Blacklight: Retribution, Onslaught

I have hundreds of games in my Steam catalog and on my shelves that have been unplayed. My Backlog. I’m trying to get through those games one by one, and then write a short review for my friends to tell them whether it’s worth playing. I am not a writer or a games journalist. This is just me, telling my friends about a game.

(This review is pretty antithetical to the idea of playing my backlog. All you get from playing a multiplayer game is your time sucked away. Nevertheless, I did play and I want to tell you about it.)

It’s pretty hard to get people together for a multiplayer game these days, and it’s even harder to find a game we all own and can play. So, when I heard about Blacklight’s Onslaught mode I was pretty excited. Blacklight is a free to play sci-fi first person shooter (FPS), and Onslaught is it’s “horde” mode. That is, it’s a co-op survival against ever-more-difficult waves of AI. This is great for us, since our group doesn’t have a ton of FPS fans and cost is an issue for games they aren’t totally in to.

In any case, I have now played just one night of Blacklight and I think I know everything I need to know about it. I had fun, but it’s not really going to be a game we can get people behind. The jist of the gameplay is this, you have to eliminate ten waves of enemies in under 30 minutes. The enemies start pretty basic, with just melee guys running at you, but they soon add dogs, soldiers with guns, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, guys on fire, and even a hulking brute who takes a ton of bullets to eliminate. All enemies basically have the same AI, walk towards you until they can attack (either from range or in melee) and then attack. A couple guys act uniquely, like the brute can charge and there are guys with shields who will keep their shield up until they get to you, but ultimately the AI is pretty dumb and hordey.

While that is enjoyable enough to play for a while, it does get repetitive and there’s nothing to do to break it up. Ultimately, this mode just feels tacked on and could have used a bit more design before execution. For example, while they do break up the gunplay by giving you a terminal to hack each round, the terminal hacking minigame is recycled right out of the main game (and it isn’t very fun to begin with). To make matters worse (for me in particular) the main game rules apply so you can hack the terminal while cloaked and zombies don’t see you while cloaked so a stealth build can hack the terminals without any fear of attack. While that’s a cool advantage for stealthed people, it does make that element trivial and basically removes it from the game. The only thing they’ve done to mix things up and it’s trivialized by a single character’s item choice. Not good.

Another thing about cloaking is that the zombies will still walk right up to you when you are cloaked and stand next to you without attacking. They are en route to you, they just can’t see you so they have to get close and then stand still and wait for you to appear. It’s bad AI, but it makes sense going along with the feeling that this was just a rushed, add-on mode.

There are technical issues too, which I report with pause. I imagine those will get resolved in time, but we had AI getting stuck in geometry, bunching up at spawn locations, and just sitting idle never looking for us. This ultimately made it much harder to clear each wave, because we always had to go on a hunt for the last five or so guys, who were spread out all over the map idle. In our most successful game, we got to wave 10 but ran out of time–mostly because of all the lost time we had hunting strays.

They also didn’t really consider prices of items or balance against AI. All the items from the main game are for sale at depots, just like the main game, and they all cost the same as the main game. Unfortunately, the utility is greatly skewed when compared with the main game. Turrets are treasures, because they have unlimited ammo, but flamethrowers while powerful run out of juice super quick so they aren’t worth their original price. I’m not sure you could ever afford a hard suit, but maybe you can. The prices for the most part aren’t bad, but they are untouched and I could definitely see room for improvement.

The whole buying system needs to be looked at. Ammo is such a problem in Onslaught, and you can’t buy enough ammo to keep you stocked through a wave–even if you can afford it. Which means you either have to drop the gun you’ve designed (in Blacklight you design your own guns) for one of the stock ones that they AI carries or you have to attempt to find a place to buy ammo, and drop out of combat for a bit to buy it. Neither of these are optimal situations, and really it’s a problem created because the exact same rules of ammo and resupply are used in Onslaught as they exist in the main game. But the needs are totally different. In the PVP game you don’t reload once a minute… you might never even buy ammo, because you won’t live long enough to use your whole clip. But in this game you buy ammo all the time, and it’s overpriced for the amount of time it lasts, and you don’t get enough of it. To make matters worse, they kept the idea that when you come back to life you get a full clip, so it can actually be a strategy to die mid round to get a free reload. That’s another hold-over from the main game’s rules that doesn’t really work in Onslaught.

Another thing that is badly balanced in this game is the difficulty. It’s a four-player game, and they have four difficulty modes that you can choose between, but if you don’t have four people it’s nearly impossible to complete–even on Easy. Why can games not scale difficulty based on number of players? Even the most rudimentary attempts at balancing the game in this way would be appreciated. Only have two people, then we spawn half as many zombies. That’s all you need to do. It’s a simple thing. And if it makes things too easy, you tune it up to 60%, or 70%. I mean, they could do things like giving players more ammo or adding AI allies, but the simplest of simple solutions is all it would take to make this game more fun for groups of varying sizes. We tried to play on Easy with only two people, and we just failed over and over. Once we figured out how to exploit the AI with turrets and making them run up a ramp, we managed to survive to wave 10… but we still didn’t have the firepower to complete the game in the 30 minute time frame. There were just too many zombies, and too few guns shooting them.

I’ve saved the best for last though. My main complaint with the game is that they don’t honor the scoring system of all the other modes. When you play Blacklight, you are always working on unlocking new gun parts, armors, special items, etc, etc. You play, you make some money, and you use your money to buy new stuff. One of the most amazing things about the balance of the PVP is, win or lose you get about the same amount of money. Sure, you get 20% more if you win, but that really doesn’t make you feel like you always have to win, and it still rewards your time regardless of the outcome. It’s a great system. Onslaught gives you nothing if you lose, and showers you with riches if you win. It’s terrible. We played Onslaught for a couple hours, and didn’t even get a single XP, or GP. TF2’s co-op mode was badly designed like this too, it’s all or nothing. That isn’t fun, and it’s especially bad when you have set a precedent of the opposite. They should give something for your time–especially considering a failed game can take 30 minutes! For me, Blacklight is largely about the collection of gear. Take that away, and the game loses something. So you might say that you should play Onslaught for the experience and not worry about the rewards… but I do.

All in all, it’s cool that a F2P game has this co-op mode. But there’s nothing special about Blacklight’s “horde” mode, and I really don’t even want to play it unless I’m certain we’ll win or they start giving out rewards for participation. Maybe it’s still too soon, I mean the mode is only a month old…

ps. I forgot to mention that the AI can be laggy too, presumably because the game server architecture wasn’t designed to have so many moving objects? Guys can pop around quite insanely, making them hard to target. That didn’t happen often when we played, it did happen to me and I hear it’s a more common problem.

Posted in Backlog

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