Back in 1999, a free-to-play beta was released on PC that bucked the trend of AAA first-person shooters. Counter-Strike only went on to become the most popular FPS for years on PC. Blacklight: Retribution reminds me of Counter-Strike in many ways. Zombie Studios is attempting to carve out its own space in a very elite shooter landscape by providing an alternative for gamers to the big-budget annualized shooters just like CS did so many years ago.
Zombie takes a streamlined approach to Blacklight’s visuals by squeezing the most out of the Unreal Engine 3 on the PlayStation 4. Unfortunately, that means it doesn’t dazzle like its AAA contemporaries do. The game still sports a slick visual style, but it certainly would be more impressive if it were running at 1080p and 60 frames per second. On one hand, it is remarkable what they’ve been able to do with Unreal Engine 3 on the PS4 and I appreciate the detailed characters and weapons. The six futuristic tech-noir maps are well designed for individual gameplay style among six different game modes. On the other hand, many of the textures are flat. Walls and hallways are rather unremarkable. The tradeoff for lower graphical fidelity is snappy controls and balanced gameplay, which Blacklight excels because Zombie Studios avoided needless complications.
Blacklight’s controls are straightforward with the exception of Hyper Reality Vision which adds a Crysis-like dimension to the game as you can use it to spot where enemies are on the map. It is a valuable tool that does seem a little cheap at times, but complete vulnerability while in HRV mode can cost you. I was surprised at how well Blacklight played in comparison to other PS4 launch titles. Nothing is more satisfying than racking up a hearty kill streak. Death never feels like I’m being cheated by random out of bounds occurrence. A kill is a kill. It’s that simple and that’s what gets my adrenaline going.
The rewards for doing well aren’t in superfluous killstreaks. Combat Points, not to be confused with Game Points, are awarded for kills and objectives in matches and can be spent at optional Weapon Depots for consumables like health and ammo refills or heavy weapons. With enough CP, you can grab yourself a Hardsuit mech which you can deploy and control in the field. It is literally a walking tank that can tip the odds in a map with open areas. It is practically useless in any close quarter situation. Balance can easily be restored by dispatching the Hardsuit with a rocket launcher.
The fact is Blacklight rewards skill. You never have to go beyond the default loadout if you don’t want to. The more I dug into the customization, the more I enjoyed the benefits. Sights and scopes help immensely if you are more looking for more ranged accuracy. If your style is more run-and-gun, you need to be aware that an attachment can improve a statistic like recoil while downgrading another like run speed. I would have preferred that equipment weren’t gated behind experience level. It seems unnecessary when you’ve already implemented a pay gate.
The microtransactions are completely optional and while I understand the business model, I just wish the premium currency wasn’t pushed so deliberately on the gamer. Everything in the Minimart is available for Game Points or Zcoin. Game Points are the reward for your performance and for finishing matches. The only problem is that Game Points are only good for a rental, not an outright purchase. You need to go drop some real dollars on Zcoins to unlock what you want permanently. I’m not enamored with the pricing structure. 500 Zcoins are the equivalent of $5 and that would net you a weapon and two attachments. The higher priced character presets or customizing your own armor, weapons, and gear could easily run you over $20. There lies the benefit to rentals with GP. All it costs is your time earning GP and you can unlock anything for 1, 3, or 7 day rentals. It’s the best way to experiment with customization without buyers’ remorse.
One thing I found most interesting was how I enjoyed all of the various game modes equally. As a FPS fan, I tend to stick to what I think an individual game does better such as Rush and Conquest on Battlefield or Domination and Team Deathmatch on Call of Duty. Blacklight handles all of the different modes well. I usually just use quick play to jump into a match. I can play for hours, late into the night, or hop on for a couple of quick matches and log off, equally satisfied in either situation.
If there is one thing that I wish Zombie Studios would have included, it would have to be some form of stat tracking. That is a “be careful what you ask for statement” from me. There are people who play FPS’s religiously and are crazy about their statistics, most notably kill-to-death ratio. Obviously scores are kept from game to game, but there is no historical data that serves as a not-so-humble brag for how good you are. The flipside to that is I believe it keeps the game interesting as I focus on one game at a time.
Blacklight: Retribution is a tried-and-true shooter running on an aging, but dependable engine, though the mere mention of F2P is sure to send people running the other way. I’d prefer a retail release to cut the middleman out but I can live with the microtransaction structure as long as it isn’t critical for success. Blacklight is more than worth the price of admission and stands tall in the online multiplayer shooter arena on the PS4.