Bond, James Bond. That phrase - those three words - are enough to send a tingle up the spine of almost any self-respecting action movie fan. It brings to mind an enduring action hero. It brings to mind advanced gadgets and beautiful, dangerous women. It triggers images of super-rich megalomaniacs with plans on world domination. It conjures up memories of over-the-top action. And, for seasoned gamers, it brings to mind one of the industry's iconic video game titles: GoldenEye, from developer Rare, for the Nintendo 64. A game that did what many thought impossible: create a decent video game from a movie franchise, and more than that - a game that set the standard for console first-person shooters to follow. A standard games developers have tried, and failed, to match with numerous other Bond-licensed titles in the more than 10 years since GoldenEye's release. With the latest Bond title, Quantum Of Solace, regardless of how it fares in terms of sales, what your hardcore gamer will really want to know is: how does it compare to GoldenEye? Well Bond fans... read on!
Quantum Of Solace the movie is the second in what was described by the advanced movie PR as a 'reimagining' of the Bond franchise. Up till that point, despite MI6's most famous secret agent having been played by a variety of different actors, and having toppled more evil geniuses than you'd think one man could tackle in a single lifetime, the general idea was that each Bond film followed on from the last. Not so for Casino Royale, a new Bond movie with a new Bond that took the story back to the beginning, with a newly-licensed 007 setting out on his very first mission. Out were the larger-than-life super-rich criminal masterminds with their underground lairs, in were down-to-earth, more believable bad-guys who were simply in it for the money. Casino Royale made Bond grittier, darker, more violent and more believable, and audiences loved it.
Quantum Of Solace picks up where Casino Royale left off, literally, with Bond on the track of the mysterious individual who turned out to be behind all the bombings and subterfuge in the first movie, and responsible - ultimately - for the death of Bond's latest squeeze, Vesper. The game initially follows the plot of the movie fairly closely, with 007 taking on the mysterious money-man Mr White outside his palatial mansion, as depicted in the closing scenes of Casino Royale. All doesn't go quite to plan however, and Mr White is spirited away by his guards leaving our favourite secret agent to give chase through the mansion and its grounds, dealing with a steady supply of hostile, heavily-armed individuals along the way.
Anyone who's read anything about this game already will know that it uses the awesome Call Of Duty 4 game engine, which means that seasoned CoD4 fans will be right at home with the control system, and this can only be a good thing, because Bond is thrust right into the action; with no real tutorial mode on offer, it's basically 'on-the-job training' from the outset. Of course, Bond's not without his resources, and this includes a controller back at MI6 who monitors the action remotely and gives Bond instructions via voice coms as the plot develops. If you're new to the CoD4 engine, or to first-person shooters in general, then pay close attention to the voice in your ear, because his advice can make the difference between life and death for 007.
The first level is pretty-much standard shoot-'em-up fare, with lots of goons to gun down and not much else to worry about. Bond starts off armed with his regulation Walther P99 with optional silencer. Later on in the game when stealth becomes more important the silencer plays more of a part, but in the first level it's more there just for the 'cool' factor. Bond also has a mobile phone, from which he can access a map of the level, and review any communications from the bad guys that he has intercepted. These come in the form of mobile phones members of the criminal organisation have apparently carelessly left lying around the levels, and while not essential for the completion of each mission, they usually offer information on your objectives, and handy hints like the location of arms caches and tips on how to bypass the different security measures you might encounter.
In addition to the P99, Bond is also well trained in hand-to-hand combat. Thankfully, Treyarch decided against trying to turn this game into a half-shooter, half beat-'em-up though, and instead Bond's close-quarters skills are put to use via a simple 'takedown' option. Basically, get close enough to a bad guy, and clicking on the right stick triggers an interactive cut scene - Bond grabs said bad guy, and then one of the face button flashes up on screen. Tap it within the time limit and Bond finishes the bad guy off - miss the button, and the bad guy pushes Bond away and you're back into the main game.
Initially, these takedown moves seem somewhat pointless, as generally if you can get close enough to a bad guy to grab him, it's easier to simply plug him in the head with your silenced P99. However, as you play through the game and the action gets more frantic, you often find bad guys take you by surprise or come at you en mass, and when this happens being able to just grab one and finish him off hand-to-hand at the touch of a button comes in very handy.
In addition to the hand-to-hand skills and the P99, Bond can of course pick up weapons as he goes along. You can carry three in total, and can switch between them and swap them for new weapons as you find them. The only one you can't swap is the P99 - it is Bond's signature weapon, after all - but this still leaves you two other slots for the wide variety of pistols, machineguns, grenade launchers and sniper rifles that you will come across throughout the game.
