The developers at Zombie Studios had a lot to say about the universe of Blacklight: Tango Down before the game was released last week. It was meant to take place in a dystopian near future where countries were falling apart, viruses were running wild and turning people into zombies, and soldiers utilized futuristic technologies to do combat with one another.
This may indeed be the story, but it is fairly absent from the game. This state of affairs is indicative of the overall impression Blacklight: Tango Down makes: great intentions, but not enough delivery.
Blacklight is a $15 first person shooter download on XBox Live, PlayStation Network, and Steam. Players will take the roles of American Blacklight covert ops team members, or soldiers working for The Order, a mercenary group equipped with the best weapons money can buy. Their battles take place in the dirty streets of an Eastern European city, whose decrepit aesthetics are juxtaposed with neon signs and computer screen advertisements.
The package includes four covert ops missions that are meant to be played as cooperative multiplayer maps, with players taking the role of Blacklight operators in missions against The Order. It’s the closest thing to a campaign experience in Blacklight: Tango Down, and involves standard FPS gameplay: item retrieval, holding off the enemy while you make repairs to vehicles or objects, and assaulting enemy positions.
Blacklight is primarily a multiplayer title, and it offers matches in familar game modes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and the related solo and team-based Last Man Standing modes which allow no respawns. Domination gives victory to the team who accumulates points for controlling three strategic locations on the map. Retrieval is a capture-the-flag variant in which teams attempt to steal their opponents’ data canister and return it to base. Detonate mode requires teams to capture a neutral bomb in the middle of the map, bring it to the enemy base, and detonate it.
Blacklight feels an awful lot like Modern Warfare 2 in terms of the small size of the maps and how tightly they funnel traffic into choke points and the power of the weapons. It doesn’t take many shots to put someone down in Blacklight, so engagements are extremely quick and decisive. The weapons fall into familiar categories: SMGs, assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, and pistol sidearms. Health works on a hit point system, and health and ammunition crates are liberally dispersed in all the game modes.
One of the primary selling points of this game is its deep weapon customization system. Scopes, magazines, muzzles, barrels, and stocks all change the characteristics of weapons and the players that wield them, and decorative “tags” that hang off weapons also effect stats. They are all unlocked through earning experience points and leveling up in rank. Taken together, the developers state that there are 240 total combinations. Players can also unlock five additional armor types that affect stats.
There are two unique aspects to the gameplay that I can readily identify. Player spawn points are protected by a pair of automated turrets, making spawn camping impossible. This is something I wish every FPS title would get behind. The real innovation, however, is the Hyper Reality Visor (HRV).
The HRV runs on a battery that has to recharge after each use. While activated, the HRV allows players to see through the map. Normal vision is superimposed with a hazy, yellow filter, but enemy positions, health and ammunition crates, and strategic positions are all clearly designated. Conceptually, the HRV sounds great. Gone would be the days of hidden snipers and campers, right? Unfortunately, the HRV’s usefulness is extremely limited.
At long range, the HRV effectively paints all enemy contacts on a flat plane, because it lacks distance notations. It’s good for pointing out stationary enemy players in elevated positions, who are therefore probably snipers, but that’s about it. At medium range, and with some knowledge of the maps, the HRV actually functions as a game changer. When you see a Hostile changing its elevation, you’ve just pegged their location and can quickly reposition for an ambush if you know where those stairs are. At close range, however, the HRV is all but useless and tantamount to a death sentence. You will very often activate the HRV to notice an enemy around the corner a second before he turns and blows your head off – because you cannot shoot or throw grenades when the HRV is active.
Blacklight makes a few other attempts to be different in its gameplay. EMP grenades will cause your visor to crash to a bluescreen and reboot in a few seconds. Digi grenades not only blur normal vision through the visor, but create a null zone through which the HRV cannot see. They may have different names, but these are effectively flashbang and smoke grenades.
The only graphic issues I had with Blacklight were slight aliasing problems and a few texture loading issues. The graphics all feel very rough, which might have been a deliberate, aesthetic choice, but it’s one I wish hadn’t been applied to the menus. They utilize a blocky, simple font that ostensibly is meant to simulate computer code in keeping with the game’s Netwar-centric vibe, but instead the letters look like placeholders for the real text that would have come later in development.
The menus are also extremely lacking in information. All those stats that can be adjusted with the weapon components, tags, and armor types, and they are represented by icons with no definitions. We can only guess at what they mean, or try to piece it together through experimentation and taking note as to how the weapon performances change.
The techno music of the intro and loading screens is extremely obnoxious with its whispering voices that are ostensibly speaking some sort of Eastern European language, or maybe Russian? It’s likely the latter because the woman who gives your team its orders during the Covert Ops mode speaks with a very heavy Russian accent…which makes no sense as the operators are Americans. The other, more decipherable dialogue, is predictable, boot-camp military fare.
Weapon sounds have a strange reverb to them, as though the guns are firing non-standard ammunition. The fact that dead bodies glow momentarily before dissolving might speak to that, as might the bright blue and orange flames that constitute muzzle flashes. There’s also an unexplained, high-pitched whine that accompanies the end of a sustained burst of fire.
These are the sorts of things that a story might have addressed. Maybe the weapons do fire some new, interesting kind of high-tech ammo that is meant to deal with the “infected civilians” in the Covert Ops mode, who I guess are the “zombies” mentioned in the pre-release PR materials. Although, many of these zombies are swinging something that looks like a rusted pipe at the player.
Some context for why the world looks the way it does would have been welcomed, and one would expect this information to be conveyed to the player in the very first mission of Covert Ops; instead we are met with generic directions to go here and do that, and then go elsewhere and do the other thing.
Zombie Studios wanted Blacklight: Tango Down to illustrate the potential of DLC-exclusive titles to deliver high-quality gaming experiences. The problem is that players already know about that potential, because it’s been realized on several occasions, and therefore one cannot help but wonder why the developers at Zombie Studios would have chosen to take that selling tactic when the final product of their efforts winds up feeling rather generic.
The game has adequate menus that look like placeholders.
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The chief innovation is of limited use, and so may be interesting for a while, but it will soon cease to factor into how one plays the game.
Functional at best, but often made for the mute button.
If this game could be rented, that would be the recommendation.
Blacklight: Tango Down simply doesn't do enough to differentiate itself from other modern FPS multiplayer titles currently on the market.