There are a lot of cultural reference points in games these days, deliberate and otherwise, and sometimes they're all the hook you need. But they're also open to misinterpretation. For example, when I sit down to play Blacklight: Tango Down all I can think about is mood lighting and ageing British TV adverts for crap soft drinks.
And while a game about looking for suspicious stains and spilt fizzy orange with a forensic lamp would certainly be an interesting one, I'm relieved to discover that Blacklight: Tango Down is actually a download-only twitch shooter from Zombie Studios instead.
The central conceit is a little bit Half-life and a little bit Apocalypse Now. A far-right new order is taking over a fictional East European city and an extraction team of special operatives is going behind enemy lines to rescue a lost officer, who may or may not have gone a little bit rogue.
Oh, and there are zombies. They're the sort of zombies which upset Simon Pegg - fast and intelligent, even to the point where they use guns, although they're much more likely to swarm you ala Left 4 Dead, wielding stop signs and iron bars.
Blacklight's designed to be fast and relatively lightweight, it turns out - a return to simpler days of Quake where shooters were more about fun and less about tactics. It's smooth, fast and Unreal Engine 3-powered, with a price point of $15 mentioned for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.
But surely there has to be a catch? To find out, I sit down for a session with the co-op mode, which is a secondary feature to the game's online multiplayer focus. Sadly there simply aren't the numbers available for an actual session of the many multiplayer modes, so a solo blast through one of the four co-op Black Ops levels against bots has to suffice.
It's all very urban - a decayed metallic landscape of broken vehicles and handy concrete barriers. Levels tend to be quite open and studded with cover spots, although there's no cover button or 'sticky' shelter. Aesthetically, think Blade Runner in a powercut and you won't be too far off. In one level, Derailer, underground trains whistle blithely through the centre of the warzone, mashing anyone foolish enough to hang around on the tracks.
As I start the level I'm given to test, a computerised female voice crackles in my ear, Stephen Hawking in electric drag. Instantly I forget what she's said, but I'm reassured that it doesn't really matter - this isn't a game which is heavy on the exposition. Wandering up to a point of interest, a terminal used to activate the barrier that begins the level proper, I'm treated to another little sniff of the pot-pourri of ideas which Blacklight encompasses.
It's a simple mini-game of repeating a sequence of button presses - Simon Says, in other words. This will also play a part in the capturing of control points in the 'King of the Hill' style game modes, where standing next to a post will gradually convert it but completing the mini-game hastens the process - a quick dose of risk/reward when you're under enemy fire. There's another variant too, a simpler task of centring symbols on a sliding scale.
The next toy I'm introduced to is the game's HRV, or hyper-reality-visor. Designed to prevent camping, it's essentially a wallhack device that projects the positions of all players and bots onto the HUD, alongside ammo and health dumps.
Using it is intentionally disorientating, because walls and scenery also disappear from view, leaving you extremely vulnerable if you try to stumble around too much. Using the visor means you can't shoot, either, so it's best used in short bursts to check your surroundings or to locate a sniper. It's intended to keep the pace up, to maintain flow in combat and catch out anybody who's using cover to recharge their health to the fifth or so of the total that it can reach without a health pack.
In practice it's possible that it will work the other way too - if you're camped with a sniper rifle then it will be very useful to know when someone's about to pop around the corner with a shotgun to end your killing spree. Thankfully, the HRV is only usable in short bursts before needing a recharge, but it proves to be extremely effective against the AI I'm up against.
Being ensconced in this big electric hat all of the time has its drawbacks though. Aside from the fact you can never get your hair looking respectable, it's also susceptible to electronic interference. This means that the game's EMP grenades actually inflict a blue screen of death on anybody inside their blast radius. The vital few seconds it takes to reboot leaves players completely blind and defenceless - easy pickings for whoever tossed the pineapple.
After a few minutes of blasting away at the generic grunts that swarm the broken cover of the level, I'm treated to my first wave of zombies - each one announced by the game's producer helpfully shouting 'zombie!' in my ear as they draw close.
They're extremely fast, often closing to melee distance before you're even aware of them, and chewing away your health bar with alarming efficiency. Luckily I've just acquired a shotgun, the ultimate zombie eliminator, and before long their corpses are vaporising on the floor around me.
The presence of the two factions raises the question of AI vs. AI combat, as presumably the crazed, flesh-eating maniacs are no friends of the New World Order either. Sadly this isn't the case - all enemy attentions will be firmly focused on the player character. It's intended to accentuate the flow of combat, I suspect, rather than bogging things down in tactical nuances.
Something else that Zombie Studios is keen to promote is the modular nature of the weaponry. Split into fairly regular categories of assault and sniper rifles, pistols, SMGs and shotguns, the guns of Blacklight can be customised in countless ways by upgrading barrels, stocks, sights etc to fine-tune what you want from a weapon.
They're not game-changing improvements, so hopefully we won't be seeing everyone wandering around with whatever the near-future equivalent of an M-60 is. Instead they'll be offering players the chance to make performance trade-offs in order to fit their armoury to their play-style. Of course, there's ample opportunity here to construct some very Borderlands-style scoped shotguns or iron-sighted sniper rifles.
Not having had the full experience of the eight-versus-eight multiplayer matches Blacklight will offer, it's hard to make any judgement calls at the minute. This is no small project, however, and the promise of a retail-quality shooter at download prices isn't necessarily a pipedream. There are some interesting ideas here, and a compelling central tenet of returning to simpler times.
We're told that there's a comic being released at the same time as the game, and, somewhat incredibly, a full motion-picture release is also on the cards. Whether this has the legs to become a successful IP is likely something which will elude us until we had a chance to engage it on its own terms though in a good, old-fashioned deathmatch.
Blacklight: Tango Down is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 as a downloadable title in Q2 2010.