After 35,693 shots fired, 583 grenades thrown and 2,184 bad guys killed, Bodycount's single-player mode lies bleeding before me. All seven hours and eight minutes of it. And I'm happy to report it was damn fun shooting holes in everything. In that respect, it is a big success. However, I was under the impression that the game would really come into its own on repeat plays in the eponymous Bodycount mode – and that's where things have gone awry.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. For those who've never encountered Bodycount before, it's a first-person shooter designed to put the fun back into shooting things. From the creators of Black (although with Stuart Black himself quitting the project before it was complete), it's similarly heavy on the destruction and all about the simple joy of firing a gun.
Above: Firing guns at things often ends in mass destruction. Which is as it should be, of course
I can't think of many FPS games with as much emphasis on weapon balance, which Bodycount excels at. Most games have shotguns that are predictably super-powerful up close but lose their sting rapidly over distance, but it's all exaggerated here, to great effect. Explosive grenade launchers are ludicrously powerful but take an absolute age to reload. And the silenced pistol is fast and quiet, but you need to be bang on with the accuracy or you're dead. It all translates into on-the-fly tactical changes that seriously turn the tables of combat.
There's a small amount of snap-to if you squeeze the aim button, but it's not enough to make this a skill-free experience. I did find myself using the trigger more for this feature, however, than the interesting walk/stand/lean mechanic that lets you squeeze the trigger to different degrees depending which effect you want. Leaning is fun, however, especially if you pretend to dodge bullets like Neo out of The Matrix.
That's not the only similarity with Keanu's finest hour (well, second-finest hour after Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, naturally), as once you get through a few levels of naturalistic environments, suddenly you find yourself inside a very futuristic bunker.
Above: Bit of a curve ball, these sections. But they're ultra-challenging, even on Normal
It looks more like Capcom's Gamecube classic P.N.03 than anything else, and practically recreates the Matrix's lobby shootout in every room. Taking cover, waiting for reload gaps and leaning out to take a pot shot works really well and I can't help but think perhaps this futuristic concept should have been explored further. It has quite a distinct feel and could have had its own game.
But instead, it's used for variety (which is still commendable) and you soon find yourself back above ground, exploring a new area. From Africa to Asia, every setting has its own colour theme, meaning you can tell pretty much instantaneously how far through the game any screenshot is.
Above: Now, I like the orange area, but I also like the blue area. But which is best? Only one way to find out...
Asia's blue works beautifully, especially when the rain is hammering down. The sound effect of the rain on a tin roof is superb with stereo headphones on, especially with the gunfire, explosions and collapsing masonry sounding so good alongside it.
However, the music isn't so hot. It's generically themed to the area you're in, sure, but it's pretty featureless and all melody is passed up in favour of orchestral stabs and repeating ostinato patterns that get tiresome very quickly, especially when you're stuck looking for a way to reach the next waypoint marker.
It is frustrating when you're enjoying yourself immensely and then suddenly it all goes quiet because you've killed everyone and haven't found the next spawn trigger. You can see where you're supposed to go by the little on-screen marker (complete with distance reading), but signposting is pretty poor.
I always found my way eventually, but there were several occasions where I simply didn't know where I should be going. The coast in the bay was one, and another was outside the mine. It breaks up the action and could have been fixed so easily.
Impressively, the game doesn't get boring even when you're stuck on a particularly difficult section. I lost count the number of times I died and restarted on the Pirate Bay (when you're tracking a general in the warehouse). It's damn hard. But while the challenge itself was fine, it was the restart point that frustrated me.
Above: There's the warehouse in the background, guarded by a suicide bomber. Nice
You see, I'd found the general. I'd killed the guards, flushed him out and followed him to the other end of the map. And I killed him with a grenade. Mission updated – great. But then a sniper shot to the head cost me my life… at which point I was put back to the run-up to the warehouse. That's not fair. And it's not the only time a tough mission objective is cleared but you can still die and go back to the section before it - it happens quite often.
The game is still all about the action wherever you are in the narrative, so it doesn't grate for quite a while as you reattempt tricky sections, but reloading for the umpteenth time does start to stretch that willingness to try again.
I could live with the repeated set-backs if you only had to do it once in the campaign mode, but Bodycount mode sees the exact same instances of repeat deaths happening all over again. Why's that? Because you're literally doing everything again in exactly the same way.
The idea is that you play through previously-cleared levels, trying to better your grade for the level, then you compare your Bodycount score with your friends via online leaderboards. A great idea in theory, but it's incredibly under-developed.
You don't get to keep your unlocked weapons from the campaign mode, instead travelling back in time to the unlocks you had when you started that level. They're the same for everyone as there's no weapon shop here, but the game is replaying everything like it's the first time you saw the level. The first mission even has the tutorial instructions again! That's not a bespoke score attack mode, it's a level select.
Above: Bodycount mode is a glorified level select, only with your mates' scores next to it
Then there's the scoring system. The combo idea is solid enough – skill shots like grenade kills, headshots, explosion deaths and 'backstabbing' attacks from behind earn you a point on your combo meter. I could argue that it's somewhat haphazard, but let's say for argument's sake that you can pull these things off deliberately every time.
It's not based at all on perfection or clever ways to keep your combo up. The time between kills can be really long and will stay active as long as the skill shot kills keep coming. And while dying does stop your combo, it doesn't seem to affect your overall score. I died about 20 times replaying the Pirate Bay (same bit with the damn general), yet my 16-strong combo at the start earned me an A-grade. I didn't deserve an A-grade – I was embarrassingly bad in the latter half.
