Jared Gerritzen, the new Creative Studio Head of Zombie Studios, knows his team has a history to overcome. From titles like Blackwater to the Saw videogame adaptations, Zombie hasn't put out a game that felt like it showcased the studio's potential -- until now. Their upcoming, free-to-play first-person shooter Blacklight: Retribution defies the expectations set by their previous games, taking the best ideas from other titles and integrating them into the design. The online shooter market may be flooded, but Retribution stands a chance to break away from the crowd.
One of the most common questions Gerritzen remembers while working on Blacklight: Tango Down was, "why would I play this instead of Call of Duty?" To try and keep this sentiment from becoming associated with Retribution, the entire development plan was different. Zombie decided it wasn't going to just try and make something good enough for a "downloadable game," as Gerritzen said, acknowledging the somewhat more lenient connotation that phrase often has, but something that's so good you want it to be your primary shooter. Retribution isn't meant to be a distraction or a palette cleanser, but your go-to game for when you need a shooter fix.
To reach a bigger audience Zombie abandoned the typical one-time purchase monetization route, instead choosing to develop Retribution as a free-to-play game. Just like the Call of Duty series, Retribution is all about giving you customization options and unlockables. The difference is that Blacklight has several tiers of unlockables: those you earn through experience, those you buy with in-game currency and a few, non-balance-altering ones that only money can buy. You can also pay money to unlock things without hitting the required level, but that's merely trading cash to lessen the time investment. The point of having so many unlockables is that you always have something else to go for, something else you can nab to make your weapon or your character that much fancier.
A lot of games list customization as one of their bullet points, but Blacklight: Retribution takes it further than most. You can change your weapon's barrel, stock, sight and more, but every benefit comes with a cost. For instance you might put on a stock that increases your reload speed, but this will increase your recoil. Armor, too, can be layered onto your soldier so you can make him as beefy or fast as you'd like, min-maxing his stats until he syncs with your playstyle. If you want a behemoth that can soak up the damage he'll probably move like a tank, whereas a squishy soldier will fly all over the map.
Any soldier can use any gun, so to define your role on the battlefield you assign your soldier specific skills. Skills are unlocked as you level up your account, and enable your soldier to heal players or vehicles, go invisible or maybe just carry around a gigantic, deployable shield. Other shooters tend to make classes and roles much less flexible but in Blacklight you can create the loadout you want. Go ahead, be the field medic with a ton of armor and a shotgun, or the cloaking guy with a heavy machine gun.
Zombie also felt they had to up the graphical bar to make Retribution competitive. Blacklight: Tango Down didn't look bad, but it certainly paled in comparison to its full retail release competitors. Thus Zombie started creating Blacklight: Retribution in Unreal 3, enabling DirectX 11 and pushing the limits of what people typically think of when they hear "free." It paid off too, as Retribution shines on a powerful rig (read more about that in our last preview). The environments are all usually pretty industrial looking (not what I'd typically call beautiful in real life), but but remain striking nonetheless.
The smartest decision the team at Zombie made in their mission to make Retribution a true competitor is openly acknowledging the most popular games. Team Fortress 2's Payload gametype is also one of its most popular, and Zombie's integrated its own version of this into Retribution called Siege. The difference in Siege is that you don't just push a defenseless bomb, but instead guide a four-legged walker through the environment, which one player can hop inside and operate a turret. Modes like this and their interpretation of Modern Warfare 3's Kill Confirmed mode, which will be released post-launch, should make sure newcomers can jump in and find familiar ground.
Likewise they've learned from Call of Duty that people like mid-match rewards for high-performance. Thus they put in their own version of Killstreak Rewards, with the key differences being you don't have to get them all on one life, and you can earn them in a number of ways. You start by customizing your character's loadout with the rewards that you want. Then once you're in battle, you earn combat points for completing objectives, getting kills, healing teammates and more. Anytime you can afford a mid-mission reward you can run to one of many terminals and buy them. The rewards range from things like rocket launchers to mechs that you can call in from the sky, hopping in and blasting your foes to pieces.
Zombie's putting its own spin on others great ideas, but also putting forth a few of their own as well. The team has blended together capture the flag and control point gametypes, creating something they call NetWar. Here two teams fight over four control points on a map, gaining points for each one they hold. Additionally, a single flag is located on the map, and players can snag it and return it to a team-controlled point for more points.
It's the next Beastie Boys music video.
On top of a unique mode, Retribution also has a core gameplay mechanic that sets it apart. Anyone on the battlefield can switch on a temporary vision enhancement through their Hyper Reality Visor (HRV). HRV operates on a cooldown timer, and allows you to look through walls and see enemy locations for a very limited time. It keeps players focused on the action, and also helps you track down pesky campers and players looking to flank you. It sounded a bit cheap at first, but since every player has it no one is at a disadvantage. Basically, it forces you to change how you play, using your HRV at key moments in order to hold a point, and to think about building a load out that can counter other player's abilities to track you.
It remains to be seen whether or not the design choices Zombie Studios has made with Blacklight: Retribution will help propel it to success, but so far it already looks better than anything the studio has ever done. No matter how the game performs when it releases on April 3rd, the studio is set to overcome the shadows of its past.