John McTiernan’s Predator had guns, muscles, attitude, explosions and was situated in a jungle. That’s already a guaranteed 7/10 before the movie even begins, and an example of how to do it right. So how did Codemasters manage to make a video game about blowing shit up so average? Well, I’ll tell you the how.
The story is, at best, tenuous and easy to ignore. The bulk of the game’s intended audience will be left wondering just what the hell it was all about when the credits roll. It starts with you spawning into the opening environment as if entering an online battle. This complete disregard for immersion will leave you disjointed, left to wonder the ruined building you’ve magically appeared on top of with a bad taste in your mouth.
But it’s okay – a well spoken woman has informed you that a civil war has erupted in this region of Africa, and because the United Nations is a soft touch, we’ve been deployed onto this beach to shoot everyone until they pack this war malarkey in.
Moving through this world is like wading through treacle. Turning feels like something’s pushing back against you, while as a highly respected soldier you’ve managed, through years of training, to learn how to sprint for an incredible two seconds at a time. There’s minimal introduction to the game’s unique features, such as the power-ups and cover system, leaving these features to be underused. When holding aim, for example, you’re put into cover mode, now able to pivot on the spot as if your boots are nailed to the ground, however this means you can’t move and aim (I’ve since been informed that apparently you can, but this shows how poorly the controls are introduced).
As you gun down the same few guys a hundred times – like Stranglehold, or Commando, be prepared to kill the same few guys repeatedly – they’ll sprinkle out collectables upon dying. These are never explained but you’ll collect them out of a natural gaming habit anyway. The electronic noises when collecting these items, and the way they’re highlighted onscreen gives an old-school arcade vibe, however, this directly clashes with the violence and back story of ethnic cleansing unfolding before your eyes. You’re left with a jarring feeling of exploitation. Not of the people you silently lay waste too, but of your own time.
It should have looked to the godfather of the genre for influence: Doom. Endless sprinting around with ten weapons and boxes of ammunition isn’t realistic, but this is meant to be an escapist hobby for the most part. The ‘modern’ leanings, the two second sprint, two weapon limit, regenerating health, and doors that mysteriously unlock when everyone is dead, all clash with what is at the core of this game’s heart.
The AI of the soon to be deceased look-a-like fodder is appalling. In one scenario as I stood in an ill textured building, I noticed something peculiar about the approaching enemy: he walked in reverse. Watching as he continued past me, I eventually ended his misery with a quick swipe of the combat knife. Then the guy reappeared and repeated the same action. Ending his life with the same blade, I turned to see another doppelgänger of the man killed doing the same action, moving towards me with his back turned, unaware of my presence in his stupor. Thankfully, this wasn’t some bizarre time-warp, or sudden twist where the story sees you enter limbo for your war crimes, as after the fourth time of killing him he no longer reappeared.
Later, upon turning a corner, three heavily armed rebels were in front of me. I stopped in my tracks as one opened fire a few metres away. Every bullet missed me as I calmly threw a grenade which bounced off the head of one of the other two soldiers who hadn’t reacted to my presence, blowing them all up. The stupidity of the rebels made me laugh, though it evidently wasn’t meant to.
Add in that you’ll repeatedly die thanks to undetectable grenades and sniper fire, and a health system the fails to inform you of near death, and it all becomes a chore. So much so, that I decided to try sprinting through the later levels. And it worked. The big shoot-out before the final base was done in no time at all, without a single bullet being fired from my gun until the final room. The enemies are so slow to react that much of the game can be ran through without any real threat.
Overall, and not surprisingly, the audio design is be lacking throughout. Often an afterthought or tacked on late in a game’s lifeline, audio is an area of development that is criminally overlooked and underrated. Here, nothing changes, from the three second music loop in the pause screen to the lack of all but two character voices and cringe worthy script (“this cold war just got hot”). Enemy voices are built into the music score, so as you finish a battle the shouts and screams of the men continue, eliminating any atmosphere that would have otherwise made some sections a little more varied and exciting. It evidences the lack of polish and finesse that plagues the title; including the complete lack of sound for an enemy attacking with a knife or a grenade landing nearby.
So, what works then? What does work for the most part is the grenade throwing. Whilst the resulting explosion and sound effects are rather flat, the control and ease of judging distance is effective. Quickly tossing grenades during an outdoor fire-fight is fluid. But then you try and throw a grenade when near cover and it bounces off an invisible barrier back at you, or the inability to throw grenades at anything over than an upwards angle causes them to become useless indoors.
Again, it’s as if this started off as an arcade-style FPS that fell apart at the seems, later to be pieced together as an attempt on the already overcrowded and underwhelming sub-genre; the military FPS.
As a FPS, there is an instant advantage over other viewpoints (such as 3rd person) as it casts you into the world. This has always been the genre’s strength and what has provided its visceral edge. Bodycount does benefit from this, and shows that as long as you can move and shoot at stuff, a FPS will still hold its audiences’ attention for a while no matter how unfinished it is.
An early twist in the game sees backdrop change to a landscape more suited to the game’s style. The first sight of it is quite artistically stunning, as the two environments clash in a way that gives the new segments a futuristic vibe. It then makes sense that everything before was a cover for this twist, and perhaps that’s why it was so poorly handled.
Why you’d want to introduce the player to one of the game’s biggest failings is anybody’s guess. Maybe they wanted to reward patience, or maybe it was a misjudged call. Then, however, it moves back to the old locations. And even worse, makes you play back through all the previous areas from the beginning. This is a theme that continues throughout the campaign, ending in a disappointing final battle.
Outside of the main campaign is the Bodycount mode, where you can replay previous chapters for a higher score, and online multiplayer. Multiplayer features the common modes: deathmatch, team deathmatch and co-op; the latter acting as a horde mode. However, due to the lack of other players online, these modes remain untested.
It’s a pity that a video game which attempts to revel in back to basics no nonsense escapism – through a hail of bullets and bodies – somehow ends up being more forgettable than the Black Ops campaign. And that’s saying something. Whilst not a complete and utter mess, it’s nothing worth your time, either. If you want a break from the norm this year, you’d do best to pick up the surprisingly good F.E.A.R.3.