So, the Bond film is as good as cancelled. Bond 23, the Daniel Craig-faced, Sam Mendes-directed continuation of the series has been put on indefinite hold, and you can go ahead and blame MGM's financial woes; MGM certainly is. It's that pesky economy, every time! Somewhere between the droves of homeless Wallstreet executives is James Bond, trading in his Astin Martin for a Pinto - but strangely, MGM's bad luck is a legitimate break for developer Bizarre. Traditionally known as "Those Car Game Guys", Bizarre was picked by Activision to develop James Bond 007: Bloodstone, a game that is poised to be the cinematically-styled response to the gaping hole in Bond's film franchise this year.
For years video games have been striving to be acknowledged as a legitimate peer of the film industry, and Bloodstone serves as a kind of "best alternative under the circumstances". Bizarre has aimed to create a game that mimics the cinematic qualities of the films: it adopts a third-person camera, has the current Bond cast providing voiceovers, and uses a script by Bond screenwriter Bruce Feirstein. Foley sounds (sound-alike effects) for punching and bullets have been created by the same guys who worked on Kill Bill; even the tense musical hums are based upon similarly edgy scenes from films like Taken. Talking with Bizarre's Nick Davis, he says it's a style they want to continue with:
"It's a little bit of a departure. Obviously we've done The Club for SEGA, Treasure Planet. We dipped our toes into this kind of thing, but it's the first time we've done something that's big and cinematic. We want the studio to go in that direction, to make these kind of triple A games regardless of genre. I think this is something we're getting quite comfortable in - the kind of cinematic action adventure game that mixes the different kind of gameplay elements. We're kind of setting ourselves up as one of the few studios that can do driving and action."
In most ways the game functions as a show reel of the studio's abilities. It's just about one third driving, one third melee combat, one third third-person shooter, framed inside the modern Bond conceit. And at its best it mimics the kind of set pieces that would sit comfortably in a film.
Take the speedboat chase. Bond is careering after terrorist cell leader Greco, amidst helicopter gun fire and Greco's henchmen blazing away at you from their crafts. Debris flies at our James, obscuring his path, and numerous hazards appear as the scenery collapses under a storm of bullets and explosions.
Combat is incredibly visceral, but that comes with the territory of creating a game where one of the key marketing phrases is "be Bond," - more specifically, Daniel Craig's Bond. Craig is a brute of a spy; a gadget-lite, hands-on sort, a perpetually grimacing professional who's more likely to punch you in the face than shine lasers out of his watch, and this is reflected in-game.
Gadgets are kept to a minimum, leaving Bond's augmented reality smartphone as the sole piece of flashy tech at his disposal. Use it to see where enemies are, where bombs are, and to scan objects in range (computers, really) for information. The phone also comes in handy for breadcrumbing, allowing you to find your way around the map. Aside from this toy, the focus is on the body. Bond's hand-to-hand combat skills are highlighted repeatedly, hardly a surprise given that melee is pretty much one of the primary signifiers of the current franchise.
But, as Davis explains, actually getting players to play melee was an issue:
"We've got hand to hand, we've got shooting, but we gave it to players to focus test and all they did was shoot. It's a really detailed hand to hand system and no one was using it because they had a gun. So we wanted to find a way to link those two together. Now, when players use hand to hand combat we give them a reward in the shooting system. Obviously six months after we came up with [the combat system] Splinter Cell came out and it's got a very similar system to us. I think the lesson from that is that they probably had similar problems to us. It's a common problem in gaming if you have two different gameplay mechanics. People will always favour one unless you give them a reason to play both."
Bond can perform roughly 65 to 70 takedown moves, all of which were modelled by Daniel Craig's stuntman Ben Cooke and based upon ideas that came out of a two day-long brainstorming sessions in the studio. Successfully pulling one of these off rewards you with a focus shot - essentially an instant one-shot-kill on your next target. So, Bond will move swiftly through the environment in a cycle of melee and gun combat: break a neck, shoot a gun, punch a face, shoot a gun. It can feel meditative, repetitive and incredibly fluid all at once as you create that chain of moves. You can earn up to a maximum of three Focus Aim points at a time, giving you the chance to achieve a slowed-down triple headshot. For games of this style it's a standard reward really, but even when repeated the umpteenth time is very satisfying.
Blood Stone's multiplayer is still only being described in vague terms, but we're told in somewhat less vague terms to expect a 16-person multiplayer featuring "a team of MI6 and a team of Mercenaries, it's got like a mini story feel. It's got some of the same locations [as the campaign] and characters. We wanted it to feel like a little stand-alone mission, not just a tacked on Team Deathmatch which is what some games do". Bizarre isn't reinventing the wheel here, or elsewhere in the core combat, but regardless the game seems to successfully set itself up as a loveletter to the modern Bond franchise.
James Bond: Blood Stone is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this winter.