If you tend to stick only to major blockbuster shooters for your online multiplayer, then there’s a good chance that you are unfamiliar with Zombie Games’ Blacklight Tango Down. A download-only online shooter that offered a less expensive multiplayer experience, Tango Down was far from a perfect game, but fans have been waiting to hear if the impending sequel would be righting any wrongs. MMO publisher Perfect World has recently acquired Zombie Games, and brought the team along to E3 2011 to give a hands-on look at the bigger and better sequel, Blacklight Retribution.

For the uninitiated, Retribution is a free-to-play online competitive shooter that is coming exclusively to the PC. Combining futuristic weapons with customizable loadouts and equipment in a futuristic military setting is nothing new, but Zombie Lead Designer Jared Gerritzen stressed that the team is doing everything in their power to make Retribution better than its predecessor.

We got to play the game for ourselves at Perfect World’s E3 booth, and fans and outsiders alike will want to pay attention. Gerritzen explained that Retribution’s release will be coming only to the PC this time around, not consoles of any kind. While that may not be good news to console owners, the decision was made to take full advantage of the Unreal Engine 3 provided by those over at “Uncle Epic,” and to capitalize on the full potential of DirectX 11.

And boy, does it. From the textures to the lighting and everything in between, there is no mistaking the quality of UE3, and the devs at Zombie are keen to act as one of the first showcases of the engine, fully adopting all features of DX 11.

But graphics aren’t the only way Retribution looks to change the game. The most annoying aspect of online shooters are the few moments following respawn where players must aimlessly race from their spawn point back to the fun, and the developers at Zombie have come up with an interesting solution to the problem.

It’s called the HRV: the Hyper Reality Visor. With the push of a button, you’re able to see through the walls and floors of the entire level, highlighting team members, enemies, control points and weapon depots. As the developers describe it, it’s like having “a legal wall-hack.”

The addition of the skill was obviously a dangerous risk, running the possibility of breaking the game entirely, but in practice it works perfectly. The skill itself must be cooled down once used, and isn’t intended to give some players an advantage over others, only to keep the pace of combat fast.

While there were a few times during the demo when the HRV proved useful in ambushing a few players, it’s most often used in the manner the developers intended; finding enemies after spawning in order to run headlong into action. After all, every player is capable of using it, so gaining an advantage with the HRV isn’t easy.

Blacklight Retribution Preview

No multiplayer title is complete without customizable weapons and armor, and the combinations offered in Retribution are both stylish and useful. The standard approach is applied here: upgrades come via kills, with extra in-match credits able to be used to purchase extra weaponry via a number of weapon depots that populate the map.

Accessing the depots means players can purchase flamethrowers, rocket launchers, and the one item that every player will surely be gunning for – a mechanical Hardsuit. Operating one of the Hardsuit mechs is incredibly satisfying, and while the device may have been accessible immediately in the demo, it’s sure to offer the kind of satisfaction that players will be willing to work for.

Zombie was also quick to show that they’ve learned from their competition, voicing their frustration with other titles that give players little impact against heavy weaponry. As they see it, players need to choose to either flee or be wiped out, so Retribution‘s Hardsuit comes at a price. Not only are you unable to access your HRV, but each Hardsuit is dropped with a randomly-generated weak point. Rocket launchers and flamethrowers can easily take out a mech, but concentrated team gunfire on a displayed weakpoint works just as well.

Still not convinced? Check out the trailer for Retribution now:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MifsdvhWjoY

Our hands-on time was unquestionably fun, and definitely recalled memories of fast-paced yet tactical online shooters like Counter-Strike, which is always a good thing. Blacklight Retribution will have plenty of competition in the free-to-play FPS market with both Ghost Recon Online and BattlefieldPlay4Free, and until the game is seen in less-than-ideal circumstances we’ll have to reserve judgement.

But the gameplay shown so far is a good sign of tech being put to good use, and the price can’t be ignored. We look forward to getting more time with Blacklight Retribution after its launch later this year, and will be sure to bring you more news on it and any other games seen this week at E3 2011.

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