Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Review: Blacklight Retribution (PC)

Blacklight: Retribution is a militaristic first-person shooter. When it comes to this game genre, there are two types of video game players; those that have barely played any militaristic first-person shooters and those that have played so many that they are most likely becoming bored with these titles. I fall in to the earlier category, meaning that I cannot estimate this games value from the perspective of a video game player who has become jaded by the genre.

However, what I can say is that if you want a free-to-play, quasi-realism-bordering-on-futuristic first-person shooter, Blacklight: Retribution is really damn hard to top.

Chopping the gameplay down to its barest of bones, Blacklight: Retribution is a modern shooter. It takes no more than six bullets to kill another player, a stamina bar is put in place to limit everybody from abusing their ‘Shift’ keys, and no matter what the circumstances may be you can only carry two guns. And yes, the role-playing game-esque mechanics of leveling up and gaining experience points is present here. While overused beyond belief, these game mechanics themselves are not poorly executed within Blacklight: Retribution. In fact, the mechanics are executed extremely well despite them being done thousands of times beforehand. 

Like other games of its breed, Blacklight: Retribution awards players points for getting kills and securing objectives. These points are called Combat Points (CP) and they can be spent on things like ammo refills, rocket launchers, and miniaturised mechs (more on those later). The game does give out these points rather graciously, with almost every action being rewarded with a certain CP amount. However, the game is able to balance these offerings of CP by making the weaponry available for purchase at a depot cost a fair amount while also not being too overpowered in their function, baring a high-level air-strike call-in. Despite this general sense of balance, one of the major pieces of technology that a player can buy has some major flaws to it that may deter some players.

That piece of machinery is the Hardsuit. After getting 1300 CP, a player can position where their desired Hardsuit will land, after which the player can climb into the machine and cause some major damage. The Gatling gun and railgun of the Hardsuit can kill any player within seconds of being in the aiming sights of the pilot. Despite the slow speed of the Hardsuit, it is very thrilling to mow down other players like a hot knife through butter. It is also quite entertaining how using the boost function of the Hardsuit does enough damage to enemies in order to kill them, making the strategy of boosting into a crowded area not half-bad.

However, as I previously stated, the Hardsuit has some major flaws to it. Not only do explosive weapons deal a major amount of damage to the mech, but randomly-generated weak points and flamethrowers can dramatically decrease the armor of the Hardsuit and the life of the player respectively. Those weaknesses make the Hardsuits a difficult obstacle to overcome, but not impossible. You can also tell that the Hardsuits were meant to be used in a team setting; most players in the free-for-all deathmatch mode will avoid players in Hardsuits unless they are confident they can take down the pilots or the machines. In team game-modes though, Hardsuits can easily become the turning point for any match because of their raw power.

Every player of any level is equipped the Hyper-Reality Visor (HRV), a game-changing feature that allows an individual to see the current location of every other player. Not only that, but the HRV also reveals the weak points of Hardsuits and the locations of planted mines. This feature empowers players with information, meaning that no more will players die because of a wrong turn or because of campers; players can avoid almost any encounter they wish and can even get the jump on campers themselves. The HRV has also lead to much more active players; Because everybody knows that everybody else can see them, the best way to keep hidden is to keep moving. And since most game modes in Blacklight: Retribution have objectives besides killing other players, this starts making players focus on traveling to points of interest, further making the players more active. The HRV really is a great addition.

While the HRV is extremely useful, there are some negatives to balance out the positives. One of them is that while using the HRV, a player can only take movement-based actions. This means that firing a gun and defending yourself is impossible, so the HRV could be a trap to those who use it frequently. This is an almost perfect way to balance the powerful feature, as the knowledge of seeing where every player is comes at the cost of self-defense. Another negative is that the HRV can also take a second to exit out of, further pushing the issues of self-defense as threats cannot be immediately reacted to.

The game modes of Blacklight: Retribution follow the standard fair of deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture-the-flag along with a few less-common modes. The first of these is Domination, where captured control points will automatically give their corresponding team about a single point every second. The first team to reach a certain point amount or the team that ends up with the most points at the end of the match wins. This mode, to me, shows the team aspects of Blacklight: Retribution the best; Hardsuits

The second somewhat-unique game mode of Blacklight: Retribution is King of The Hill. This mode randomly selects fixed positions on a map and tasks the two teams with holding those positions for a certain amount of time before capturing them and gaining a point, with the first team to gain five points winning the match. Along introducing the problem of grouping teams to the point where explosives or Hardsuits could easily decimate said teams, this mode also highlights the closeable doors in the game. On a few maps, players can hack door consoles and bring down doors, which closes off some paths on the map and provide those on the other side with some protection. While useful, I believe that some of the doors on some of the maps are too well-placed, with them requiring some big detours in order to get around. This can especially be a problem for the other team, as the more players of one team that are around a point decrease the total amount of time until that point is captured. Also keeping in mind that door consoles generally are placed to assist the team closest to the point and this can become a real pest of a problem. However, during my time playing the game I never ran into many instances where a door closed in front of me while I was trying to get to the point.

