Bodycount makes no bones about its aims. Martin Mathers clocks up some time with the explosive first game out of Codemasters' Guildford studio.
“Destructibility seemed too long…” grins Max Cant, Art Director on Codemasters’ new first-person shooter, Bodycount. Apparently, that’s why the game’s biggest selling point – the ability to literally tear huge chunks of the environment to pieces with gunfire, explosions and sheer brute force – is known as ‘shredding’.
Thankfully, Bodycount’s Experienced Level Designer Andrew Parsons follows up with a better explanation: “It’s a good way to sum up the destruction in the game, because it’s a gradual erosion of everything around you rather than this instant vanishing act.”
He’s got a point too. After all, short of nuclear explosion-levels of vapourisation, very little simply vanishes when it’s destroyed – there’s debris, rubble, splinters, whatever. And just as that’s true in real life, so it’s true in Bodycount too; a few guaranteed safe spots aside, pretty much everything in the environment around you is open to wanton destruction from the smallest wooden crate to the largest free-standing building.
If we’re honest, it’s this kind of freeform carnage that makes Bodycount one of the most enjoyable FPS games we’ve played in a very long time. Too often these days, modern first-person shooters feel like queuing up for the post office: it might look like you’ve got a lot of space to explore, but you’re really only going back and forth in a straight line guided by those stretchy material barriers. Blame the meteoric rise of things like Call Of Duty for that – we know we do.
Bodycount, however, is different. Yes, each level has checkpoints that it guides you towards via an on-screen marker, but aside from a few interior-based stages that are more straightforward, how you reach those checkpoints is up to you. And that doesn’t just mean that you can sneak around and pick enemies off or storm in with guns blazing, even though the wide range of weapons available make it possible to play in a variety of ways. No, it also means you can make your own path to a degree – even if that path happens to be blocked by something like a building.
It’s this kind of freeform carnage that makes Bodycount one of the most enjoyable FPS games we’ve played in a very long time.
Take a particular experience we had playing one of the game’s later levels, an Asian fishing slum that’s essentially a maze of wooden shacks and corrugated tin rooftops. After flipping a switch inside a hut at checkpoint two, things go a bit haywire; we’d watched an earlier playthrough by Cant and Parsons, so we knew that a huge cluster of troops along with a heavy-duty machine-gunner known as a Psycho were waiting for us outside. The obvious answer would be to hide by the doorway and pick them off but, since the hut’s wooden, that cover would soon be cut to ribbons and we’d have to leg it. Basically then, we were trapped.
Or we were, until we turned 90 degrees, tossed a few grenades, blew a massive hole in the side wall of the hut and made a dash for it out of our newly-created ‘door’.
Granted, it’s still got its limitations – not everything can be destroyed, purely to prevent each level becoming a barren wasteland – but it’s still impressive that Bodycount allows you to do such things, providing you can think of it as an option. It’s all about being aware of your surroundings and thinking outside the shreddable box, we guess; for instance, as the aforementioned Psycho chases you round through the narrow alleys, you might notice through a hut window that he’s about to run past a wall that has an electrical generator on the other side. Time a few well-aimed bullets right and BOOM, the generator erupts, sending the wall flying outwards and catching the Psycho in the explosion. It certainly worked for us.
But then, that was our game, our experience – thanks to the reactive AI (no scripted movement here) and the way it lets you bring your own gameplay style to the table, it almost certainly won’t be the same for you.
We spent much of our time crouched down, sneaking around a dock with long-range guns and strategically picking off explosive barrels, before taking an impromptu route across the rooftops. Other journos present opted for more powerful short-range weaponry, cutting through in-land buildings like butter and setting off huge chains of explosions regardless of whether anyone was nearby or not. And a few more played it like a traditional shooter, forgetting everything that Bodycount does differently. That is, until they died repeatedly when the enemies started using all those differences to their advantage.
The thing is though, Bodycount isn’t a traditional shooter - at least, not in the sense that been defined by Call of Duty, Gears Of War, Crysis et al. Cover isn’t sticky or particularly definable – it’s just there and as such, pretty much anything is a potential means of preventing yourself from getting shot until it gets destroyed. Explosions, multi-kills and other ‘trick shots’ are encouraged, since they’re all linked to a glowing blue combo meter. Pick-ups don’t blend into the background until you walk over them and get an on-screen prompt, because they’re brightly coloured in neon blues, yellows and reds. And all the while, a huge score meter looms in the corner of the screen, demanding that you rack up huge numbers to be shared on the online leaderboards.
In short, and despite the believable locales, character models and devastation, it’s not intended to be realistic in the slightest. It’s an arcade game and, even better, that’s exactly what Codemasters planned all along.
It’s an arcade game and, even better, that’s exactly what Codemasters planned all along.
“If we’d gone down the real world route, what would you get?” asks Cant. “You’d have a pile of dead soldiers all dropping incompatible ammo clips that no soldier worth his salt would pick up, because they wouldn’t fit his gun or guns he wouldn’t trust because it’s not what he’s been trained with. The idea of realism in games is a spurious claim, really – how many military campaigns have you seen where people run around a battlefield, getting in vehicles randomly? The concept of fun is far more important and a lot of the FPS games out there today are all starting to feel the same, so we wanted to create something that you could just pick up and enjoy without having to take it too seriously.”
As you might expect, the ‘shredding’ concept extends through to Bodycount’s multiplayer modes, especially the co-op mode which we also had the opportunity to play around with. Interestingly though, co-op here isn’t what you might expect it to be; where most games simply rehash the single-player mode with an additional body or offer up slightly different versions of the same levels, Bodycount’s co-op puts a twist on the popular Horde concept to offer gameplay completely different to the main game.
Yes, so it’s essentially wave after wave of enemies coming at you in relentless clusters, becoming increasingly harder to deal with as time goes on. Hardly anything revolutionary, we have to admit. However, the addition of ‘shredding’ means you can’t just blast away at anything that moves; you need to be mindful of your surroundings, lay traps where possible by using the environment to your advantage and ensure that blasting a massive hole in a wall isn’t going to leave you in peril later on. It’s a brave move given people’s expectations for co-op modes these days, but one that’s got method behind the madness.
“As I see it, there’s a lot of replayability already in the single-player – it’s not on-rails, you can explore to your hearts content, find new paths and so on,” says Cant.
“Because of that, we just wanted to deliver a different experience again for the co-op. We were aiming for something that felt a bit more like Zulu than Behind Enemy Lines, essentially you and Michael Caine versus the world, people just pouring in at you all the time while you make your valiant last stand, back to back. The difference, of course, is the shredding: because you’re fighting in the same location for a prolonged period of time against increasingly tough enemies, the tactics to ensure you’re not destroying too much of the environment and exposing yourself to attack change greatly.”
In trying to bring some fun (not to mention wanton destruction with a purpose) into the proceedings, there’s no denying that Bodycount is trying to forge its own path through an otherwise cookie-cutter pack of FPS titles. Sure, there’s definitely a place for the Hollywood realism, poe-faced respect and historically accuracy that dominates first-person shooters these days. For us though, we’ll take laughing maniacally at ridiculously-exaggerated explosions any day of the week.