Above: Sure, my 19 combo was decent, but I died so many times. I do not deserve that 'A'
As a result, this score-attack mode is unlikely to see friends competing in earnest for bragging rights, which is a shame. I mean, The Club's scoring system is brilliantly balanced, yet even that didn't take off – what chance does this have?
It all comes back to the Operative Support Button, which is assigned to the D-pad and gives you access to four different boosts in all but the first few levels of the game, each of which using different amounts of your intel bar. At preview stage, this looked like being Bodycount's biggest asset, with the idea being you get more intel from enemies killed while using the OSB, thus souping up the action into a non-stop barrage of usage, reward and replenishment. However, after finishing the game, I'm not convinced it quite works like that.
The adrenaline shot works very well, giving you near-invincibility for a scant few seconds and really is your best friend in a tricky situation. However, the explosive rounds' effect wears off so quickly (and leaves you without that crucial adrenaline shot safety cushion), it's not really worth using in a firefight.
Likewise, the Radar upgrade is only really useful when it's become a sort of EMP-style weapon, sending out a lethal shockwave. However, this is only ever essential in the final boss battle (that's not a spoiler – the game comes up with a message explicitly telling you to use it so there can be no misunderstandings).
Above: Your OSB buttons get upgraded as you progress through the campaign, but are underplayed in single-player
And that leaves the airstrike, which is brilliant fun, but takes up so much intel (and only works outside), you only really get to use it when the game requires you to. I don't think I got to use it of my own volition once in regular combat during my entire play-through, which is probably better for game balance, but definitely not for player enjoyment.
Just when you start to think maybe the OSB (and, indeed, Bodycount itself) is turning out to be a bit guff after all its promise, you hit multiplayer mode. And suddenly, it makes a metric tonne of sense. For instance, each time you die, you are given a small amount of intel again when you spawn. Tap left on the OSB and you can immediately see the location of enemies around you (those higher or lower denoted with a small arrow in the appropriate direction).
It means kill streaks are not kept up not because you found body armor or an overpowered energy sword. Instead, they're kept up by using the intel you gather from felled enemies wisely. You shouldn't waste it all on an air strike or explosive rounds. You could use it to find your enemy, then switch to adrenaline and jump over the barrier he's cowering behind to fight him head on.
Above: Multiplayer maps can be vetoed by the majority, just like in CoD. But they're all decent
The destructible environments really come into their own in multiplayer, perhaps due to human behaviour that makes destroying a foe's last vestige of shelter so damn satisfying. Seeing someone turn and run is a wonderful power trip… as is hearing a distant explosion as some hapless individual steps on the landmines you laid several minutes ago. And at last, the 'I shot him a million times and he didn't die' whining can stop. He was using adrenaline, OK? Done.
Above: Standing out in the open like this is a very bad idea. But where can you hide?
While the shouts from the rebels that announced their presence in single-player is off-putting when you know there's no-one else around, the dip in ambient sound while someone speaks over voice chat is particularly slick. In fact, the fluidity of the overall experience is very close to the single-player game. There's perhaps a little more draw-in than during offline play, but it's solid and (pre-release) commendably lag-free. We'll see how the servers hold up when it's out.
Surprisingly for a shooter that's so perfect for party play, there's no offline multiplayer at all – you have to be connected to Xbox Live to get into a match with your mates. However, co-op is at least its own mode and not another retread of the single-player campaign.
This mode sees you facing waves of enemy attack, which plays really well (I went into more depth of this mode here if you want to learn its ins and outs). With the level of destruction and challenge just as strong as the single-player, I can see a lot of people enjoying this, but it's hardly CoD Zombies.
While I wouldn't say I enjoyed Bodycount as much as the equally short-lived Vanquish, Bodycount has really succeeded in making the process of shooting things fun again. There's so much action, it's impossible not to have fun with this game. Words can't really describe how chaotic and explosive it is, so I've made a short video to illustrate a typical section of gameplay:
There's always a sense of danger and the horror of realising the cover you've taken refuge behind is about as much use as an ice cream wafer against the barrage of shells heading towards you is genuinely exhilarating. And, while those restart points are annoying, as with Tomb Raider, the knowledge that death is going to undo a lot of progress does make you value your virtual life.
I don't think there's anything bad I could say of the gameplay, except perhaps that no cover is ever truly safe, as even solid rock can have a grenade chucked behind it. It is 'samey' if you consider you just shoot bad guys from start to finish, but that's what the game was designed to be. It's a shooting game you can just pick up and enjoy. It does that exceedingly well.
The grenades are fun, the mines are fun...
Above: Try not to giggle like a naughty schoolboy when you place mines everywhere
...the little electronic noise that sounds when you pick up intel is cute and the later weapons are ludicrously satisfying (even if they do take that age to reload). It's challenging, good-looking, technically accomplished and designed with the player's freedom in mind. And little touches like shot sounds changing with more electronic bloops as you near the end of your clip as an audio cue to reload are clever.
So it's not the gameplay that I take exception to at all. In fact, it's the game's sheer enjoyment factor that's saved this from a kicking. I really got into Bodycount because it lets you approach it in so many different ways - and makes you feel clever while you're at it.
But there's no denying, aside from the enjoyable and well-weighted multiplayer, pretty much everything around that core experience of destroying things with big weapons is flaky. Big time flaky. But thankfully, happiness really is a warm gun, even if it is on the 50th respawn before that damn warehouse.
31 Aug, 2011
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