Nowadays, to many people, ‘arcade’ is a dirty word when associated with the shooter genre. The “realistic” fraternity of Battlefield, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor et al and the sophisticated sci-fi epics of Halo, Crysis and Gears of War rule the shooter roost; new franchises, new ideas and “arcade shooters” tend to have a difficult time finding a place in the bosom of consumers heart’s.
Just look at the sales figures for Brink and Bulletstorm if you don’t believe me…
For an arcade shooter, Bodycount’s design is on the ambitious side. On the face of it things seem simple – complete various simple objectives within an open-world arena before heading to the extraction point. Within that system, however, there’s quite a bit going on and quite a bit to play around with.
Most obvious is the set-up of the AI which is split into various factions, all of whom are at war with one another. Having them battle each other realistically while also reacting to your presence cannot have been an easy design choice to implement believably. This three-way fight structure (AI vs AI vs you) is responsible for much of the game’s tension and decision making in that it creates an ‘X’ factor for you to work around – you can either dive straight into the action, wait for things to cool down before picking up the scraps or try to work your way around skirmishes unnoticed.
Given the volume of enemies, the third option rarely presents itself as viable, and when it does you’ll probably not entertain the idea because it’s not something you’ve had much practise at. Plus, ‘stealth’ doesn’t seem like the right vibe for an all-out arcade action title.
In general, this hostile AI system works well but, on occasion, moments of madness creep in and try to ruin the experience. Most obvious are the times when enemies completely ignore you (despite being less than a foot away) in favour of continuing to shoot the enemy down the end of a street. Accompanying that are some pathfinding and inability-to-find-cover issues; at times their military training is a little suspect…
Then there’s the cover system which allows you to take refuge behind anything and everything, whether it provides protection or not (hint: choose brick or concrete over plywood). Pulling down the left-trigger halfway initiates the iron sights, pressing it fully puts you into cover mode. When in cover the left-stick is used for leaning left and right as well as ducking down by pulling it back.
Initially the mechanic is a bit of a pain to get used to but after an hour or so it becomes second nature and offers a decent degree of flexibility in avoiding enemy fire while ramping up the tension by forcing you to poke your head out to observe the enemy’s position and numbers.
Indeed, it’s the firing of weapons and observing their impact on all around you that is Bodycount’s greatest success. In this instance the game’s “spiritual link” to PS2 shooter Black, through a partly shared development team, is clear as day. Weapons feel and sound powerful thanks to satisfying recoil and low pitched, speaker busting rumbles.
Their impact on the environment helps add to their intimidation factor, too. Dubbed “shredding”, Bodycount’s take on destructible cover goes as far as allowing you to carve your own pathways by smashing down walls but stops at the pulling down of entire buildings. Crouching behind a cement block as it’s being re-sculpted in front of your eyes is undoubtedly exciting for the first few levels but by the time you reach the halfway point the system loses its impact and tends to blend into the general scene of carnage taking place around you.
Bodycount’s particular brand of carnage can be difficult to swallow at times thanks to the fact that death feels as though it’s forever just around the corner. It doesn’t take a lot to kill you and the number of enemies and their love of explosives can make it difficult to find a safe place to bunker down and unleash a few rounds. This means you’re constantly on the move and at risk from being blindsided as you run around corners, across doorways or through narrow streets.
Given the game’s concentration on creating a set of systems designed to provide a chaotic, action heavy experience the fact that death is so commonplace does put a damper on proceedings. If you use cover well-enough and always have the correct weapon then your kill/death ratio will improve but that slow style of play just seems counter-productive to the creation of destruction that Bodycount can, at times, do so well.
Even when using one of your four special “perks” (of which limited-time invincibility is one, an earth shattering airstrike is another) death is still waiting for you at every turn.
What isn’t waiting for you is an in-depth, sophisticated storyline. You play an “asset” of “The Network”. Your job is to wipe the bad guys, “The Target”, off the face of the earth. To do that you need to travel through hostile territory in which groups of militia are facing off against each other in bloody conflict. It’s hardly Citizen Kane or Macbeth but, depending on your take on recent FPS storylines, the simplicity will come as either welcomingly unpretentious or disappointing shallow.
Personally, particularly following the nonsensical gibberish that was Call of Duty: Black Ops’ ‘story’, I found the lack of a plot to be refreshing; a nudge and a wink back to the old days of games being about progression and points system rather than works of literature.
Saying that though, Bodycount’s scoring system is a confused mess – punishing you for not playing it the way its designers clearly believe you should playing it. Like the frequency of deaths, the scoring system is something that should probably have been left out or made less rigid considering the open, playground-like nature of the gameplay.
Generally, Bodycount offers a decent amount of fun. The arenas are nicely designed and possess a stark (if repetitive) visual style, the weapons are satisfying and the enemies are usually smart enough as to provide a challenge over and above there merely being a lot of them. Where it lets itself down though is in the constrictive manner in which it tries to force you to act. By loosening up and allowing the player more freedom to act and play as they see fit, Bodycount would be improved no end.
As it stands this is a game that’s quirky and fun, offering a welcome change from what we’ve come to expect from the genre, but ends up trying too hard to be smart and misses the target with many of its peripheral ideas.