Think of Guildford Studios designer Stuart Black, and you should instantly recall his eponymous Black, the original "gun-porn," released in 2006, very late in the day for PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox. Today, Black is remembered more for its inspirational quality than its gameplay; elements of the game turn up in the PS3 Killzone titles, in more recent Call of Duty games, and in many other shooters of lesser reputation. Yet, in the console gaming world, five years is a long time, and outside the realm of FPS designers and aficionados, Black is largely forgotten. That's too bad because newly minted shooter fans still play aspects of Black every week.
Since the first previews of Bodycount, it's been widely labeled as a "spiritual successor" to the old game. No one officially called Bodycount a stand-in for the abandoned Black sequel, but many gamers assumed that's how it would come out. However, go into Bodycount looking for a current-gen Black, you're going to be disappointed. The similarities are distinct, but the new game falls far short of Black and many other shooters that lean on its innovative legacy for gunplay and fireworks.
Once upon a time, Bodycount had at least the promise of a developed narrative to underscore the action. Fragments remain, and there's a moment of intrigue in the middle of the game, but plot serves only as a weak excuse for tagging you up with cookie-cutter mission objectives. Ostensibly, you're a precision operative for an elusive organization known as "The Network," assigned to evaluate and suppress hotspot conflicts around the world. In reality, you're that guy from DOOM: nameless, faceless and with guns that fire so many rounds that no arms manufacturer can keep up with demand — though you never, ever actually run out of ammo. Bodycount is devoid of emotional sense, except unintentionally, in one place: when your silky voiced Network handler goes forever radio silent. The moment is not rife with high tension born of suddenly finding yourself alone in majestic peril. It's merely melancholy, like yet another lonely Saturday night.
Bodycount takes place in three distinct locales. You start in Africa and wind up in Asia, with intermittent missions in secret shadow operations facilities, but only one level visually distinguishes itself: a rain-soaked Asian urban area that's part ancient city, part contemporary metropolis. Though gameplay is limited to the streets and buildings of the old town, a modern skyline hangs over you, ever near but inaccessible. After that, everything goes back to looking like Africa.
All the high-tech, bad-guy facilities are cliché and absolutely alike. Even different sectors within the structures are virtually the same, with lots of glass and ceramic and electronics equipment of nebulous function. The mission design in these levels is painfully repetitive, too. For example, to disarm a self-destruct, you'll visit three switches in three identical rooms. A few missions later, you're back in the same rooms, flipping the same switches to rearm the self-destruct. This wouldn't be as much of an issue if not for the game's overall length, which, at a stretch, is only five hours long. That repeat mission takes place within an hour, not days of play later, following substantial story progression.
Bodycount's scenery, though as repetitive as its missions, looks good enough, with the exception of the secret organization facilities. They're awful. In appearance, if not layout, they remind me far too much of PS1 title, Kileak The Blood. The earthier surface environments are nice, fairly detailed, standing up all right to modern games. The color palette is of the rich and vibrant variety lately popularized by the PS3 hit Uncharted, although similar color schemes predominate in games as fundamentally different as Far Cry 2 and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
Clean, sleek and interestingly clothed African and Asian character models are hobbled by flawed animations. Like their home bases, the few different types of super-secret super-soldiers are decorated like sleeping pills: black armor with red and white accents, red armor with white and black accents, and white armor with red and black accents. With these soldier models, it's not merely pedestrian design; the copycat armor and coloring make it difficult to distinguish enemy types at a distance. You don't really know what you're up against until they're practically on top of you.
On the whole, enemy AI is dull-witted and thick. Once in the game, I saw some rebel warriors do something smart: climbing an incline for an elevated angle on my cover position. Enemies will advance on your position and infrequently try to flank you. If you fire on them from afar, they'll notice and come after you. Step past a charging enemy, and he'll stop right behind you, facing away — like, "If you're not in front of me, you don't exist." Lamentably, the clunking AI doesn't extend all the way to the game's laser-scoped snipers. They draw a bead on you, two shots, you're dead. The sniper situation could be challenging rather than frustrating, but for one whopping omission: You never get a scoped weapon. I'm coming up blank recalling a single other contemporary shooter with lots of enemy snipers and no opportunity to countersnipe.
