Blacklight: Retribution isn’t your average online shooter. There are lots of people out there who would cringe at the thought of playing a free-to-play online shooter. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm one of them too. The flood of substandard, badly named and outdated-looking F2P shooting games over the last few years haven't exactly done a good job of putting them in a good light. More often than not, it's always the same basic formula that Counterstrike created over 10 years ago, plus a few aesthetic tweaks here and there (sometimes with top-heavy and scantily clad female characters) and a cash shop to give wealthy players a way to pay-to-win.
When I first heard about Blacklight: Retribution (spiritual successor to Zombie Studios' previous shooter Blacklight: Tango Down), I was cautiously optimistic. The game looked really good, if not better than some commercial games out there (Section 8 and Rage come to mind). But good looks alone don't always guarantee a great game. FPS gamers nowadays are a picky lot and expect a layered experience whenever multiplayer is involved.
Perks, unlockables, friend lists, clans, ranked servers, customizable insignias, and headset communications have now become the norm and to omit any of these would surely spell doom for a shooter's popularity. Could the backing of publisher Perfect World Entertainment give us a F2P shooter that transcends the mediocrity that countless others are infamous for? Is it even possible for a free game to provide a gaming experience that's almost as good as commercial offerings like Battlefield or Call of Duty? Let's dig in and find out together.
Aesthetics – 8.5 /10
Built on the Unreal Engine, Blacklight: Retribution is a pretty game. Art style, player designs, weapons and levels are all very nicely done. It's obvious that the developers invested a lot of effort into making the game feel like it's part of a larger sci-fi universe. Stuff like corporate signage, abandoned vehicles and even the architecture all add to the futuristic atmosphere of the game. There's also a nice variety of clutter in every map, and it never feels like the developers got lazy and copy-pasted stuff all over the place. Just make sure you don't end up getting fragged while admiring the scenery like I did.
The targeting reticule in the game is somewhat special and needs pointing out. In addition to the tick marks that comprise the crosshair, there are also additional circles to denote your ammo level and HRV charge. Perfect for players who don't want their eyes to ever leave the center of the screen. In addition, you can even customize its look in the settings menu: number of ticks in the crosshair (up to 12!), length of the ticks, crosshair rotation and even crosshair transparency. Are there any other games out there that let you tweak your reticule to such a fine degree? I certainly can't think of any at the moment.
Taking full advantage of modern PC hardware, the video settings contains a variety of options to fine tune the graphics. DirectX 11, anti-aliasing, ambient occlusion, lens flares, depth of field, dynamic shadows are just some of the things available to tweak to your heart's content. Even with everything turned on, I was still able to get a decent framerate of around 45 at a resolution of 1920x1080 with my Core i7 CPU and 460GTX card. Your mileage may vary depending on your hardware though.
For how beautiful the game looks, there are a few things I found slightly irritating. Textures will sometimes pop-in when you're racing through a level and in some super rare cases, in-game objects are stuck with low resolution textures no matter how close you get. Granted, incidents such as these happen very, very rarely and aren't detrimental to the gaming experience. It's just that whenever they occur, I can't help but be reminded of the blurry texture incident with Rage a few months back.
Gameplay - 8/10
Whenever anyone talks about a new FPS, it will almost certainly be compared to two of the biggest ones out there right now: Call of Duty and Battlefield. Blacklight: Retribution borrows quite a bit from both of these franchises and also adds a few interesting twists of its own (e.g. Hyper Reality Visor, hacking mini-game, hero characters).
Game types are the standard selection: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Domination, Team King of the Hill and Capture the Flag. Experienced FPS gamers will know what they're getting into and there's nothing to really shout about. But for those who are unfamiliar, Domination spawns 3 nodes around the map that can be captured. Teams controlling a node will gain points over time and the team with the most points after a certain amount of time wins. King of the Hill is basically the same except that there's only ONE node, and every time it's captured a new one will appear somewhere else.