A useful addition to the CoD4 engine is a Gears Of War-style 'cover' system that lets you use various features of the landscape. And you'll find yourself using it, a lot. Move towards any surface and tap A and Bond will press himself against it. You can then pop out of cover using the aim button and blast any bad guys, before dropping back in. Point in the direction of a different piece of cover and tap A again, and Bond will dash over to it - if you've played Gears of War, you'll know how this works, and it works equally well in this game. Those of you out there who might be thinking you won't need to use cover, because you're a sh*t-hot FPS expert, think again, because the bad guys in this game are smart, and they get smarter and deadlier the further you get into the game.
Often one of the biggest moans about a FPS, or indeed, any game which presents you with AI opponents, is that the bad guys either all seem to be totally stupid - running blindly into the open one after another to let you gun them down - or they always appear in the same place and run through the same patterns. Not in this game, oh no. The AI is absolutely top-notch, with the bad guys behaving for all the world like human players. They use cover, they provide covering fire for each other, they employ flanking tactics, and they think on their feet too. Shoot one who's hiding behind inadequate cover, and don't be surprised if his mate doesn't leg it away from you out of sight, and then reappear 10 seconds later behind you, having climbed the stairs, raced across a balcony and come at you from your blind side. These guys are Clever, with a capital 'C', and I was only playing on the second difficulty setting - I shudder to think what the opponents are like on the hardest one!
So... you've got lots of guns, challenging opponents, great environments... all in all, the elements of a great FPS. Except of course, that this is more than just an FPS, this is a Bond FPS. So as you play through, various other challenges come your way. There are door codes to crack, computers to hack, and stealth sections to tackle. These parts of the game could, if implemented badly, have harmed the gameplay, but thankfully they don't. The door cracking/computer hacking is all done by way of simple push-button puzzles. Press the right buttons at the right time, and you succeed. Fail, and you don't. Failure could mean you simply have to try the code over again, or it could mean that you get pounced on by a bunch of security guards and have a fight on your hands - either way it doesn't spoil the fun one iota.
Even the stealth sections - often the downfall in a game that isn't based solely around stealth - blend seamlessly in with the rest of the gameplay. Sometimes the stealth comes as part of the standard FPS fare, with your handler back at MI6 advising you to 'keep things quiet'. In this situation, it basically means you're better off creeping rather than running, avoiding/disabling cameras, and using takedowns or silenced weapons on the guards. In these sections however, if you do get heard, and guards get alerted, it's not the end of the level, back to the start, try it over; instead you have the chance to shoot your way out, as you'd expect of MI6's finest.
The only sections where you do fail if you get caught out are specific ones where you're required to get between two particular points without being seen. You might need to edge along a window ledge for example, without drawing the attention of guards inside the building. For this, the camera switches to a third person view, with Bond moving right to left (or left to right) and all you need to do is time your movement between windows or roaming searchlights to ensure that 007 doesn't get spotted. Sometimes this is accompanied by a 24-style split-screen to show the bad guys' movements, all of which enhances the cinematic feel. Even these though, don't penalise you too badly if you mess it up - you simply get a quick death animation and end up being put back at the point you were prior to starting out on the ledge.
The death animations themselves are worthy of a mention, as they're particularly Bond-esque, consisting of the familiar 'down the gun barrel' view followed by blood running down the screen. In a nice touch, as your energy gets low, the screen greys out, and the gun barrel begins to close in from the sides of the screen. This animation is a great visual cue to the fact that your energy is running low, as in the heat of the action, not everyone will be keeping an eye on their health. Your energy, as in CoD4, rebuilds after a few seconds if you can get into cover, and it's shown in the early stages of depletion by the Bond silhouette at the bottom left of the screen - as the colour drains out of it, so your energy level drops.
There are various other non-FPS elements to the game, such as when you're crossing a narrow walkway for instance, and you must keep Bond's balance by centring a white dot on a special balance meter with one stick while you move Bond across with the other, but they all work well as part of the action, rather than detracting from it. I won't give away all of them here - you want to have some surprises, right?
Speaking of surprises, it's worth giving a quick warning here - because the plot of the game closely follows that of the film, if you don't want to spoil the movie, then watch it before you play this! That said, the game doesn't just cover the plot of Quantum of Solace, it also covers the better part of Casino Royale too. If you haven't seen the new Bond film yet then you've probably seen the trailer - remember the part where the sultry-looking female asks Bond: 'Have you lost someone too?'. Well in the game, this comes after a particularly bracing bit of desert combat, and it causes 007 to go into a mammoth flashback, right back to the marketplace chase scene at the start of the first movie ('Stop touching your ear!') and then proceeds to offer action-packed levels covering just about every section of said movie, up to and including one of the epic final scenes where Bond must battle bad guys in a building in Venice which is collapsing into the water below.
