigate a minefield on the beach; either they hit you or they don't. If you're lucky enough to make it, you better use one of your precious saves or you may just have to do it again.
This also comes into play on the chopper and Humvee rides, where you'll often face RPG-toting enemies, who can end any mission with a single shot. There's no strategy involved with fighting these guys; it's simply a matter of memorizing their locations until you can make one successful pass through the area. This is not a fair fight and it's not good game design; each reload reminds you that you're simply playing a game, constantly pulling you out of the amazing atmosphere the game so wonderfully creates. Your GPS compass is a godsend; adding some sort of heartbeat sensor or radar to detect enemies could have gone a long way towards evening things up.
And still, this isn't a fatal flaw for Black Hawk Down; it's merely a momentary inconvenience. Once you've figured out where all the traps are, plotting out a course to get around them is one of the true joys of the game.
On the topic of visuals, I was pleasantly surprised with Black Hawk Down's graphics. For a game not licensing any of the major engines, it holds up extremely well. The city of Mogadishu is well detailed, as are the player and weapons models. Choppers kick up dust when near the ground, there's a nice night vision effect, and explosions are nothing short of spectacular, especially when you hit an incoming technical and tires go flying in every direction. There aren't many cutscenes to speak of, nor are there tons of scripted sequences (as in Allied Assault), but many of the scenes have a cinematic quality to it, as if the game had jumped off a movie screen and onto your desktop.
The Final Word
I'll admit it: with the Delta Force series in decline, I wasn't expecting much of Black Hawk Down when it was first announced; nor did I give it much thought when the game was delayed a few months ago. However, it appears the developers made the most of the extra time - it's hard to think of many things that could have been corrected without totally overhauling the game and starting from scratch.
Black Hawk Down isn't without its flaws, but the team at NovaLogic has done a great job balancing most of them out and creating an exciting first-person shooter in the process. If you find yourself in the need for a good military-themed action game, there's a good chance you'll find one here.
People who downloaded Delta Force: Black Hawk Down have also downloaded:
Delta Force: Task Force Dagger, Delta Force: Xtreme, Delta Force 2, Delta Force, Delta Force: Land Warrior, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Battlefield 1942
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