Starting after the tutorial mission, you unlock fictional weapons and get access to them at swap stations, usually quite obviously placed near the start of a mission. The weapons selection isn't large or varied, and only a fraction of what's there is useful, but you can equip any unlocked weapon as primary or secondary. The first shotgun has roughly the stopping power of a thrown beach ball. The pistols are very accurate, yet so weak you can't do much with them against Bodycount's typically populous waves of enemy hordes. You can make it through the whole campaign with a couple of lesser submachine guns and the grenades. Your bountiful munitions also include land mines, which I useful for baiting heavy soldiers to chase me for explosive damage; the AI rarely bothers skirting mine traps. Still, I could get by just fine with impact grenades — stock grenades thrown overhand, like a fastball pitch, with a double-tap of the right shoulder button, exploding when they hit.
Your ammo, health and battlefield recon capability are augmented by some skills and enhancements tied to the d-pad arrows. The only one I found helpful, and scantly so, was explosive ammunition for primary and secondary guns. WMD airstrikes eventually unlock, though I never needed one except when it was thrice required by a mission objective. Deploying enhancements requires charging a meter by running over power-ups dropped by fallen enemies. There's an adrenaline-fueled berserker perk, too, but I'd rather have on-screen cues much better at conveying that, yes, you really are that close to dying. Several times in the campaign, I seemed at most a little worse for wear, but an enemy sneezed near me, and I was dead. I'd also like to have a reload-mechanic-that-makes-sense perk. Charge up the meter, tap the assigned d-pad arrow, and stop having to randomly reload weapons you just reloaded. That would have been nice.
Save for the midpoint and endpoint, mission design is of the shooter-standard type: seek, find, activate, and then seek, find and activate something else. There's a whole school of thought that says to not put boss battles in straight-up FPS games. Bodycount's designers seem like they attended class at that school, but dropped out before graduating. At the game's middle and finale, there are boss battles, perhaps just for covering all the bases of stark, bland game design. Both battles oppose the same foe. Both require you do the exact same thing three times before strolling victorious into an emergency extraction aircraft that you never see. Cut scenes are brief, without anything of interest to watch. You can skip them, but then you'd have no idea why you're doing what you're doing. Of course, I didn't skip them, but I still had no idea why I was doing what I was doing.
At the end of every mission, you're presented with a summary screen with a letter grade based upon on how high you jacked up your multiplier with skill kills. Skill kills are the usual things: headshots, headshots behind cover, grenade kills, explosive environment kills, etc. There are also some unusual things: grenade kill near dying, headshot kill near dying, and, simply, shred. Then there's the completely inexplicable "zombie grenade," which sounds a lot like something you'd exclaim after smashing your thumb with a hammer in the company of children. You know, "Motherfah—! Oh, ah … zombie grenade!"
The summary screen includes a button to have a glance at your Xbox Live Gamercard. It's apparently superfluous, until you see how this thing doles out achievements. If you're looking to boost your Gamerscore, Bodycount has 400 or 500 GS for you, just for sprinting through the main campaign.
To check all the boxes on the FPS design form, Bodycount includes online multiplayer via XBL. It even has online co-op, but to be clear on the point, it's just co-op survival with a single additional player. The other multiplayer modes are competitive: deathmatch and team deathmatch. The FPS checklist Guildford used for Bodycount did not have boxes for "capture the flag" or "king of the hill" or anything like that. It's just the three modes, keeping you nicely entertained for perhaps a wintry Sunday afternoon.
As you leave this bit of criticism, please don't think I didn't enjoy playing Bodycount. Indeed, I had a blast zipping through the main campaign. The game has some things going for it. Weapons sound effects are nicely produced, deep and suitably thunderous without scaling paint off walls. Mission save points are almost universally well placed; seldom was I frustrated at having to repeat what I deemed too long a stretch. If this were a budget downloadable shooter, I might shout its sweet name from some pretty lofty hilltops, but Bodycount is billed as a full-sized contemporary FPS and sold at a full-sized price. While the gunplay is fun and the mechanics unhindered by brick-wall sticking points, there's nowhere near enough content delivered to justify the big green plastic case with its commensurately large price tag.
More articles about Bodycount