Review: Blacklight: Tango Down
July 16, 2010, Author: Andy Corrigan
Up until this last year or so, the Xbox Live Arcade has been sorely lacking in some quality first person shooter action. However, slowly and surely there has been a slightly steadier trickle coming forth, with DICE’s Battlefield 1943 probably being the highlight amongst some of the titles that have made their appearances on there. While most of the efforts have been cut down versions of more established franchises, or remakes and rereleases of classic titles, there have been few willing to risk their necks on a completely original IP in the genre. One such brave developer is Zombie Studios, who have just seen their (practically) online only title, Blacklight: Tango Down finally hit the marketplace this Wednesday just gone, and I was lucky enough to be offered a chance to review it.
So, how does it measure up? You know what do to find out. OOH RAH!
Not so much of a story, more of a setting, and I still don’t know what that is…
Blacklight apparently has something of a rich universe that the publishers are looking to exploit, with talk of books, comics and movies already lined up, and it’s a great shame that none of that universe made it into the IP’s debut game. Play this game without doing your research, and you’ll have no idea what scenario you are meant to be experiencing. From my initial findings, Blacklight refers to the main faction in the game, and presumably the closest thing you’d come to as being able to describe as the ‘good guys’. The opposition is apparently called ‘The Order’, a fact I only became aware of after my first match as that faction and I was informed by the on-screen result.
This, in my opinion, is just one example of the most consistent issue that plagues Blacklight throughout; nothing is ever explained properly. Sure, take a gander through the options menu, and you’ll find a lazily placed ‘how to play’ section with a few text documents explaining things in some minor detail, but this is just not good scene setting. From the text I was able to work out that Blacklight are the USA’s finest soldiers with the greatest technology. The Order is made up of ex-US Soldiers, and for some reason they’re fighting each other in Soviet Russia at some point in the near future. When exactly I’ve yet to establish… It was around this point I stopped caring about who was fighting who, or why they were fighting; the set-up is about as clear as tar.
I’m not saying that an online only FPS should have a full plot or the in-depth narrative to rival the writings of George Orwell, but it’s nice to have the scene set for you and be given an idea of why you’re doing the things you’re doing. More than that, though, it’s just that this is the first instance you’ll find where the game doesn’t offer you any sort of user friendly help, leaving you to clumsily feel your way around.
Hard to get to grips with, but fun when you do
The first thing you should notice when starting up a game of Blacklight, is that it controls pretty damn smoothly. Aiming feels a natural experience and the general handling sits in the same ballpark as a Battlefield title. The controls are ripped straight from the like of Call of Duty too, so you’ll find no real surprises there either. The second thing I need to say is prepare to die… a lot. For an online shooter, Blacklight has to have one of the harshest difficulty curves I’ve ever encountered. Sure, you have a health meter, but I’m sure it’s only there to look pretty as one shot will usually equal instant death. The game makes a point about how you have the most advanced technology and armour known to man, and if this paltry amount of punishment is all it can stand, then the respective factions need to sack their suppliers. This can make the game very unwelcoming, and requires a bit of patience early on as you learn the ropes and get a decent image of the maps in your head. Once you do adjust to the difficultly, however, the game can be an absolute joy to play at times, although it does have some issues along the way.
There are seven modes in total, including standard death matches, capture the flag (retrieval), detonate, domination, and last man standing gametypes. For most part these work rather well, although sometimes the harsh nature of the game can make the more objective based modes a bit of an uphill struggle or chore to play through. There is no campaign, but the game does boast a ‘Black Ops’ mode, which can be played cooperatively or on your own, and this mode is extremely poor. There are four missions to take on, offering you different objectives in each; however it is severely let down by poor enemy A.I. The type of A.I. that keeps trying to fire at you despite being behind several objects of cover, or leaves that cover despite being perfectly safe… It’s not like you can use this mode to practice for online either, as the enemies can take much more damage than found online.
