There's no way you can expect Blackwater to be a good game. Ten minutes with it reveals that impossibility. The completely unintuitive controls, the wooden, stiff animation and the below-average graphics and voicework don't take long to deflate any expectations of quality.
But I had different expectations.
The name Blackwater is synonymous with the phenomenon of the private military company, a category comprised of businesses who provide armed security and tactical training for civilian and government clients. Because they're private, PMCs don't fall under the same level of oversight as soldiers and commanders in the Army, Air Force or Navy. Serious allegations of misconduct dogged Blackwater, which was founded by a former Navy SEAL and served as one of the biggest private contractors during the U.S.'s military engagements in Iraq. The most egregious trepass came in 2007, when an alleged Blackwater operation in Baghdad claimed the lives of non-combatant civilians. Congressional inquiries followed and all the negative attention led to the company's rebranding in 2009 from Blackwater to Xe Services. Approximately one year later, however, Xe Services was sold to new ownership with operation runby new management. Blackwater's original founder Erik Prince held onto the legal rights to the Blackwater name and logo, even though he's no longer affiliated with the company. The video game comes a new Blackwater entity. Or, as their website puts it: "Now Blackwater is a global brand that stands for everything Blackwater stood for: excellence, reliability and unfailing commitment to duty and service."
I think you can only approach the Blackwater game as a political document. It couldn't have been approved without the PMC's say-so, so it's got to serve as an artifact to buttress the myth that Blackwater uses to sell its services. "See, we're out there backing up the boys in uniform, right there on the front lines with them," the game needs to say. "Forget about all those allegations and investigation. We're the good guys."
You control—one at a time—a four-man squad designated Agile-22 who are operating in the fictional city of Harri in the made-up country of Limbano. You switch into the roles of each guy (Devin, Baird, Smash and Eddi—or as I grew to call him, Indiscriminate "We're Diverse!" Brown Guy) at different points of the map. Each wields a different weapon: sniper rifle, shotgun, assault rifle. Your contact is a turbaned man (which makes me wonder if he's a Sikh) with a black female assitant. It's clearly set in the Middle East, but no specificity is given to the locale. The first mission you play through is escorting an aid convoy. (Of course it is!)
Tons of military lingo gets thrown around but without the circumstances or context to make it intelligible or even believable. Add to that cookie-cutter banter like, "I'm riding shotgun with a shotgun. I'm not sure it gets any more quality than that." When you get attacked by the fictional country's unnamed militia, you're also prompted to take out their propaganda to earn points.
A mission to rescue a relief worker has one of the operators, uttering the line "That's why they hired the best," met with a hearty "Hoo-rah!" Later on, you disobey orders to save a convoy. "No one gets left behind!" When you get the poor UN aid worker, a Blackwater op asks, "Where's your security?" The reply? "Gone. Everyone's gone. There was gunfire and they fled," followed by this bit of chest-thumping: "Well, you get what you pay for." Similar bits of dialogue follow, like, "I guess they know we're not here to sing for the troops." Yeah, okay, so the Limbani bad guys are stepping up their aggression because Blackwater's got boots on the ground? Really?
There's a big existential question running through today's war video games set in the present day: What does it mean to create an entertainment based on actual armed conflicts happening around the world? This phenomenon isn't new. Captain America punched out Hitler on the cover of the Marvel superhero's first issue during World War II, after all. But, as video games mature and earn more and more money each year, it's worth looking at how much the reflection of war resembles what's actually going on.
So, with a Russian ultra-nationalist supervillain, Modern Warfare 3 divorces itself from any kind of connection to reality, even if it painstakingly recreates weapons and technology that soldiers use in the field. Battlefield 3 plays it a little murkier, taking place in the Iran/Iraq border in the sphere of influence of recent American military engagement with antagonists who could be mistaken with the extremists troops in the area are battling. But, it's the memory of EA's controversy with Medal of Honor that had me most excited for what Blackwater could be. You might remember the hot water that the FPS landed into by having the Taliban be a playable faction in Medal of Honor's online modes. After a brief holdout and criticism from American and British military officials, the game's bad guys got their name changed to the Opposing Force, a standard battlefield term. But everyone knew who they were supposed to be.
Flying in under the radar and releasing in the same window as Battlefield 3, Blackwater could've taken all the risks and named all the unnameables that Medal of Honor, Battlefield 3 and the Call of Duty games can't. The names of al Qaeda operatives and Taliban leaders show up on the news everyday; why shouldn't a PMC video game take the fight to them? Especially one that's a favored vendor for the U.S. government. We know that they've been on the front lines, so take us there, 505 Games.
This is a game that should be the interactive equivalent to Rambo: First Blood Part II. That movie captured the raging revenge fantasy boiling around in the id of 1980s America. Old wars and new ones alike—Vietnam and Desert Storm, to be specific—got revisited with an ultra-violent clarity of purpose. But, by comparison, Blackwater doesn't have the horsepower to pull off that level of spectacle.
Sadly, the Blackwater game isn't good ol' get-the-jingoism-boiling propaganda. The bad guys are cardboard, the protagonists' aggression is limp, and the convictions of the Agile-22 squad don't seem to carry any sort of hot-blooded righteousness. The guys you play as feel like they're just showing up for the paycheck. And, let's face it: they are. Ultimately, this Xbox 360 game is just another cash-in.
There's not even an orgiastic spray of bullets. Maybe the reason for not doing that is to portray Blackwater as a precise, surgical strike organization. If so, that aim is thrown off by the poor gameplay and presentation. The game's weird shooting-gallery design, like an FPS with motion controls shoved up its butt. When played with Kinect, you're supposed to pivot your body in and out of cover, with various gestures to reload, aim and shoot. The gestural controls work rather inconsistently and the standard Kinect health prompt gets tweaked. "If you feel tired, take a break. Blackwater needs you full rested for the next mission." However, you never really feel like a warrior born.
Furthermore, the game drops the ball on both details and tone. U.S or other Allied troops are nowhere to be found and the U.N. isn't competent enough to provide aid of fend off bad guys. There's no clever tactics or especially steely resolve on display, so you're not sold on the idea that Blackwater is any kind of elite anything. Overall, the cheerleading it provides its corporate namesake is weak and indirect. The in-game feat you get the most points for—"+100 Enemy Fled"—is supposed to make players believe in the might of the Blackwater brand.
Maybe the game can't be a repudiation of the allegations of wrongdoing leveled at Blackwater. But, worse yet is how a diluted fictional backdrop, poor playablility and a soggy sense of threat combine into a failure at making you believe the Blackwater operator is heroic or skilled.
[UPDATE: This article has ben edited to more clarify the relationship between Blackwater, Xe services and former CEO Erik Prince]
(Top photo credit | AP Photo/Gervasio Sanchez)