Version tested: Xbox 360
Blacklight has arrived on the FPS scene with unusual swagger. Kicking in the door, it slumps in your favourite chair, puts its blood-crusted combat boots up on your coffee table and starts making wild, testosterone-fuelled boasts. "Yeah, I'm bringing AAA gameplay in a download game," it scoffs while stubbing a cigar out on the arm of the sofa that you haven't even started paying DFS for yet.
"Oh, and I'm going to be in a comic and a movie," it adds, spitting a sticky mouthful of tobacco phlegm onto your carpet. "Basically, I'm awesome, and you should be licking the powder burns off my still-smoking assault rifle in gratitude because I cost less than a large stuffed crust from Dominos."
It's an impressive display, but it always helps to make sure you're walking the walk before talking the talk. Blacklight doesn't.
The aggressive PR is understandable, up to a point. The FPS genre brings with it certain machismo requirements and no successful shooter franchise was ever launched with humility. Yet the boasts of Blacklight's publisher, Ignition, ring hollow in the face of common sense or the realities of the game itself. It might have passed as a AAA title in 1999, but it's left looking like a little boy wearing Daddy's clothes in 2010.
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Free-to-play PC sequel to console FPS Tango Down out now.
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Whatever criticisms lie in wait, Blacklight certainly can't be accused of lacking generosity. You get seven game modes - Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Retrieval, Domination, Detonate, Last Man Standing, Last Team Standing - and while they're all slight variations on the expected themes, there's enough variety among them.
The maps are even more bountiful. You get 12 of those, with grrr tough shooty names like Brutalism, Derailer and Wharfare. The weapons top even that, with "literally trillions" of customisation options available for the usual spread of pistols, SMGs, assault weapons, shotguns and sniper rifles as you earn and unlock more goodies.
All this, plus four co-op missions, for around 10 English pounds? What could you possibly complain about? Well, too often it feels like Blacklight is sheltering inside the snuggly bosom of the lazy caveat, hampered as it is by numerous poor design choices that can only really be defended by appealing to the low-cost nature of the enterprise.
Movement is slick enough, the sort of fast and slippy fragfest control that harks back to the Quake matches of yore. All the major functions are present, correct and mapped exactly where you'd expect to find them. The sprint feels a bit sticky, and grenade throws are imprecise with weak splash damage, but the genre basics are pretty much as they should be.
With a genre as long-established and popular as the FPS, the devil is in the details, and it's here that Zombie Studios slips up. The elements that would have been tweaked and focused and honed over months of playtesting in a true AAA title are left here with their rough edges on display.
Weapon balancing, for example. SMGs are overpowered, sniper rifles are underpowered. Assault rifles can kill you in a heartbeat from across the map. The aforementioned grenade problem makes them all but useless, since you can't place them with any accuracy and their damage is inconsistent.
The co-op modes sound great in theory, but are drab in practice. They're so short, linear and heavily scripted that it's only really co-operative in the sense that you're playing alongside other people. There's certainly no need to work together in a tactical way - you just make sure you're all mowing down the enemies until they stop spawning. You can also play these missions solo but since the game is over the moment you die, and you can't actually pause the action, it's not really worth the effort unless you want to grind out some experience for the online modes.
Most problematic are the maps, which are generic at best. At worst, they're throwbacks to the days before developers worked out how to minimise bottlenecking and spawn camping through subtle design. There are maps here that are virtually unplayable thanks to the insanely archaic idea of fixed spawn points.
In my very first Team Deathmatch game, we pinned the opposing team inside their HQ for the entire duration. Automated sentries stop you from storming in but, equally, heavy weapons trained on the exit points do a pretty great job of making sure the other guys don't get out either.
In a later game of Retrieval, or Capture the Flag by any other name, karma caught up with me and I found myself on the receiving end, trapped by players at both sides of my solitary spawn point, picked off the second I inched around the corners to try and retaliate. By the time of our inevitable defeat, my team had dwindled to just two players, and this is a recurring sight at the end of each match - one team still in full force, one populated by a few tenacious die-hards, as previously full lobbies bleed out through frustration.
"Aah!" crow those gamers who take bizarre pleasure in defending mediocrity. "You're playing it wrong! The Hyper Reality Visor is there to stop this sort of thing!" And, yes, it's true that you have a fancy visor that allows you to see the location of other players, as well as health and ammo stocks, for a few seconds. You're defenceless while doing this, but it is undeniably useful for checking the surroundings before making any sudden moves.
Trouble is, the problem often isn't knowing where enemies are - clue: they're right outside your base, camping like Kenneth Williams - but just getting lucky enough to break through their lines before their bully tactics do you in for the twelfth time. The simple fact is that while the visor is an occasional assist against such situations, it shouldn't be bloody necessary in the first place.
The visor is also one of several important gameplay features left curiously unexplained by the obtuse front end, unless you happen to stumble across it. This is a game so unjustifiably proud of itself that it doesn't even bother illuminating the few new ideas it offers or instructing you in how to make use of the things you unlock. A brief text flash informed me I'd unlocked "Ice Hex" as I hit the first rank, which sounded very exciting. After digging around in the menus, I finally found out what I'd won - a new skin for one of my weapons. W00t.
The later unlocks are much better, and the customisation is fun (if never as compelling or useful as the PR blurb would have you believe) but the fact that you have to work these things out says much about the blind spots in Blacklight's construction. This is especially true of the story, which is set in a crumbling Soviet state in the near future and revolves around a special operations military group called Blacklight. They're battling against The Order, a rebel group that has assassinated the president, as well as civilians infected with SIV (Sentient Insanity Virus) which turns them into slobbering maniacs.
You won't know any of this, however, since the game makes absolutely no mention of it, instead just throwing you into the fray and assuming you'll care about the different factions. I had to dig out the press releases and hit Google to piece together what backstory is on offer. Such narrative frippery doesn't really matter in a multiplayer game where shooting faces is your top priority, of course, but given the self-aggrandising announcements about graphic novels and movies set in the "Blacklight universe", this is a spectacularly ham-fisted way of introducing the game world.
And that's Blacklight in a nutshell, fine with broad strokes and bold announcements, not so great at the little details that really matter in the long term. If you're in the market for yet another grim dystopian Soviet-styled shooter, and haven't had your itch scratched by Metro 2033 or Singularity or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Killzone 2 - or if you're an FPS fan on a budget and have already downloaded Battlefield 1943 and Serious Sam 2 and Perfect Dark and Doom 2 - then Blacklight's unvarnished meat-grinder may hold some appeal.
Those lists of similar, often better, rivals reveal the game's true weakness: it's just not that special. With a few patches and some better maps, it could be an adequate diversion, but the world simply doesn't need another passable multiplayer shooter whose only selling point is how little it costs compared to "real" games.
5 / 10
Blacklight: Tango Down is available now for Xbox 360 on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20 / €14.40). It will be released for PC on Steam next week, and for PS3 on PlayStation Network in "about 6 weeks" according to the game's Twitter.