The third quasi-unique game mode is the most brilliant with only the slightest of twist to differentiate it from the normal team deathmatch mode. That mode is called Kill Confirmed, and instead of getting the most kills the objective is to pick up the “Dog Tags” that players drop upon their deaths. While not seeming a massively entertaining mode at face value, what makes Kill Confirmed brilliant is how it psychologically affects the players of a match. Upon killing another player, the immediate reaction is to dash towards the enemy’s grave and grab the dog tags. However, if a player follows their instinct they may end up them getting killed by an unseen enemy that was waiting around the corner. It is a great psychological aspect to a mode that enhances the overall game.

The fourth and most unique of the four different modes is Netwar. A combination of Domination and Capture The Flag, Netwar tasks players with getting the most points. Points can be acquired by capturing any of the four control points and holding the control points, with a large amount of points being awarded to the team who brings the flag that spawns in the middle of the map to one of their captured control points. While not a bad game mode, Netwar is limiting. Not everybody can rush towards a point or do their own thing in order to succeed. If a team wants to work together, they have to take positions. This aspect of the mode detracts from one of the main experiences of Blacklight: Retribution, which is that anyone can be whatever they want.

This freedom of self-identity is emphasized throughout the games massive number of load-outs that can be created. Not only can a player choose what gun type and utilities they bring into combat, but they can customise their depot options and attach different barrels, scopes, and rifle stocks to their preferred weapon to fit their specific play-style. Although the total amount of different gun parts for each category is limited, the different guns and their parts can fit the needs of many looking for a performance boost in one area, be it reload speed or bullet damage. However, after unlocking a weapon or gun part a player cannot simply call it their own; weapons must be either rented or permanently bought with GP, a currency that the game gives the player at the end of each game match. For the rentals, the GP prices are fairly good; it will only take about one-to-three matches before acquiring enough GP to rent a gun or gun part for 24 hours. However, the GP costs for permanent buying is very high and I would recon that I myself have only gained enough GP to permanently buy about six weapons. Permanent buying is a viable option for those dedicated to being entirely free players however, so I will give Zombie Studios, the creators of Blacklight: Retribution, praise for allowing that option.

As for further customization goes, players can also buy things such as gun and armor camouflages alongside taunts, but this where the free-to-play element of Blacklight: Retribution becomes obvious. By paying for an in-game cash called Zen, users can buy not only camouflages and taunts, but also level-tied weaponry. Being an entirely free player, I cannot give a factually accurate opinion on what the Zen-to-cash prices weigh out to be, but what I have heard from various other players is that permanently buying a gun and customizing every part ranges from $12 US to $20 US, a very large chunk of change. If I were to comment on those stated prices, then I would say that they are very high and I would suggest Zombie Studios notch them down to encourage more players spending their cash without feeling ripped off. What I can comment on and definitely object to is that players with Zen can purchase high-level weaponry regardless of the players actual level in the game. While it does not break the “Pay for Convenience” model that I believe to be the gold standard for free-to-play games, it allows paying players access to what is arguably the most powerful weaponry dozens of hours before free players can even get rent them.

Another important aspect of the free-to-play side of Blacklight: Retribution is the Heroes that Zombie Studios have introduced. After paying a certain amount on Zen, players will be able to either rent or permanently buy a Hero. As the rental and permanent buying options for the Heroes are relatively high, most players are fine with sticking to the default male of female character models and ergo I have not encountered many players using Heroes. However, when I have played in matches with Heroes, the players using said Heroes always seem to be in one of the top three players slot at the end of each match, if not first. I am not entirely sure if this is because specific armor and weapon combinations overpowered the Heroes or because those playing the heroes were already very skilled with the game, but many players seemed to have agreed that the cause for the effect is the first of the two possibilities.

Putting my annoyances with some of the aspects of the free-to-play model, Blacklight: Retribution provides a very fun and unique experience if it does tread ground at face value. The fact that the only requirements to play Blacklight: Retribution are a decent gaming computer and your time only enhance the experience you could get out of this title. While I know that some video game players are bored to death of the base mechanics of games like Blacklight: Retribution, I honestly recommend this game to everyone simply because there is more to the game than just those mechanics. Also, it is hard to argue trying something when it is free.

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