As with a lot of other FPS games, players can also tweak their character's appearance, gear loadout and even weapon components. Each piece of gear will have an effect on your character's statistics (reload speed, scope in/out, stamina, spread angle) so it's worth paying attention to the numbers while you're choosing what to wear. Those of you who've played Brink will be also familiar with the weapon customization screen. But for those who haven't, the number of options available can be overwhelming at first (e.g. Receiver, muzzle, barrel, stock, etc). My advice is to head into a match with your default weapon first and pick up weapons from other downed players to get a good feel of the different options before you opt to purchase any of them.
Blacklight: Retribution has its own take on the Perks systems that many other shooters employ. Instead of unlocking perks (or ability boosts) for your character, you obtain them as in-game items called 'nodes'. Nodes are awarded randomly after the completion of each match and come with bonuses like 'Stamina Duration +2%', 'CP Boost +2%', etc. They can only be used for a fixed duration before they 'expire'. You can also combine nodes that you own (kind of like Pokémon), in the hopes that a better node is produced but there's always a chance of failure after which you may lose one of the selected nodes.
Now, before I go any further, I'll need to talk about the three types of currency used in the game. Yes, you read that correctly, THREE types: Zen, GP and CP.
Firstly, there's the type you pay real cash for: Zen. You can use Zen to purchase gear on a temporary/permanent basis, purchase 'hero characters' (skins with fixed loadouts) and increase your success rate in combining nodes. Zen is required if you're going to create a new clan but it doesn't cost you anything to join one. Zen can also be used to purchase higher-level equipment before your character reaches the level requirement to unlock them.
Then there's the type you earn between matches: GP. You can also use GP (like Zen) to purchase gear on a temporary/permanent basis. The amount of GP earned between matches varies depending on how well you performed. Personally, Capture the Flag and Domination tend to net me a decent amount after each round.
Lastly there's the type you earn during matches: CP. This is what you use to purchase stuff from depots inside the map at any time. Hard suits, Flame throwers, Rocket Launchers and Health Recharge are just some of the stuff you can buy. Purchasable items are determined by what you assign to the depot slots of your character's loadout, so choose wisely before heading into a fight.
Now that that's out of the way, let's continue.
Whenever purchasable items are involved, the term 'pay-to-win' inevitably comes up. High level weapons and gear can be purchased using Zen regardless of your character's current level, possibly giving an unfair edge to those players out there with deep pockets. Node combination success rates can also be boosted by the use of Zen, giving rise to the possibility that some rich players may be running around with insanely high Stamina or CP boost nodes they spent a lot of cash to perfect. Of course, not everyone is going to be a Richie Rich with tons of cash to spend, so the likelihood of something like this occurring is not going to be frequent.
Players familiar with the Battlefield franchise might be glad to hear that your character can be equipped with extra gear that allows you to revive fallen teammates, dole out extra ammo, drop mines or even deploy turrets. What you probably won't like is that even after you've reached the level requirement to equip the gear, you'll need to either pay GP or Zen to use them. A few games can usually net you enough GP to 'rent' some gear for a day, but if you're intending to really pimp out every aspect of your character, it's going to get real costly to maintain.
Call of Duty fans might be a little disappointed to learn that there's no kill streak reward system in this game. In its place, players earn CP over the course of a match. Every action (kill, kill assist, hacking success, node capture, etc) nets you a bit of CP which you can use towards purchasing equipment from depots located all over each map. Even with my horrible skills, I found it possible to earn enough CP in some matches to purchase a 1300CP hard suit. It usually ends with me being killed straight away with my hard suit getting 'donated' to the opposing team. That said, it's fairly obvious that the more skillful players will be the ones scoring enough CP to get their hands on the good stuff faster.
Innovation - 7/10
Given that the game is set in the future, the developers definitely had a lot of room to unleash their creativity. One of the more interesting gimmicks that strives to set this game apart from the rest is the Hyper Reality Visor (or X-ray vision as I like to call it).
Every player has X-ray vision at their disposal. It's simply toggled at the tap of a key and you'll immediately be able to see through walls, locate depot locations as well as locate friendly/enemy players. There's a time limit for how long those Superman eyes of yours lasts though, and it takes a while to fully recharge. What most players (including myself) tend to do is to turn it on, take a quick look around, and then quickly turn it off to let it recharge. You use up less than half a charge like this and it recharges back to full quickly.
