Bodycount First Look
Stuart Black takes us through the influences of Codemasters' upcoming shooter and we go hands-on with an early build.
How do you make a first-person shooter "soft?" Add HBO, a bit of J. J. Abrams, a futuristic style, and a dash of Lady Gaga. Confused? You're not alone, but it's that heady amalgam of influences that all combine to create Codemasters' upcoming Bodycount, a first-person shooter from Codies' Guildford Studio. The project is being led by Stuart Black, the creative force behind 2006's notorious FPS for the PlayStation 2, Black (you remember "gun porn," don't you?) As with Black, there is a strong vision behind Bodycount, one that aims to make this game stand out from the always-crowded FPS space through an interesting mix of humor, sci-fi visuals, and raw firepower.
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So, let's talk about "soft" for a minute, which is a term Stuart Black brought up several times while recently giving us a demo of the game. Based on the game's tranquil front end--with calming music and an attractive menu system--which Codemasters games have come to be known for, you'd think this game would be about a magical space butterfly that shoots puffy white hypno bubbles at his friends to give them sweet nappy-time dreams. Far from it. Instead, this game is called "Bodycount," and as a result, the bodies will pile up as you play as a character named Jackson who has recently been recruited by a mysterious organization known as The Network. When Black mentions "soft," he's talking more about an aesthetic approach--one that veers away from the traditional narratives of the FPS genres--you know, badass hero in a badass setting doing badass things. These are tropes that Black calls relics of action movies from the 1980s and 1990s. You'll still be doing badass things in Bodycount but all within a context that Black says is more applicable to the 21st century.
And what of Lady Gaga? Black mentioned the singer/performance artist after seeing her in concert last year and, specifically, cited her retro-future chic approach as an influence for the approach to developing Bodycount's contemporary spin on the FPS.
Part of that contemporary approach, it seems, will be in the narrative. Black said he feels that many games try to cram a two-hour action movie into a 10-hour game, which leaves for a lot of padding in the game. For Bodycount's storyline, the team is aiming to use a style similar to HBO's handling of its long-form narratives--10 episodes of 40 to 60 minutes apiece. Bodycount, then, accounts for the first "season" of the storyline--a chance for the player to get to know Jack and the rest of the characters in the game, do some world building, and, according to Black, end things off with a big cliffhanger twist that will lead directly into the second season: Bodycount 2 (or whatever the next game is called). When you toss in some J.J. Abrams-inspired lunacy--Black mentions Abrams' spy thriller Alias as a guidepost--you have huge mix of influences that have contributed to the Bodycount universe.
Those influences aside, how does the game play? After demonstrating a brief (and evidently unfinished) animated cinematic setting up the conceit of how Jack gets involved with The Network, we were dropped into a shantytown level of sorts. Buildings and cover were everywhere, but all of them were begging to be blown apart, thanks to their flimsy construction and the powerful automatic weapon Jack was holding. While smarter enemy AI units will use cover to their advantage (soldiers will be sure to reload behind cover, for example), cover is a merely a temporary sanctuary in Bodycount.
Bodycount's enemies will come in all shapes, sizes, and classes. The demo we played showed off a couple of different enemy types: the nearly brain-dead militia types who were essentially bullet catchers; the upgraded soldiers who were a bit more gun savvy; and one particularly intimidating unit known as the psycho-tank, which was an eight-foot-tall maniac toting a .50-caliber machine gun. Black promised other unit types, including medics to heal fellow soldiers and scavengers who collect nearby intel, which is the currency of Bodycount. Intel can be spent to buy and upgrade new weapons or do things like call in predator drones, air strikes, or mobile machine guns that Black said will act as weaponized pets. Scavengers, too, will be able to use intel to call in air strikes and the like on you. These different enemy units will often work together in squads, making them tougher to take down than individual enemies.
The game's controls are easy to grasp--you move with the right stick, fire with the right trigger, sprint with the left bumper, and duck with the left trigger. When behind cover, you can move to the side or up and down by pressing the left stick in any direction, which is an easy way to pop in and out of cover. You can also zoom in for more accurate fire by pressing the R3 button. The game uses a firing reticle that collapses if you are crouched, still, and zoomed in; however, if you are moving, the reticle will open up and your fire will be far less accurate. That said, thanks to the dynamic enemy movement and the degrading cover all around you, there are times you'll be able to stay still and fire, as well as times when you'll need to be moving at top speed.
Though Bodycount seems to have a strong focus on single-player narrative--particularly in the relationship between Jack and his remote female "operative," who is constantly speaking in his ear, offering him mission tips, and giving him sly encouragement--there will be a multiplayer component as well. Deathmatch and cooperative play will be included. For co-op missions, you'll be visiting some of the same areas as in the single-player game, but you'll be playing as different (anonymous) characters and visiting these areas either before or after Jack has been through them in the single-player game.
While the vision behind Bodycount seems clear, that vision wasn't always immediately apparent in what we played. Perhaps things will become clearer as we learn more about the game's narrative, the relationship between Jack and the rest of The Network, and meet new characters. What we do know is this: With gun in hand, Bodycount is satisfying despite the normal technical difficulties you'd expect at this early stage in development. That's probably a good sign--get the core experience right first--but we're curious to see if and how the other myriad influences in the game come together. Codemasters seems to be aiming high with this one, and we'll be following its progress throughout the summer and beyond.
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