Developer: Guildford Studio / Publisher: Codemasters / Played on: PlayStation 3 (also available on Xbox 360) / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature (Blood, Violence)
It’s hard to think of a time in the history of video games that has featured more shooters than in the last 12 months. Yet that doesn’t necessarily translate into an FPS paradise. For every well-rated Crysis 2, there’s a lukewarm Homefront. Then there are shooters that are catered to specialized tastes, like the single player-leaning Bulletstorm. The most recent entry in the genre is Bodycount, a game that many consider to be the spiritual successor to 2006’s Black, as Bodycount was developed by a number of former designers from Criterion Games.
There’s an amusing amount of premeditated vagueness with the narrative. You play a nameless operative working for a direct, by-the-book “global stability” organization known as the Network. Your C.O. is a confident, friendly, and helpful female voice, the overly observant kind who sounds like she’s standing right next to you. You start off looking to help quell unrest in West Africa and soon find that, unsurprisingly, there’s a secret organization–which the Network dubs ‘The Target’–that is pulling the strings.
What is perplexing are the various reasons why you’re taking on certain missions. You eventually arrive in China to follow a lead on clues connecting the African militants and The Target. The problem is that The Target outpost in Africa was actually revealed in a prior mission, hidden within a militant stronghold! So I don’t know what additional info you would actually need to put two and two together. Ultimately, it becomes hard to care what your motivation is aside from wanting to shoot enemies and make it to the end of the levels.
One of the best parts about Black was how much detail and sense of authenticity was placed on the weapons. That influence has been felt in many shooters since. It’s all the more perplexing that a game like Bodycount highlights a gun in both the boxart and the main menu but doesn’t deliver anything remarkable with the weapon selection. As Epic Games and other AAA studios have taught us, it’s not like we’ve run out new ways to innovate weapons in 2011. At least you can say that Bodycount’s inventory is more than decent, with a variety of pistols, machine guns, and special weapons to give you pause in deciding what two weapons to bring into a mission. There’s the predictable range in attributes where one gun might have a great firing rate, but deals poorer damage than other weapons. Two guns in hand, you’ll also start off with a good helping of grenades and mines.
Any decent shot won’t have a problem keeping ammo, grenade, and mine supplies full because the enemy kills drop a ton of supplies. This also includes the oddly named ‘intel’ drops which have nothing to do with secret documents. Intel in Bodycount fills up your power-up meter, which can be used to activate one of any four enhancements. These include temporary invincibility, more potent ammo, and even an airstrike.
It’s a pretty sad thing when a shooter’s story mode feels like a series of recycled maps from the multiplayer mode, but that’s what Bodycount delivers. Granted, this cross-mode rehashing of maps isn’t anything unusual for the genre, but you start to see the limitations of Bodycount’s level design by the fifth stage, when you backtrack through a map explored in a previous mission.
What it does have going for it is that the maps are “wide-linear” in design. They’re large by today’s multiplayer standards and they add a sense exploration to single player. Unlike many other more linear shooters, it can be easy to miss a handful of enemies in a mission. Sometimes these foes will make you pay for it by attacking you from the rear while you’re busy dealing with what’s in front of you.
The game’s high points come in those tense situations when you’re situating yourself behind cover, only to be reminded that many cover spots are fragile and do not last after being hit by a couple dozen rounds. The drawback is that there aren’t enough of these pulse-racing situations; often you can find better spots to recover health as well as ways to exploit enemy AI.
A couple times I got an added rush in areas where cover wasn’t useful at all due to having to deal with overwhelming numbers. In these situations it was gratifying to just be constantly moving, unloading rounds with tact, timing reloads well, and using temporary invincibility wisely. You could imagine what it would be like to multitask in the midst of combat where you rely on picking up ammo and intel as you fire and consume power-ups.
The emphasis on diving right into the midst of battle feels like something the developers wanted to encourage, but didn’t successfully pull off. There’s a stress on scoring when getting kills with skill, like headshots, kills while near death, and explosion-based kills. Yet as Bulletstorm taught us, shooters have to be especially creative to get gamers interested in score-based incentives. Even if Bulletstorm wasn’t around to compare Bodycount to, there’s really not much incentive to perform well, although it should be noted that the hit-detection for headshots is surprisingly large. Moreover, the only mode outside of multiplayer is a redundant mode called Bodycount, which is essentially a mode that lets you replay previously cleared missions. It also seems odd that a mode that claims to place an emphasis on scoring bothers to keep the cutscenes from the campaign.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
It appears that one bright side to having few maps is that the studio managed to spend more time making them detailed. There’s an impressive amount of rust and wear, especially in the African setting. The one deviation from this level of detail are the half-dozen or so Target bases, which feel out of place, so much so that they feel like they were intended for another game that had been scrapped. The futuristic sterility of these levels have a Tron-meets-the-Apple-Store vibe about them and includes Michael Bay-inspired light bloom excesses.
The most visible indicator of Bodycount’s generic design is the lack of variety with the character models. It feels like each given map has their own set of three to four enemy types; this might work for other games, but not one where each level has over 50 enemies. You know the repetitiveness gets bad when you lose that desire to take out every enemy and just try to make a break for the mission exit.
When a game is generic, it can also often become derivative. Such is the case with the music, which is unremarkable, the exception being the dramatic-sounding main menu theme song.
As mentioned, the multiplayer modes share the same maps as the story and lend to deathmatches decently due to their size. The problem is that the all the aforementioned issues of derivative game design apply here. There are very few maps, and aside from deathmatch and team deathmatch, there’s only one other mode, which is a co-op 20-enemy wave survival mode. While these modes can have their moments of satisfaction with mine or stealth kills as well as using power-ups to help turn the tide, the overall experience isn’t especially remarkable after more than two hours or so.
I look back on my playthrough of Black fondly, as a top notch shooter on the original Xbox that could have been mistaken as an Xbox 360 launch title. For all the Criterion/Black-related hype that went into Bodycount, the end result is a disappointingly generic shooter that controls well, but doesn’t offer anything that shooter fans haven’t played before. As the post-Rare studio Free Radical Design unintentionally proved, you can easily lose the magic of past projects if the follow-ups fail to retain enough of the personnel from those previous titles.
6 / 10