When I first encountered Bodycount as an incomplete demo at E3 2010, I fell in love. The game was far from complete, but I spent 45 minutes talking to Bodycount creator and lead developer Stuart Black, and his gleefully explained vision for the game sold me entirely. I looked forward to what I thought would be a bleak and bleakly hilarious take on first person shooters, and one of the games to play in 2011.
Alas, things didn’t work out that way. Bulletstorm ended up being the bleak, hilarious first person shooter people need to play. And Bodycount? In every way that counts – the vaunted destructable environment, gameplay, story, setting and plot – it is a dashed opportunity, a cheap, obviously unfinished mess of a game that gamers should avoid.
Bodycount (XBox360 [Reviewed], PC, PS3)
Developer: Guilford Studio
Release Date: August 30, 2011
That Bodycount was heading for FAIL city should have been obvious when, just over a month after E3 2010, Stuart Black abruptly announced he would be leaving the project and quitting Codemasters. Having now spent almost a week with this turgid mess, I am convinced that Codemasters and Black clashed over the game’s tone and story, and Black bailed rather than publish a game he no longer had any control over.
Bodycount absolutely reeks of cheapness and of copping out at every turn. Take the story, which Black described to me personally as essentially a gleeful satire of global capitalism, western militarism and the war on terror, influenced directly by comic writer Garth Ennis, creator of the ultra-disturbing Preacher series. Elements of that tone were already present in the demo. There’s the idea that a corporate mercenary is inflicting tremendous carnage in some of the poorest regions on earth; the bland, robotic voice of a corporate automaton informing you of critical mission info (“you have a [click] zero chance of survival. Please improve these odds. Your safety is important to us.”); the faceless organization that employs the player character.
Those elements do show up in the final game… in exactly the same form I saw in 2010. “Great,” you’re thinking, “that means it wasn’t nerfed, right?”, but not so fast. These elements aren’t expanded in the slightest. They lie there, limp and pointless, suggesting that at one point a brilliant game was in development but that the team just kind of gave up halfway through.
There’s also the fact that Bodycount has almost no cut scenes to speak of, and the ones it does have are weirdly animated trifles that offer up a smattering details, but do little to further the story. Instead, Bodycount relies on a voiceover-only mission control character who gives you your mission briefings, supplies new objectives, and explains every detail of the ‘plot’ as the story demands. And in case you’re wondering, the game doesn’t even begin with a cut scene – you’re just dumped right into your first mission and informed by mission control of the ultra goody-goodness of your mission. No context is given, no story is explained, no background is provided; it’s a flagrant violation of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule of good storytelling and the first indication that Bodycount is going to be a cheap, half-assed affair.
Literally every important detail of the game’s weak plot is provided to you via boring Mission Control infodumps. Which, by the way, coexist with the dry, robotic customer care updates whose tone directly contradicts that of mission control. The result is a very weird mood whiplash where one moment you’re somewhat amused by “Please note that you are near death” and the next annoyed by ultra-earnest assurances such as “don’t worry, I’m with you… all the way. We’ll get through this together!”
All of this indicates to me that the development team was essentially ordered to change the tone and the result is a bland, inoffensive plot grafted to the abandoned ‘edgy’ one. That creates a more troubling problem. The abandonment of all but the most superficial satirical elements causes Bodycount to play its theme very straight, and you end up literally playing a heroic white guy going into impoverished slums and killing armies of generic, scary brown people. Codemaster’s apparent inability to see that is… problematic to say the least.
But Bodycount’s problems don’t end with the weak, non-existent story and unexamined… moral issues. The game is also one of the most repetitive play-experiences in recent memory. You’ll travel to remote locations across the world, but wherever you are, levels follow the same pattern:
* Arrive in a dumpy slum and blow things up.
* Complete mission objectives that fall into “Go here, hack this, kill that” categories.
* Eventually discover the secret, futuristic lair of Bodycount’s big bad, “The Target”
* Explore secret lair, kill baddies.
* Complete mission objectives (see above).
* Blow the facility up
Literally every single level follows this pattern. And equally unimaginative are the enemies you’ll face. In the first half of a given mission, bad guys fall into exactly 2 categories: regular mooks who serve as ammo fodder, and big fat mini-bosses who carry miniguns and take longer to kill. No matter where you are, Africa, China, they will always fall into these two categories. In the secret lair, you get two other categories: faceless “Target” soldiers who are incredibly hard to kill due to the game’s fake difficulty, and a recurring Boss character you can’t actually kill for most of the game, who only shows up to drop nonsense plot details and further confuse an already convoluted game.
Fighting those enemies is simultaneously frustrating and boring. The game relies on cheap fake-difficulty at every turn. First, by overwhelming you with zerg-rush tactics as a substitute for real challenges. Second, by substituting some kind of functional AI with pattern based attacks as if it were 1992. You’ll end up spending more time memorizing these patterns and learning to operate around them than you will actually playing tactically. Another particularly shameless bit of fake-difficulty is Bodycount’s inconsistent respawn points. Sometimes, checkpoints are so far apart that when you respawn, you have to perform the same repetitive tasks again and again just to get back to the real action. Other times, you’ll respawn in the middle of everything. One level even has a respawn point with 10 enemies who immediately start firing on you. It’s as though Codemasters set out to recreate the kind of shooter you’d play on a Gamecube and still got it wrong.
The only positive thing about fighting in Bodycount is in the way the ‘destructable’ environment affects combat. You can’t really take cover effectively for very long, so you’ll learn rather quickly to duck and weave, to dodge and lure instead of digging in. I really liked it, but sadly, it only goes so far. It’s kind of annoying how, no matter how many barricades, walls and cover landmarks you can blow up or chip away, you can never actually do real damage to buildings. And that includes the shantytowns. Seriously, the game has shanties that are impervious to explosives.
If you were to tell me that Bodycount is a fan created mod of Codemaster’s earlier shooter, Black, I would believe you, and I’d be impressed. But this is a major studio effort, and the word “Geographic” doesn’t begin to describe how obviously incomplete its graphics are. Even in the chaotic shanties and ghettos, obvious lines call out the vector graphics of a game at least a year from completion. The best one can say is that they were about 6 months away from delivering a really great looking game.
One is ultimately left with the impression that whatever that game might have been, when Stuart Black abandoned ship, Codemasters just pulled up some second stringers and ordered them to slap some paint on it, pour hi-octane oil in the engine, dial back the odometer and hope it passes inspection long enough for a mark to take it off their hands.
Buried beneath half-assed level designs, repetitive enemies and grueling fake-difficulty, there is a kernel of a great game. Had it been released as a download-only title, it might even have been impressive. But the fact that a game this flawed was released as a full priced title is an insult. And do you know what we do to people who insult us?
We ignore them until they go away.