In many ways, being able to see through walls is a big game changer. Much as it was when Battlefield: Bad Company introduced destructible environments, seeing through walls (and in turn being seen through walls) forces one to change the way they traditionally play FPS games. Players who like to camp are going to have a hard time trying to find a spot to stay still in. That's not to say it's impossible, just that it's not going to be easy since everyone can simply turn on their HRV and see where you're hiding. Age old tricks like staying in dark corners are also not going to work often anymore. To make matters more interesting, you can actually see the names of your opponents when you're using your X-ray vision. So if there's a particular player you feel like harassing throughout the entire match, the HRV makes it possible for you to do so.
There are, as expected, a few disadvantages with using the HRV. For starters, it takes around 1.5 seconds to turn on as well as turn off. During that brief interval, you won't be able to shoot. In addition, you also won't be able to fire your weapon while the HRV is on. Running into walls is also something I ended up doing often. The HRV also only lasts around 4.5 seconds (by default) and then takes a while to fully recharge once it's drained.
The developers also introduced a hacking mini-game that involves matching numbers correctly four times in a row. Hackable terminals are always located at control nodes that can be captured or next to gates that can be opened/closed. While the mini-game seems deceptively easy, things start getting stressful real fast when you're under fire and trying to get all four numbers right. Get any of them wrong, and you'll have to start over again.
In spite of all the steps this game has taken forward, there are a few steps taken backwards. The most obvious shows up when you start looking for a match to play in: the maximum player count in a match is 16 players. Sixteen. I was briefly stunned. It's really hard to understand why the max player count here is 16 when most of the other games out there allow a maximum of 24, 32 and even 64 players per match. Is it because of the map size? That can't be it. While the maps in Blacklight: Retribution aren't as gigantic as the Rush or Conquest maps of Battlefield 3, they don't feel as small as what Modern Warfare usually gives us. Whatever the real reason (be it a design decision or a software restriction), it feels so strange that a PC game using the latest technology is stuck at 16 players per match when Battlefield 3 on consoles gets 24. Hardly “massive” as the game suggests, despite the thousands of players online at any time.
The next thing that gets to me is a personal nitpick. Whenever your character levels up, he/she will be rewarded with freebies included in the mail. Instead of having the mail appear after you've leveled up, you'll need to log out and then log back in so that the system recognizes the change in your character's level from the previous time you logged in. It's only after this that the mail(s) containing your goodies will get sent to you. Now, imagine a situation where you just leveled up and want to see what free stuff you received during the intermission between matches. You're going to have to leave your match, possibly giving up your spot, just to log out and log back in. Definitely not an ideal situation.
Polish - 6/10
Statistics in the player's profile, at the moment, are all filled with dummy values. This is probably because the ranked servers aren't active yet. At the moment, my profile page is listing my character as having 99999 kills and 9999 deaths. It's... incredible to look at, even if I know it's placeholder data. All the other stats on the page are similarly filled with dummy values of 99999 and to top it off I have an insanely high kill/death ratio of 2.5 which simply isn't possible given how often I keep getting killed. Players who are passionate about stats tracking are definitely going to get the short end of the stick here until the ranked servers are turned on.
The node socket list also has problems of its own. Sometimes, icons and descriptions of nodes that have expired just won't go away despite being replaced by fresh ones. I would install a fresh node into the socket, observe no visible change from the GUI, attempt to install another node then get the system message that “There is already a node in this socket.” Exiting and restarting the game would not refresh the list of socketed nodes either. To make matters worse, unless you have a super memory, there's no way to tell what node you socketed into the bugged slot.
Another personal nitpick of mine happens to be the poor wording of some of the in-game messages. A few of my favorite examples are: “Player is now Warlord”, “Player is now High Threat” and “Player killing spree”. If it were me, I'd change them to “Player is now *the* Warlord”, “Player is now *a* High Threat” and “Player *is on a* killing spree”. I know I'm nitpicking with the grammar but given how often you see these messages, it just drives home the point that more polishing needs to be done.
