Blacklight: Retribution Review
Blacklight: Retribution Box Art
System: PC
Dev: Zombie Studios
Pub: Perfect World Entertainment
Release: April 3, 2012
Players: 1-16
Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p
Exfiltration In Five
by Shelby Reiches

A few years ago, I'd have said it was a match made in Hell: a competitive multiplayer first-person shooter based around a free-to-play business model combines the single most over-saturated gaming genre with a financial strategy that is always feared for its potential to fall into "pay to win" territory. Free-to-play titles have seen a lot of success of late, though, which probably has much to do with developers finding a balance between enhancing the experiences of those who spend money and maintaining balanced and playable title for those who won't.

Blacklight: Retribution is a follow-up to Blacklight: Tango Down, which, unlike its predecessor, follows a free-to-play model. As I haven't played the first game (also a multiplayer shooter), this is pretty much the last comparison to that previous title I'll be making. It's just interesting to see a sequel go free-to-play when the original was, and still is, marketed more traditionally.

Blacklight: Retribution Screenshot

The first thing one will note upon starting up the tutorial: this is a good looking game. The Unreal Engine 3 continues to strut its stuff and, despite a few blurry textures here or there, Blacklight: Retribution looks and sounds superb, with explosions and gunshots that have an ever-so-slightly quieter impact than one would expect, but in a way that seems appropriate for the game's setting. It comes across as suitably pointed, or precise. The "wub-wub" of dub-step is also apparent, primarily in the post-match breakdowns. It somehow works here. Most importantly, the controls feel tight and responsive, and lag is pretty much a non-issue, with bullets seeming to land more or less where they should. Those are the basics, though, and while they may be more impressive than what one would expect of a free-to-play title, they're not what differentiate this game from its first-person ilk.

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So, how does Blacklight: Retribution distinguish itself from the ordinary? What does it do to rise above the morass of same-old, same-old that plagues its entire genre in the wake of Call of Duty's obscene success? Well, it looks different. Clearly inspired by cyberpunk as well as more traditional science fiction, Blacklight has mechanical and masked "agents" doing combat in industrial settings, such as warehouses and manufacturing plants, as well as dysfunctional and demolished city streets. Blue and orange are everywhere, the two colors conjoining as the basis for the game's palette. Smartly, teammates will always appear as blue while enemies take the complement, which causes them to pop out from environments that generally contrast with their colorful highlights. Yes, the game does have a bit of that Minority Report vibe with its aesthetic, but it works well in this case, and manages to avoid being overbearing.

Blacklight: Retribution Screenshot

Blacklight's single most unique feature, though, is its "HRV," an enhanced vision mode that can be toggled on at the tap of a button. It cuts the world down to its absolute basics: players can see the general shape of the level in whatever direction they're looking, as well as the silhouettes, names and remaining health of any enemies in that direction. This allows a player to see through walls and get a picture of how the fight is going, enabling on-the-fly strategizing in a way that takes some getting used to. It manages to avoid being overpowered, both by having only a short duration (after which it takes a few seconds to recharge) and disabling weapon fire and sprinting while active. It also undergoes a brief transition period between being off and on. Despite these drawbacks, it is extremely useful, and the cornerstone of being an effective player.

Blacklight's single most unique feature, though, is its "HRV," an enhanced vision mode that can be toggled on at the tap of a button. It cuts the world down to its absolute basics: players can see the general shape of the level in whatever direction they're looking, as well as the silhouettes, names and remaining health of any enemies in that direction. This allows a player to see through walls and get a picture of how the fight is going, enabling on-the-fly strategizing in a way that takes some getting used to. It manages to avoid being overpowered, both by having only a short duration (after which it takes a few seconds to recharge) and disabling weapon fire and sprinting while active. It also undergoes a brief transition period between being off and on. Despite these drawbacks, it is extremely useful, and the cornerstone of being an effective player.

Blacklight: Retribution Screenshot

None of this is to say that Blacklight doesn't borrow from its contemporaries. It most certainly does, most notably with the point system it uses in matches. As one kills enemies, captures the flag, performs assists, or does pretty much anything else at all noteworthy, the game tosses out points, providing a sense of instant gratification for one's actions as one might expect in a Call of Duty title. Further, drawing from Counter-Strike and its progeny, players can use these points to purchase equipment and aid at supply depots scattered throughout each level. This ranges from health refills and weaponry up to the Hardsuit, a bipedal tank-armor that one can call down and inhabit, taking advantage of its chaingun and railgun to tear through the enemy ranks.

Again, showing their penchant for balance, Zombie Studios made the Hardsuit not only expensive, but difficult to obtain. Once purchased, it must be called down (if one is killed before this is done, the device used to spawn it is lost), at which point anyone can enter it. Further, even though it is a formidable device, it has exploitable weak points and the weapons that are designed to take it down are similarly available from the supply depot for far fewer points than the Hardsuit itself.

And that's really the core of what makes Blacklight: Retribution an enjoyable experience. Despite the ridiculous amount of layered customization available (both for weapons and armor, as well as temporary "node" power-ups), the leveling system, and the fact that one can spend money to expedite and enhance these processes, skill is still the deciding factor. Even the most basic gun chips away an opponent's health in a few seconds, almost immediately with a headshot, and controls smoothly and naturally enough that any first-person shooter reflexes a player already has should carry right over.

There were a couple of moments in particular that seemed to encapsulate my feelings about the game. In my first free-for-all deathmatch, I caught myself rapidly snaking through passages in the level, using the HRV to plan quick ambushes for foes, using enclosed pipes to my advantage as I chained together kills, always on the move and maintaining awareness of my surroundings to avoid getting caught off guard. It felt extremely organic and natural.

Screenshots / Images
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