How do you review a game that could kill a studio?
Codemasters are racing game developers par excellence, trusty old hands that have crafted some of this generation's finest driving experiences. Whether off-road, on-road, or on the track, Codies know exactly what they're doing. DiRT, Grid and the F1 series are all fantastic. Their first-person shooters however, are a little less assured.
With Bodycount and Operation Flashpoint: Red River, the venerable British developer seemed to have a nicely thought-out masterplan. Red River was the shooter that leaned towards simulation, while Bodycount promised to be its noisier, brasher arcade cousin. Neatly sidestepping the CoD-dominated middle ground, you can see what Codies were getting at. But when Red River failed to meet expectations at retail, it was left down to Bodycount to pick up the slack.
Which leads us to the situation we find ourselves in now. Bodycount has been available on shelves for a couple of weeks now and a worrying number of copies remain there. Indeed sales are so low that Codemasters recently announced that, "The company is proposing to retire from its facility in Guildford, most recently responsible for the shooter Bodycount."
Its studio is probably going to close. And here I am, preparing to kick them in the nuts when they're down.
Bodycount is a bad game. It's not a decent game that just didn't click, it's not an enjoyable game with a few issues that are hard to overlook. It's just plain bad, featuring embarrassingly high numbers of underdeveloped and wrong-headed features, a terribly short campaign and an utterly uninvolving multiplayer.
Part of the issue involves the game's inability to explain itself. From the very start you are thrust into a conflict you have little or no clue about. There's words there, a voiceover and an attempt at some flashy graphic design, but it's unintelligible. Something about an agency and... no that's pretty much it. It's a less than an auspicious start.
Also woefully unexplained is the skillshot system. What there is of it. Bonuses are awarded for kills of a stylish variety: headshots, multiple kills, explosive kills, that kind of thing. But they are unimaginative and unnecessary to the point of redundancy. Which is perhaps why the visual indicators sit there cluttering up your screen without any kind of real introduction or justification.
Of course these disappointing elements are not enough to sink a game. It's relatively easy to brush off poor storytelling and a weak scoring system. But it's the core experience, the act of merely moving around and shooting things that ensures Bodycount's ultimate downfall. You would never guess that this was made by the people responsible for Red River, a far superior game in every respect.
Bodycount is painfully slow, leaden and lumpy. Compared to zippy shooters like Killzone and Call of Duty, Bodycount feels like running through soup. Movement, whether it's walking or running or pulling up your gun is frustratingly lackadaisical. This is, or at least should be, a balls-out, high-octane shooter. Instead you are forced into a far more pedestrian pace, much to the detriment of the game.
Then there's the cover system. Oh dear the cover system. Presumably it is supposed to work a bit like Rainbow Six: Vegas, except without the third-person part. Which is a fine and honourable thing. But the sticks are wonkily mapped. So while you are in cover it is difficult to aim because the same stick that bobs your head in and out of safety also controls your reticule.
Add this to an overly-sensitive cover-locking mechanism and the whole thing is a bit of a mess. Often, you will pull the left trigger to look down your sights only to be yanked into cover. It's so frustrating that I found myself trying to just run through levels without shooting anything, in a vein attempt to get it over and done with quickly. Shooters that discourage you from shooting? I'd say that was a pretty big issue.
The complaints roll on. At one point early in the campaign, I retreated into a shack, thinking that I could funnel the enemies in, one by one. That's how I roll. In a decidedly cowardly fashion. As I hid behind a desk or a barrel or whatever it was, a mini-boss came crashing through the wall and reduced me to a bloody mist in seconds.
Ooh, that's quite cool, I thought, an interesting use of the destructible environments. And it is. But then I realised that the enemy A.I. in Bodycount is of the omniscient kind. It doesn't matter where you are, of what you are hiding behind, they can see you. They can always see you. So moments like that lose their shine a little.
In contrast, when not displaying telepathic levels of awareness, the enemies can barely tell their arse from their elbow. There's some odd scripting involved with their movement that seems to insist they travel to a specific point on the map before shooting, regardless of your position. It's odd. Laughable really.
At least it's all over in around four and a half hours, a sizeable reduction on even the slightest of modern FPS campaigns.
What this all amounts to is a game that feels rushed, pushed out of the door before it was ready. Even the multiplayer feels tacked-on. No, the multiplayer feels especially tacked-on, with just Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and a small collection of maps to show for itself.
Rushed projects are not a studio's fault, necessarily. They are often the product of unrealistic publisher expectations, or a lack of funds. Perhaps that's true of Bodycount, perhaps not. Whatever the reason, it's is an uncommonly poor game. As a result, Codemasters' Guildford studio is about to pay the ultimate price.