Bodycount – Hands-On Preview
Guildford Studios, the team behind Black, that “gun porn” PS2/Xbox title back in 2006, are out to refocus the FPS once again this August with Bodycount for the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3. Using stylized visuals, weapon-feel priority, and a unique cover system, does Bodycount have what it takes to compete with the big dogs? I got my hands on a preview build of three distinct missions to see just what kind of future it’s building toward.
If this was an actual review I would never think this worth mentioning, but it’s not so I just have to say, Bodycount has a really awesome frontend. Pieces of guns flying in a light-bloom filled void of weaponized travel with futuristic menus. It isn’t important at all but it just feels really cool and builds up my initial expectations. Moving on.
I’m only able to gather bits and pieces of the story as I jump from mission 2 to 4 to 11. From what I culled some generic Militia has assaulted a generic Army and your team, the generic Network, needs to stop them and their mysterious backer, the generic Target, who is connected somehow to a Datacore and a Nexus. Also there’s a female villain named Nemesis. Yes, these are all actual names used with actual capitalization. It’s okay, I laughed too.
Fortunately the style of Bodycount is less bland, just derivative. The outside environment of Mission 2 feels like a Borderlands base topped with Brink sensibilities. Mission 4′s Bunker interiors are a bit more interesting with dark futuristic constructs and Tron-style edge glows, while 11′s rainy Chinese fishing town looks like it was plucked straight from Black Op’s Kowloon.
Texture quality in this build was fine, but nothing great. Animations again were suitable, but without variety. Secondary objects, particularly those populating the shacks of Mission 2, were very low poly / low res and made me reminisce playing System Shock 2. I appreciate the memory but you shouldn’t be reminding me of a game from 1999.
Other aesthetic pieces include colored muzzle flashes that can help you find certain enemies in dark environments, and glowing orbs that offer ammunition, grenades, mines, and Intel, the game’s energy source. It’s a small gripe but on multiple occasions I actually had my view obstructed by uncollected orbs in hilly areas where I was fighting enemies from a distance.
The gameplay is certainly all about the guns but without Black’s complete tunnel vision. Using Intel the player can activate any of four boosts that are unlocked and enhanced throughout the game. These include an adrenaline spike that grants invulnerability and speed; explosive charges on bullets; an unimpressive “WMD” aerial bomb run; and a TPW radial ping that highlights enemy positions.
I don’t yet know the extent to which the boosts can be upgraded, or even the process of doing so, but in my playthrough I found only the adrenaline and explosive charges to be useful. Unfortunately their incredibly fast drain time means you’ll often get shredded as you stand in the middle of the field, having just gone on a short-lived Rambo run.
Guns feel great with serious weight behind each of them and noticeably distinct ranges, effectiveness, fire rates, and kickbacks between the various classes. The assault rifles in particular felt suitably powerful with the G36 proving ideal in controlling hectic medium-range engagements and the later Tavor offering a highly accurate long-range 3 burst coil. SMG’s burn through bullets but will shred opponents and environments from close range, shotguns are only good for surprise immediate distance engagements, and I found absolutely no use for the pistols.
Ammo is highly abundant, so long as you don’t go spewing everything into the air, ensuring you’ve always got rounds to stay in the fight. Grenades are a little difficult to aim and explode quickly. This is great for a quick cook, but disaster when you bounce back off an archway for the fifth time. You also have the ability to drop three mines but they ended up aiding my opponents more than me. All three are thrown at the same time with a range of about a foot meaning you likely won’t intercept charging enemies – the only real use since most opponents post up behind cover. What you get instead is successfully blowing up one baddie at the cost of all three exploding in your face.
All these death-dealing tools are good for more than just shredding flesh. Guildford Studios is putting a lot of tout behind their destructible environment engine. Sure, we’ve been playing with this stuff since the first Red Faction but it actually works surprisingly well in Bodycount. Ripping through an opponent’s cover with an SMG before switching to an AR and finishing the job feels good, as does using a shotgun to blast a new path through some derelict shacks.
But what works against your enemies applies to you as well and you’ll find that the accurate foes will quickly tear up most of what you duck behind. Searching for cover, and making the use of each you find, quickly becomes a hectic challenge of popping off shots before sprinting to a new location – the whole time looking for that one object you think might just be impenetrable.
Which leads to my favorite aspect of Bodycount and something I’ve never heard them mention: the cover system. When aiming down the sights of your weapon you actually become immobile, control being shifted instead to leaning left, right, and up (if crouched). While this certainly goes against my Call of Duty sensibilities, I think it works within Bodycount’s context. The aiming makes cover work in a first person perspective.
Particularly noticeable in sneaking missions like the beginning of 11, crouching and peaking from cover becomes a game of empowerment. The controls are dynamic meaning I can control how far I lean in any direction. A little nudge up on the stick allows me to just peak and survey while a full direction leans me out enough to pop off a headshot and drop back out of view.
Where the aiming does not work – and I mean at all – is when you’re in close range, particularly when wielding a shotgun. The only way to survive these confrontations is to shoot from the hip, but unless you’re touching faces with an enemy, you’re not going to deal enough damage with a shotgun to make the situation favorable. This is exactly where I want to be able to focus and strafe. Once I realized this I stopped equipping the shotgun and just stuck with the AR and SMG duo.
There is one other option for up close and personal but you won’t be using it. Melee is unresponsive and ineffectual. How is it that the big shooters can nail this mechanic but no one else has the sense to steal the function. Bodycount’s fault is in that it creates a delay between the button press and when you swing to account for pulling the gun away. Sure this might be a bit more realistic but where else is realism a priority in this game. Also, what other shooters do well is giving a bit of an auto-snap to help land the knife strike. Without it you’re often trying to cut the air – an action quickly punished.
Bodycount also incorporates a Skill Shot system though it’s never actually explained. Pulling off headshots, sneak attacks (called back stabs), and area kills all rewarding you with bonus score at the end. There are surely more, and I would have liked to attempt them, but the game never told me what they were. There is also a combo system in place but I didn’t find a discernible definition to its requirements.
I know Bulletstorm was relatively popular, and I don’t mind that games are adapting its “skills for kills” mechanic, but either make it a clear and upfront system, or don’t do it at all. Proudly completing a mission only to get a C ranking feels disheartening when I have no indication of what I could have done differently.
Something else that could use a little more directness is the health system. There is no onscreen meter, just an increasing number of blood spots on the screen and an increase in heavy breathing to let me know I’m in danger. I can get behind the immersion but I always died feeling like I had at least half of my life left. Three specks of blood does not indicate immediate death to me. It’s a little thing, I know, but when it directly impacts my ability to play the game it becomes worth evaluation.
I’m encouraged by my time for what Bodycount can turn out to be. Certainly not sold, but encouraged. The mechanics could be easily tweaked but the danger lies in the laughably ho-hum story. I love violent adolescent fantasies as much as the next gamer but I do need some decent motivation to carry on. Though it probably won’t have the legs to compete against Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 in the multiplayer arena, Bodycount’s cover system and destructible environments could offer a fresh online experience to those willing to dive in. We’ll know for sure when the game releases this August.