Each stage is tied together via animated cut-scenes, either CGI-versions of scenes from the movie (ie: where we see Bond racing cars, shooting and/or fighting) or through the eyes of those monitoring events back at MI6, where we get to watch computer readouts, voice analysis programs and digital world maps that show what 007 is up to while M discusses Bond's actions with various MI6 office staff. Sounds a bit strange, but it works extremely well, and the cut scenes must be covering the loading sequences, because after the first load you don't have to sit through another loading screen, and thus the action just flows seamlessly from level to level, helping you to lose yourself in the game.
And of course, there's the multiplayer. At this point in the proceedings, I haven't been able to get greatly into this, because this being a review from an advance copy of the game, there aren't too many people online to play against. But with the CoD4 engine, a wealth of different game modes including some uniquely Bond-themed ones, and some really, really excellent multiplayer environments many of which - dare I say it - actually surpass those in CoD4, nobody who buys this with online gaming in mind is going to be disappointed. Particularly noteworthy game options include the 'Bond Vs' mode, which has one player pitted against absolutely everyone else playing as members of the 'Organisation' (in true 007 style) where the bad guys must detonate bombs and Bond must prevent them by either disarming the bombs or 'neutralising' the enemy personnel. Bond Evasion has a team of MI6 agents escorting a VIP player (or 'package') from point to point, while the Organisation team attempt to assassinate him, and, GoldenEye fans, the 'Golden Gun' mode makes a welcome return, where one player gets to wield Scaramanga's ostentatious pistol which kills with just one shot.
So... that's the pros - what about the cons? Well, there aren't that many, to be honest. If I was being really picky, then there are the interactive cut-scenes - the 'takedown' ones aren't so bad, but at certain points in the game there are more protracted interactive cut scenes where you're required to hit a long sequence of buttons, like a video game version of Simon Says, and this means that you're focussing on which button to press next rather than actually watching and enjoying the cut-scene action. Plus these sections are almost impossible to fail, which begs the question: why not just forget the button pushing altogether? But that's just a little niggle.
More importantly, a few bugs seem to have made it into the final game. While playing over the space of a week for this review, I encountered a few unusual events - one time a level started without any background music, for instance, and had to be reset to bring back the audio. Another time, I was playing through a level and no bad guys appeared at all, which meant that the door I needed to get through wasn't triggered, and I had to restart from the last checkpoint. And on a third occasion, for some entirely unknown reason, the game loaded in French, and as there's no 'switch language' option in-game I had to turn it off and load up again. All minor niggles, admittedly, but you'd hope not to see the like in a finished release.
Anyway, by now you should now have some idea of what this game entails. I could talk a little more about the unlockable content, like the MI6 debriefing stages, but all of that is basically window dressing and - honestly - only there for the real Bond geeks as the icing on the cake. No, what I think I need to do before I finish is tackle that tricky question that I posed at the start of this review - how does this game match up to the legendary GoldenEye? Before I do though, let me just lay out my credentials: one of my very first jobs as a fledgling video games journo was to complete, from scratch, an in-depth guide for the (then) just-released GoldenEye, including producing, by hand, detailed top-down maps of every level (with, I might add, absolutely no help from Rare). Add to that the fact that every lunchtime and after work for about two years, myself and various similarly obsessed colleagues played constantly on the deathmatch levels until we all knew every stage so well that we could navigate them in our sleep, and it's no exaggeration to say that I know GoldenEye inside out, and I can safely claim to be 'a big fan'. Now usually at this stage in a Bond review, it's traditional to say something like 'this newest Bond title certainly shows a lot of promise, but it can't quite match up to the originality and flare of GoldenEye'.
Note that I say 'usually'. For while I can't quite believe that I'm about to say it, I have to say that - at last - one company appears to have managed to do the impossible. To say that this game is or isn't better than GoldenEye would be disingenuous - GoldenEye is a game more than ten years old on a console generations behind current technology. Comparing Quantum Of Solace and GoldenEye like for like now would just be foolish. However, what I feel that I can say is that if the talented team of game developers who wowed gamers so long ago with that particular N64 title, set to work to produce it again now with current generation technology, then Quantum Of Solace would be the game that they would create. Or to put it another way: this is GoldenEye for a new generation. And praise doesn't come much higher than that.