By Kieron Gillen on May 6th, 2010 at 11:11 am.
The game bluescreens. For the third time this game. I swear. Not again. Not fucking again.
You may wonder why a developer is proudly letting journalists play their game in their state. There is reason to their madness. This isn’t a bug. This is a feature.
Blacklight Tango Down is a mid-price download-only Unreal-3-powered multiplayer shooter with a sci-fi theme. As well as the elegant-hard-carapace armour, the game does some fun stuff with the UI to try and get the feel of a future conflict. The blue-screening is actually a grenade effect, a localised EMP-blast which crashes the in-game computer, so messing up their vision while their system reboots. The other main grenade type is a localised visual-distorter, which causes anyone trying to look through the area where it’s deployed to have their vision violently pixelated. Actually try to walk through it, and what you see starts looking as retro as most of the indie games I plug on RPS. They’re both neat visual effects, with an obvious tactical use.
That’s perhaps what I find most promising about Blacklight Tango Down. Despite the fact in all but its business model, it’s operating in a well-worn territory, it questions the assumptions, and tries to find a new angle on genre-faithfuls. Because the blue-screen bomb is clearly directly analogous to a flashbang, while the pixel-distort grenade is equally analagous to the smoke grenade. That its developers have put the effort in implies that they may bring their imagination to bear elsewhere.
Anyway, let’s have a look at it, eh?
As mentioned, it’s a multiplayer shooter, splitting its attention between twelve traditional multiplayer maps (with 7 modes) and four-co-op missions, which you play with up to four other players. Its headline feature is the level of customisation. For example, each weapon is arranged into a variety of parts, each of which has a different build. Swap the gun muzzles or stocks around and you’ll lead to a different gun, both aesthetically and in terms of function. Presumably, this is going to link to characters making their own “classes”, especially when linked to a player-award/ranking system which opens up weapon attachments. Interestingly, these aren’t actually given to you in a linear fashion – but randomly, meaning that most of the players will have a different selection of toys to select. You find yourself hoping there’s some way to trade these between players, like desperate collectible-card players or something.
All this is in the abstract. In the version I played, the customisation tools were locked out, and we were left to actually play some multiplayer battles. And, without those elements, it’s simply a stylish techno-shooter, all tuned towards speed of conflict. It primarily does this by a striking element which, despite the Call-of-Duty-esque deadliness of weapons, encourages a less stealthy, faster moving approach. It’s basically the ability for you to turn on your FANCY-LOOK-SCIENCE and see through walls, locating all the friendlies and hostiles. In other words, if someone is camping, it’s easy to get a drop on them. Movement is everything.
This is balanced in a couple of ways. Firstly, it only has so much power, so you can’t keep it on. Secondly, you can’t shoot while using it. Thirdly, it recharges – and until it’s fully recharged, you can’t re-apply it. And finally, you can’t shoot while using it, which is so important I’m going to mention it twice. In other words, it’s a pay-off between deciding whether to use it to check a corner – and leave yourself defenceless – and blundering straight around. You can easily imagine a tight, small team working together and taking turns to play spotter.
Generally speaking, while solid, I suspected it would find a problem in finding an audience at full price. Which makes it luck it’s not full price, but a fifteen-euros download only game. It concentrates its efforts on the multiplayer side and actually offers a selection of features which compares favourably with what the big-boys do, all with its own little twist. And while I suspect it’s still not a game which is going to find me as a regular player, it’s certainly more promising than I was expecting when I recieved the invite to play it.
There’s a handful of things which may trip it up. Firstly, the urge to play with conventions doesn’t always lead to an actually-enjoyable destination. In the capture the flag area maps, rather than simply staying in a place or holding down a button, you have to actually do a quick Quick-time-event to capture it. Fail to match the sequence and the area doesn’t switch over. While this is extra interaction, I’m not convinced this is particularly interesting interaction. Rather than skill making you achieve something quicker than you were expecting, this is a lack of skill making making you take longer on what most games will just give you. If they were desperate to keep the system, I’d have it so that you have a standard timer to hack the base, but if you do the QTE before it goes down, it changes immediately. But I’m playing backseat designer now, so will shut up.
Secondly, for the PC-audience, this runs on Games for Windows live and doesn’t have dedicated servers. As such, a maximum of 16-players a game. This will raise eyebrows of the PC audience. The third problem is that, at the moment, it doesn’t raise the eyebrows enough. In a good way, rather than a cynical way. While it’s neat enough, from what I played, it doesn’t seem to have a big imaginative hook to attract the attention in the same way – to choose a random example – Killing Floor did. Must is going to rest on how fascinating the customisation actually is, and whether the Co-op missions can put their own spin on the conflict.
All of which makes me realise it’s not just the imaginative flourishes which make this interesting – but the pragmatism. It knows what it is, and has priced itself accordingly. That’s something I have to applaud, and will be interested to see whether it’s enough.
Blacklight Tango Down will be available in Summer this year, by pretty much every direct-download company.