That Blacklight: Retribution’s business model is the most noteworthy thing about it speaks volumes. Its free-to-play assault on players’ wallets is a singular point of interest in an otherwise derivative, uninspired futuristic FPS. Play a few rounds, turn your console off and a few moments later you’ll struggle to recall anything special about it – bar that creator Zombie Studios has its eye fixated on cash money.
Though the game appeared on PC in 2012, newcomers shouldn’t worry about missing any vital plot points in this sequel to 2010’s forgettable Tango Down, since there are none. The game cuts through any small talk, places a gun in your hand and tells you to have at its multiplayer modes, while simultaneously crippling your ability to do so without spending money.
As with many other free-to-play shooters, Retribution is only really free if you’re perfectly content with a heavily restricted loadout. The economy follows the typical structure, with in-game and real-world currencies sitting side by side. But Zombie is stingy about letting players try things out for free: if you want to get a proper feel for Retribution, you’re paying with either your time or your cash.
Retribution is neither shy nor subtle in its attempts to goad you into opening your wallet. Accessing items without forking out real-world money is technically feasible through the accumulation of experience points, but gaining enough to let you rent a single gun for a day takes several hours of heavy grinding. The only way to unlock items permanently is by handing over Zcoins, which you can buy in bulk from the PlayStation Store. A hefty £4.25 will grant you 500 Zcoins, which will cover one gun or unlock an additional quick loadout slot. Filling that slot with new weapons and items will cost even more, and you quickly begin to see that the game is pushing you towards the 10,000 Zcoins bundle, priced at a pass-the-smelling-salts £84.99.
There are some solid enough systems beneath the business model: controls are precise, responsive, and satisfying in short bursts, even if matches can lack excitement or immediacy. But the brief rush of competitive combat comes to an end the second you realise that player skill is largely irrelevant and you’ve got no chance against a player who’s paid for better equipment than you, even if you have superior aim or have armed yourself with greater map knowledge.
Worse is the fact that not even those who pay up are guaranteed a good time. All too often the game’s servers struggle to populate a quick match, and you can expect crippling latency when they do. The available modes – including Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture The Flag, Kill Confirmed and Domination – are as bare bones a framework as a modern multiplayer shooter could offer. Still, at least Domination’s number-matching minigame, in which you press left or right on the D-pad four consecutive times to capture a node, puts a tense spin on a familiar formula. Kill Confirmed suffers the worst from latency, since the game often fails to register player tag pickups until moments after the fact, at which point you’re likely to be shot for staring at your feet for too long.
Maps are as devoid of character as the game modes, almost entirely built around blue and grey industrial backdrops save for a few memorable landmarks and points of interest. They’re also littered with secret pathways, balconies, alleyways and elevators with which to evade and flank your opponents. Unfortunately, their sprawling nature also means you could be wandering around for up to a minute without any contact, especially given that the turnover of new players unfamiliar with the maps is high.
There are two mechanics that give Retribution some kind of respectability. The first of these is the HRV, short for Hyper Reality Visor, which makes a return from Tango Down. This gives you a limited amount of X-ray vision with which to spot allies and enemy players across the arena. Coupled with the labyrinthine maps, this ability could potentially introduce some tactical team play – at least if the average drop-in player wasn’t more interested in straightforward running and gunning to get their kicks.
Then there’s Retribution’s in-match points system, entirely separate from the other two economies, which you can use to unlock healing items, flamethrowers and wearable, mecha-like Hardsuits on the fly. Performing actions on the battlefield will accrue Combat Points (CP), which you retain even on death, and these can be traded in at a depot for your desired tool of mass destruction. At 1,300 CP, the Hardsuits are the most expensive, and little wonder given their potential to turn a match around. It’s worrying to see just how few are deployed at the time of writing, however. The game does such a poor job of explaining the CP system that new players – who make up a sizeable percentage of any given match right now – are unlikely to know that it’s there, or that it doesn’t require them to make a purchase.
Despite its age, Retribution is technically still in beta on PS4, but what’s here will hardly have you holding your breath in anticipation of what’s to come. Zombie seems to have neglected to account for the fact that free-to-play games are vying for a player’s time as well as their money. At a base level, this is simply too forgettable to give players a good enough reason to return. Perhaps it would be different if Zombie had been more lenient with its economy, allowing you to try more before committing to buy. Retribution may be free to play, but you’re also free to walk away. Right now, in the interests of saving both time and money, that’s the smarter option.