Despite the bugs, obvious rough edges and the stats tracking that hasn't been turned on yet, the overall game experience is a very smooth one. Levels are built well with multiple routes to get around. Choke-points are rare as there always are multiple routes to get to any given location. The implementation of the hacking mini-game inside levels, while gimmicky, is also done so well that it doesn't impact the pace of the gameplay at all.
Longevity - 7/10
Speaking from the perspective of a Battlefield fan, the best way to give a FPS a long lifespan is to let the server owners set their own rules. Hardcore servers, shotgun only servers, infantry only servers, servers without the Metro map in rotation, this is the kind of thing that will keep things interesting and get players coming back to the game again and again.
The game servers for Blacklight: Retribution are all controlled by Perfect World at the moment. This is, of course, understandable because as there are in-game cash transactions involved when players use Zen to purchase equipment. And because everything is controlled by Perfect World, there won't be room for any of the outrageous server rules like the ones I mentioned above.
At the moment, the game consists of only 6 maps and 5 game types. There are only so many times you can run through the same maps over and over again before things start getting stale. Granted, Zombie Studios is updating the game constantly, so there may be new maps on the way. But at the moment, the variety is somewhat lacking.
That said, there's still a lot to love about this game. Players who haven't played futuristic shooters like Section 8, Battlefield 2142 or Killzone will surely derive a lot of fun out of the game's sci-fi setting and equipment. The HRV system also manages to keep things fresh and fast paced. Some of the unlockables at higher levels include bullets that can poison your opponent as well as cloaking devices that let you act out your Predator fantasies. Dedicated players can also accumulate enough GP to purchase almost all the available gear to use on a permanent basis. Sure, it'll take a while but it's doable if you have the time and patience.
Social - 8/10
Most of what you'd expect in every other FPS is in this game. There's clan creation, friends lists, private messaging, a global lobby chat, team chat and even the ability to purchase items as gifts to other players. In all the matches I played, everyone was content to stick to the keyboard to communicate even though there was microphone support.
Profanity is censored in all chat messages and there didn't seem to be an option to un-censor them. Some players may find this unacceptable but I wasn't particularly bothered as most of the people I encountered were friendly and helpful. Many of them were also playing based on word-of-mouth recommendations from friends.
Value - 8/10
Almost everything you'd expect from a modern PC shooter can be found in Blacklight: Retribution. It's got great graphics courtesy of the Unreal Engine, a nice sci-fi setting and lots of cool stuff to unlock. Matches are also quick and fast, never lasting so long that they become boring. Perfect for a fast one before you head to dinner or go to bed. Sure, there are a few bugs here and there as well as some rather dubious design decisions (e.g. 16 player matches). But aside from these issues, the core game itself is problem free and plays just as well as most commercial offerings out there.
The HRV is also an interesting system that doesn't feel cheap and it adds a twist to the FPS genre that's basically stuck to the same formula for so long now. Also, if I'm not wrong, this is the only FPS MMO with support for DirectX 11. If you have the hardware to support it, this game might be worth your while to download just for a glimpse of the eye candy.
Blacklight: Retribution feels like it was made to be a commercial game but purposely held back in scope for the sake of making it F2P and integrating it with a cash shop. The shadow of 'pay-to-win' looms constantly over many things and some people may be so biased that they won't even bother to give it a try.
The one thing that most might not realize at first is that it is very possible to earn almost all the equipment in the game permanently. You just need a lot of time and dedication to accumulate the GP between matches. The only times you'll need to use Zen are few and far between: creation of clans, buying custom skins for hero characters and increasing your node 'synthesis' success rates.
For FPS fans looking for a cheap fix, this game will definitely do a good job of keeping you happy for a while (or at least till Battlefield 2143 comes out). There's a lot of fun to be had here, and because the price of admission is free, that makes the deal even sweeter. Just bear in mind that there are still a few rough edges here and there.