It is telling that you can replay boss fights from the main menu in The Bourne Conspiracy - they are by a country mile the best thing in the game. What we know and love about the Bourne films - the visceral, brutal, super fast shaky cam fight scenes - have been faithfully recreated by US developer High Moon Studios. It's a crying shame then that the rest of the game is such a let down. As it is Conspiracy is one of the best licensed games in recent memory. But, with a better control system and more player freedom it might have been one of the best games in recent memory full stop.
Before we get to all that though, we'll point out the first thing you'll notice after popping the game in your Xbox 360 or PS3 and let the disc drive whirr into action - Matt Damon isn't in the game. Unfortunately Damon doesn't like video game violence much, so didn't allow his likeness to be recreated in a third-person action game. We reckon that's a bit disingenuous, given the violence of the films, but there you have it.
Undoubtedly not having Damon in the game is a bad thing. The popularity of the silver screen Bourne has as much to do with Damon as it does with the action and suspense, and so, having the film star's likeness would have allowed players to relate to the game in a much more familiar way. Put simply, it would have made us feel more like the Jason Bourne we all know and love, which is what Conspiracy is all about.
It really is. Everything you do in the game is designed to make you feel like you're actually in a movie. The game is full of quick time events - more quick time events than I've ever seen in a non mini game-based video game. Fill Bourne's adrenaline meter (up to three levels) by fighting in hand to hand combat and by shooting bad guys and you can press B/Circle to perform a takedown - a brutal flurry of attacks from Bourne's fists or a devastating piece of sharp shooting from whatever weapon he's carrying at the time.
Build up your adrenaline meter to the max and engage three bad guys in hand to hand combat and boom! Bourne will smash heads into walls, statues, doors, chuck bodies over ledges, snap arms and legs, and pulverise faces. All the player has to do is sit back and watch, as if it's a movie, and press a single face button when prompted by a short sound.
It sounds simple, and it is. But, brilliantly, it never gets old. The fist fights aren't just mindless fun, they require strategy and attention. Blocking with A/X, waiting for your opponent to arrive at the perfect distance, unleashing simple three hit combos (with combinations of fast and heavy punches) and timing heavy unblockable kicks (by holding down fast or heavy punch) are a joy to pull off. There's a lot of depth here, and you'll need skill to defeat the bosses on the medium and hard difficulty levels. Each of the eight combos has its strength and weakness. Some are great at buying you time, some are great at dealing damage and others are great at setting up follow up attacks. It's one of the best combat systems I've had the pleasure of playing in a third-person action game of this kind, and captures the essence of the Bourne films perfectly.
If High Moon has nailed the hand to hand combat, it hasn't quite got the third-person shooting right. It feels very Gears of War (the game is built using Unreal Engine 3), with a cover system (press A/X when prompted) and a roadie run style sprint, but the controls are extremely clunky, the weapons uninspiring and the camera often a nightmare. Accurate and instinctive aiming is difficult and intuitive cover to cover movement is a virtual impossibility. It's because the shooting elements are so annoying that we found ourselves deliberately sprinting up to as many enemies as possible to force hand to hand combat.
Like we said, the game's full of quick time events. This is an effort to make the action as cinematic as possible, and we understand the decision, but they occur too often. There are plenty of times in the game when we saw something cool happening on screen, like a sniper assassination attempt or a parkour style chase through a train, when all that's required of the player is to press a single button following on-screen prompts. During these moments we couldn't help but think it would have been so much cooler if the game had allowed us, the player, to do that instead of just showing it to us.
Because of the plethora of quick time events and the linear level design (Bourne has a Bourne Instinct ability which highlights enemies, points of interest and shows you where to go) Conspiracy has a distinct on the rails feel. With one eye on the green blob on your radar (navigation marker) and one on the main action, the game can often feel like Time Crisis with beat 'em up bits chucked in.
The graphics are brilliant one second and bog standard the next. The game's opening mission, in present day Marseille, France, is a graphical tour de force, with stunning environments, detailed textures and impressive lighting. But then you'll find yourself in a car park later on in the game with average car models and forgetful design. The character models though are superb throughout. Bourne himself looks great in his various outfits and his enemies, especially the bosses, catch the eye too (we especially like the muscle bound machine Solomon). When Bourne gets up close Conspiracy looks its best.
Some will say the game is too short. We agree that without any multiplayer features Conspiracy's only replay value is in hunting down the hidden cog tags - oh sorry, passports - which then unlock the game's extras (boss battles, music, art etc). The main campaign takes in six chapters, each will take between an hour and an hour and a half depending on what difficulty you play on. High Moon has fused together scenes from the first Bourne film (Escape the embassy - good, Castel fight - brilliant and the Paris chase - a driving level which is as ridiculous as it is pointless) with flashback levels from Bourne's time with shady government organisation Treadstone (the botched assassination of Wombosi which leads up to Bourne's amnesia and the beginning of the first film, for example). While things will make sense to fans of the films, it'll be a fractured mess for anyone else, which is rather lazy in our opinion.
We agree that the game is a little too short, but its length fits with the accessibility of the gameplay. Anyone who's played and enjoyed a third-person game on a console before will be able to see this one through to the end, and we like that. But yes, without any multiplayer, once Conspiracy is done it's done.
We experienced an odd feeling after finishing the game. Conspiracy made us want to pop the game out of our console and slide a Bourne movie DVD in instead. And the reason is because apart from the hand to hand combat, which is simply awesome, the rest of the game is better to watch than it is to play. Ultimately it's a wonderful first Bourne game from High Moon and we hope it does well enough to justify a sequel, perhaps with Matt Damon's likeness, but, unfortunately, the overused quick time events, linear gameplay and frustrating third-person shooting makes Conspiracy feel more like watching a broken DVD that forces you to keep pressing play. This one's a brilliant weekend rental, just like the movies.