There are twelve maps in to enjoy, and a couple of these show some examples of truly great level design, but be warned; there are some absolute stinkers too. The game is at its absolute best in the bigger, sprawling maps that help open things out and make the combat a little more forgiving. The smaller, tighter maps can sometimes make for frustrating gameplay, but the worst one I encountered employed a honeycomb style layout which led to death at every corner. Most of the maps have too much of a reliance on forcing the players into smaller chokepoints, and limited to two or three in each map, this can both be a blessing and a detriment. A blessing in the more open maps, creating some nice ‘Mexican stand-off moments’ amidst the chaos, and a detriment in that one or two maps are horrendously unbalanced as a result. I kid you not, in one map in particular and playing as Blacklight, more than once my team and I spent the entire match penned in our own spawn area, unable to force our way out.
While some might point to the way the game handles respawns as the reason for that scenario, and an element of that complaint is fair, I have to say that at least it’s managed quite well. Rather than spawning you next to a colleague away from the action, or choosing a random spawn point, each team has a base area in which they spawn, which is defended by two heavy duty turrets covering certain angles. This allows you to get your wits about you before running back out in to the battlefield.
Unfortunately for Blacklight, there really isn’t a lot here to make it stand out from the crowd. The guns, although highly customisable (through unlocks), are standard issue for a game of its type. That said, there are some cool twists on traditional items, particularly the grenades. Instead of a smoke grenade, you have digi-grenades, which apparently interfere with your much lauded ‘Hyper Reality Visor’, creating a pixelated area that can distort the enemy’s view or hide your own movement, much like a smoke grenade. Get too close to one of these clouds and your visor will receive loads of little error messages, really screwing up your view. By far my favourite type of grenade is the EMP that causes the infamous Blue Screen of Death to appear on your visor before smartly rebooting. The visor that I’ve mentioned is something that Zombie have really talked up, and it does have a large part to play once you start levelling up, offering the ability to temporarily see through the scenery, used much like a heat signature tracker.
The unlocks are set up in a similar fashion to that of most war games on the market now, and while it’s nice to see a little notification telling you that you’ve unlocked something, but just as with the setting, the game takes no time to offer you any explanation of what they are or how to use them. Once you get the hang of the customisation, this part of the game gets somewhat enjoyable the further you get into it, but none of this is helped by an absolute abortion of a menu system which, especially early on, can leave you wondering what the hell you’re doing.
It doesn’t look Unreal
The game uses the Unreal 3 engine, as many a great game has done, but you’d be hard pressed to be able tell as it really doesn’t look like an Unreal game at all. Being a downloadable title, it’s always going to be hard for a game to rival the likes of the full retail brigade visually. As such, Blacklight can be found to be a bit of a mixed bag, and a lot of the compliments you could pay it will usually feature the precursor ‘For an XBLA game…’. In some cases it holds up against its XBLA peers, offering a grittier, darker experience, and compared screen by screen to say, Battlefield 1943, it does look a little sharper and features more detail, although you have the consider that the level of scope is far less than that of DICE’s popular title. Much like some other aspects of Blacklight, the visuals simply do a job in looking nice, but won’t particularly blow your socks off.
One thing I did really like in Blacklight is the visual representation of your customisations. All of the weapons feature a base part that can be upgraded with new parts as you unlock them, and these changes and additions are noticeable in-game. It’s the little things like that this that draw you back into the atmosphere that the lack of decent stage setting almost prevents.
Unfortunately, the sound effects used for the weaponry in Blacklight is certainly weaker than it could have been. We all know how important a part sound plays in creating an atmosphere, but what’s never mentioned is the importance of sound to add credence to the actions you are doing. Even the slight of a lack of an audible kick when firing, as is apparent in this game, can leave you feeling a little detached from the action. Shouts of ‘Fire in the hole!’ and the like are just things we come to expect in titles like these, to the point where we barely take them in anymore. Elsewhere it’s pretty much standard fare for war games, especially musically; it sounds like Zombie Studios were aiming for something out of a Paul Greengrass movie.
Should you pick it up or put Blacklight: Tango Down?
Blacklight: Tango Down, despite its problems, is a game in which there is a lot of fun to be had if you’re willing to put the work in initially. It’s a game that’s as unwelcoming as it is totally unforgiving, and definitely not worth a look for the impatient. Honestly, there are better times to be had on the Xbox Live Marketplace for much less than 1200 MS Points, and Blacklight will only ever be remembered as a quasi-decent shooter. That said, it is a game that I can see myself going back to beyond the need to review, but I can’t say that others will be willing to look past its faults.