'No-one's asked that question today,' said Andrew Wilson, lead producer on Bodycount, when I enquired how what was once a project synonymous with Stuart Black, before the latter decided to jump ship last year, has changed as a result of Black's abandonment. 'To be honest,' he continued, 'Stuart left after nearly all of the pre-production, that is to say the design work, had been completed. I personally worked very closely alongside Stuart throughout that period and this is still very much the game we set out to make and I think the hundred or so people still working on the project would agree.'
Fighting talk, which is relatively unsurprising considering the way some corners of the media tried to use Black's departure to prophesy doom. But Codemasters are mightily proud of their arcade FPS and, on the evidence I was shown at E3, they certainly seem to have a strong right to be.
Some might worry about the use of the word 'arcade' to describe the gameplay at the heart of Bodycount, but those that would have short memories, and it serves to illustrate that this isn't a game looking to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Call of Duty or Battlefield in terms of 'who can provide the finest likeness of war'. As several of the team commented to me at various points throughout the hour I spent checking the game out, 'it's all about the guns'.
'We are not making a grim and gritty, very serious real-world shooter,' stated Wilson. 'We're making something that's very bright and vibrant [...] and we want to hark back to that golden age of run-and-gun arcade sensibilities.' The vibrancy is something mirrored completely in the game's art direction and, although the limited preview didn't allow me to experience it fully hands-on, montage footage highlighted that the game's narrative will indeed lead the player on a merry dance all of the way around the colour wheel in terms of level design.
The story is pretty fantastical too, no Marine 'Hooo-AAAHH's here thankyouverymuch. Instead, you take on the role of an unnamed agent working for an organisation called the Network.
'You don't really know too much about the Network in the early stages of the game,' continues Wilson. 'But you're a former forces man, a combat-adept guy who gets sent into these areas of the world to fight the good fight and mop up these outbreaks of conflict that the governments of the globe can't be bothered to deal with themselves...or so you think.' You start off fighting against two main factions - the Army and the Militia - but it's not long before the Target show up on the scene. A technologically advanced and brutal organisation, they form a counterpoint to the Network - another clandestine operation looking to influence the balance of world power, this time through ultra-violent conflict to service their own ends.
There are no doubt some gamers out there, probably those who welcomed the FPS genre into their lives with Halo and never looked back, who never realised that shooters used to have a lean mechanic. It's been a minor bugbear of mine with that particular genre for a while, particularly when the other, more prevalent, options in recent years have simply defaulted to either ripping-off the snap-to-cover systems employed by games such as Gears of War or ignored the issue completely and forced you to sidestep out from behind objects. Bodycount, however, lets you duck and weave to your heart's content, which is handy considering the number of times you'll find your head suddenly exposed as the cover you thought was perfectly safe disintegrates in front of your very eyes. It's this system - referred to by the developers as 'shredding' - that forms the heartbeat of the game's frenetic, futuristic, bullet-ridden action. It took a little bit of getting used to, the 8-way-lean rooting you to the spot, but as we saw later on, the it's really quite useful indeed and shows off the destruction modelling fantastically.
'Shredding is actually a tactical gameplay device,' explains producer Andrew Wilson, 'particularly in terms of cover. You can shred through cover to get at enemies and they can, and will, do the same to you and that leads to a very fast-paced kind of game where you're constantly keeping your enemies on the move and vice-versa.'
It's a simple premise, and one that worked very well in one of the African levels we got hands-on with later in the day, the desert sun dictating a colour palette of oranges, yellows and dusty browns. Plonked down in an enemy base, the shredding mechanic allowed for the forging of new paths, bullets ripping avenues through shack walls, wooden fences, windows, doors, roofs and more. This was particularly noticeable as my accidental nudge of a bumper chucked a grenade into the path of a previously oblivious, patrolling Psycho - a towering man-mountain armed with a minigun - who promptly set his sights on me. Not content with using doors, his barrage simply ripped apart the thin wall separating us and I was forced to backpedal furiously, narrowly missing a cavern whilst frantically looking for something to duck behind so I could momentarily align my thoughts and formulate a strategy. After dying several times, it became apparent that only serious explosives would cut the mustard with this guy, and so we ended up playing a game of cat-and-mouse - with the mouse luring the cat into the path of half a dozen mines.
Conversely, another level we got to grips with saw us infiltrating the Target's base. Here, the game seemed to play far more like a conventional shooter - the idea being that the Target are more or less ready for you, their walls unshreddable, cover far scarcer - but it did allow us to make a few further observations regarding the different AI classes in the game. We'd already encountered snipers in the dust bowls of West Africa, but now we came face to face with a scurrying Medic. Leave him to his own devices and he'll bustle about reviving those you've already taken out. Cap him early on, though, and you can cut swathes through your enemies' ranks safe in the knowledge that no-one's going to suddenly reanimate behind you and stick a bullet in your back. This being a Target level, everything is very angular, there are very few smooth curves in terms of design. Even the enemies themselves look a bit like futuristic men-at-arms.
Riddling your foes full of lead yields glowing orbs which shoot forth from newly-prepared corpses as they hit the floor. Picking them up all adds to your 'Intel' meter, granting you access to a number of abilities - all of which have two level tiers - such as Adrenaline, which renders you invulnerable and super fast; Super Bullets, which knock NPCs off of their feet and take them out in one hit (or shred them to pieces if you've unlocked the second tier version); and, as Wilson noted in a rather comically offhand fashion, you can also call in massive airstrikes.
As the level ended, I was graded on my performance - a solid B this time around (don't ask about the Africa level) - again, something that brings a sense of the arcade to this game. 'There's a very simple reason as to why we grade you,' said Wilson,' we want these levels to be played many times over. The above-ground areas are all big, expansive and destructible areas, so you can approach the action from so many different angles.' The AI is dynamically authored too, avoiding particularly prescribed paths and instead reacting to any given situation, the hope being that no two playthroughs ever have to be the same. When three factions or more get involved, we saw a confrontation between the Network and the Target get messy when the Army turned up and everyone started shooting everyone else, you can start playing opposing factions off against one another, although your final bodycount will of course be lessened, and your rating affected.
There were some interesting ideas explored in Bodycount and I love the bob-and-weave cover system. Being unafraid to take a risk in stepping away from 'Call of Battlefield control inputs' is a good thing, as gamers we absolutely want variety. The shredding mechanic is tantalising too, although I'm hoping it really is as open as it seems. There were a few glitches here and there, but even so on the smaller, perfectly set up HD screens the game sung with vibrant colour. I'm not sold completely just yet, and there's only so much you can tell about a game in a short demo, but in many ways, stepping away from Bodycount felt much the same as when I stepped away from playing Perfect Dark for the first time - another well balanced futuristic shooter with arcade sensibilities. If Codemasters can keep the game from slipping too much into familiar territory this could make for a seriously fun shooter later this year.