Blacklight: Tango Down review

So you’ve played a certain modern war game a little too much – you’ve hit tenth prestige, unlocked all the emblems, and you’re already bored with the latest map pack? There may be an answer – Zombie studios are hoping their new downloadable title can cure your mapathy once and for all.

Blacklight: Tango Down launches this week on the PC, two weeks after shooting to the top of the Xbox Live Arcade sales charts. A multiplayer-centric first-person shooter, Blacklight features twelve maps, 16 player combat and a comprehensive customisation system; but is it enough to drag you from Call of Duty?

You might be thinking a downloadable title could never drag you away from a $60 retail game, but playing for the first time, Blacklight impresses. Running on Unreal Engine 3, the game looks great. Zombie studios have gone for a distinctive near-future art style, full of tall buildings and neon lights. Textures are crisp and maps are spacious, great for large team games. Players choose from two opposing factions that fit right into this dystopian world; The Order, a group of anti-establishment rebels are determined to defeat the Blacklight commandos that keep the peace and uphold the law. Character models look quite similar from a distance, so much so that your crosshair will turn to a large X if you aim at a teammate, reminding you to save your bullets.

With seven different multiplayer game modes to choose from, there’s a reasonable amount of variety to keep you entertained. Traditional deathmatch, capture the flag, domination and last-man-standing gametypes all share similar objectives with the crop of current multiplayer shooters.  A single-player mode is available, but it’s far better to ignore it unless you have some friends to play through the four levels in co-op mode.

Blacklight: Tango Down
In solo missions you fight through waves of enemy AI

The one feature that makes Blacklight stand out from other military shooters is the HRV – a Predator-like vision mode that highlights enemies through walls. Similar to Perfect Dark’s FarSight rifle, the HRV is designed to cut out camping and level the playing field against players that have memorised the maps. This in turn speeds up matches, making most of your time spent online full of action. To prevent unbalancing gameplay, you can’t fire your weapons while using the visor and it must recharge after each use. Activating your visor sets off an easily recognisable sound to nearby enemies, letting them know you’re pretty much defenceless, so its best used sparingly. We found few gamers bold enough to try camping outside the spawn points, as after getting one or two kills they were quickly hunted down by other players.

Two novel new grenade types are designed to stop the HRV from being too useful. The Digi-grenade works like a traditional smoke grenade, obscuring the path ahead. It does this with a digital blur effect, pixelating your view if you step within its radius. Players must choose between this and the EMP grenade, a flashbang type device that disrupts your vision. In a nice touch, a direct hit with the blast will blue-screen an enemy’s visor, blinding him for several seconds while it reboots. You only get one per life, but more can be acquired from the ammunition dumps dotted around each map.

Blacklight: Tango Down
Grenades do far more than just damage in Blacklight

Aside from the grenades, on first look the Blacklight arsenal appears limited in contrast to games like Call of Duty. Players can choose an assault rifle, sub machine gun, shotgun, LMG or sniper rifle as their base weapon; it’s from here where things get interesting. Being able to change out scopes, barrels, muzzles, stocks, magazines and camouflage patterns, the level of customisation on offer verges on ridiculous. When you add in the stat-boosting tags that dangle from your weapon model in-game, there are well over one billion potential combinations – more than enough to keep you experimenting with different loadouts.

Blacklight: Tango Down
Five basic weapons, over a billion custom combinations!

Unfortunately for a multiplayer-centric title, actually getting into games proved quite the challenge. Searching for a game can take up to five minutes, with very little on screen detail to let you know what’s happening. When you do get into a match, be prepared for that full lobby you just joined to quickly disappear – there is no punishment for quitting early, so the majority of games end up as three vs. three or less. And don’t think having a full friends list will help populate your games – there are no pre-game lobbies, and you can’t join games in progress. We were stuck waiting for fifteen minutes trying to join one other person, let alone trying to get a full side together.

If you can see past a few hitches with the matchmaking, online games are fast-paced and fun, while the level of customisation and extensive ranking system provides excellent reasons to keep playing. The developers have been vocal in their desire to improve the game, which will hopefully be realised via post-release patches in the coming weeks to coincide with the PS3 release of the game. If they can deliver on the promises, Blacklight looks set to become a very popular game – crucial as the company plans to begin work on a sequel very soon. Whether it will drop back down the Xbox Live Arcade sales charts just as quickly as it reached the top remains to be seen, but I’ll definitely still be playing it for months to come.

[xrr rating=4/5]

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