Bodycount preview: Paint it something other than Black

Last time we saw Codemasters' FPS Bodycount was back at E3, when creative director Stuart Black declared Lady Gaga as one of the game's influences. Cut to six months later and Black has left the company, and the game's been delayed to next summer. So how's Bodycount doing?

Not as bad as you might think. It turns out Black's leaving Codemasters wasn't completely unexpected. "We'd been talking about it for a while," Andy Wilson, the game's director, told us at a recent press event. "He had it in his mind -- there'd been some hints -- and we started talking about it more shortly after E3. It's a personal decision with him -- it's certainly not something to do with us or anything that was happening on the project. It was just his time to go." [Ed.'s note: Black claims otherwise, telling GameSpot in a recent interview that "it was clear that Codemasters were unable, or unwilling, to provide the support needed to realize the vision I had for Bodycount."]

So Black moved on, but Bodycount, Wilson assured, is "still going to be the game that it was going to be at the beginning."
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It turns out the test level we saw at E3 was just that -- a test -- and this time, Codemasters gave a hands-off tour of an actual level, in pre-alpha, "about two-thirds of the way into Act 1." It took place in an African mining site that displayed the visceral gunplay the game is designed for and hinted at a deeper threat beneath the surface of the mine.

Bodycount has retained a few distinct gameplay elements since last we saw. First, the front-and-center gunplay that Black was so excited about at E3 is still present and embodied in the game's weapon choices. "We're not going for 30 different weapons in this game," Wilson explained. "We're going for about twelve, and we're going to polish the hell out of every single one of them."

Firefights in Bodycount aren't necessarily strategic or tactical -- they're raw and loud, with plenty of explosions and blown-up bad guys. The world disintegrates as you fire away, but you can use this destructibility to your advantage. If you need to see through a wall to hit an enemy, for example, you can shoot it a few times and then aim through the holes.

Of course, this kind of gameplay can be hindered by some traditional shooter weapons, like the sniper rifle. "We toyed with that," Wilson said, "and we decided against [including] it, because it sort of ruins things a bit. We don't want it to be the kind of game where everybody's hanging back the whole time and taking potshots from a distance." Bodycount will still feature some weapons that can be fired from a distance, including a rocket launcher and railgun, but the game will definitely encourage more close-quarters combat. "We want you to get involved, and the key to getting involved is having lots of short and mid-range weapons in the selection," Wilson emphasized.

Your guiding voice, "The Handler," is still in the game as well, though in the short gameplay demo I saw, she was a little less satirical and sardonic, sincerely cheering on the player. Reflecting on the E3 demo, Wilson felt the Handler's tone wasn't spot on yet. "I'm not sure we hit quite the right balance with it. It was possibly a little over the top for that demo. Her character and her personality are going to change throughout the game."

The front-and-center gunplay that Black was so excited about at E3 is still present.

The overall tone, too, has been affected by Codemasters decision to remove the protagonist's voice in an attempt to allow players to more easily embody the in-game character holding the guns. "We want you to play as you," Wilson said. "And if you've got this disembodied voice talking back [to the Handler] the whole time, it's quite jarring." Removing the character's voice, including his internal dialogue, is also an attempt to allow players to experience and interact with the gameworld at their own pace, as they travel from Africa to the Far East and all the way to a "battleship graveyard."

The mystery element involves what Codemasters has dubbed "The Target," the game's "big bad," according to Wilson, a shadowy group that opposes "The Network" that the player works for. The Target is a group of mysterious beings sporting Cylon-esque armor, and at the close of the African mine mission, you enter one of its giant underground fortresses. "Target" is the just the codename the group has been assigned by the Handler's Network, Wilson added.

"We don't really know what they call themselves," he teased, "and we also don't know how old they are and what they've been up to."

That will be for the player to discover -- and probably to blow up. While I didn't get to see any of the Target environments demonstrated, the concept art for those areas looks sleek and quite fragile -- perfect for disintegrating with a shotgun barrage. "They're so arrogant that they could never possibly expect anyone to get in," Wilson joked, while showing off the art. "So you can shred this to buggery."

Bodycount is going to need the development time afforded by the recent delay. The gameplay I saw was most certainly at a pre-alpha stage, inherent in the framerate lag and AI glitching. As some of Black's lofty ideas still remain, Codemasters is faced with the challenge of not watering them down as the developers balance practicality with innovation. What is apparent is an enticing narrative and some gameplay concepts -- namely free-flowing ammo and intel orbs -- that propel the player into a notably in-your-face experience. By next summer, Bodycount could turn out to be something special.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.