We feel like we've done this before. Every time a new Bond game is announced, there's that faint, distant hope that this will be the one, this will be the next GoldenEye, or at the very least it won't be the fumbling, half-finished mess that licensed movie-based games are notorious for - and we're always disappointed in the end. But the licence, having both plumbed the absolute depths and scraped sort-of respectability under EA, is now in new hands, and consequently the next James Bond videogame comes with new promise.
The development team at Treyarch, using the Call of Duty 4 engine, is aiming to build a Bond game that doesn't cast him as a mindless Rambo, running through corridors and shooting anything that pops predictably out from behind a wall. Instead it's got intelligent AI, encourages smart use of the environment to conserve ammo and for cinematic effect, and leaves plenty of room for stealthy violence. Things still explode with pleasing frequency and there are still massive action-game shootouts and chases (on foot, anyway - there are no vehicles, but at least that means no terrible motorbike sections), but it's underpinned by a slightly more subtle gameplay system that leaves room for alternatives, and has the potential to do the licence justice.
The game switches between first- and third-person, zooming out onto an exceptionally beautiful Daniel Craig (evidently the licenser sent Treyarch back to work on him some more several times to achieve the correct grumpy sultriness) whenever you run into cover. Most of your time during fire-fights is spent crouched behind walls and pillars; the enemies are clever enough to provide covering fire for each other whilst they run between key cover-points (not exactly a massive step forward for shooters in general, but a definite improvement upon recent Bond games), so use of the environment is a necessity on any difficulty setting above Easy. It's a simple, obvious system - aim at something and hold A to dash up and hide behind it. The developer is also going for an accurate portrayal of Craig's muscularly athletic Bond; the slick animation and eerily accurate facial animation suggest that Quantum of Solace has been refined since the last time we saw it.
Quantum of Solace is, naturally, structured around the events of the forthcoming, simultaneously-released film of the same name, with occasional flashbacks to scenes from Casino Royale. It includes the voices and frighteningly well-rendered faces of every major name involved in the movie, including Daniel Craig and Judi Dench. The developer likes to describe it as an interactive director's cut; scenes that were cut from the movie are fully playable in the game, and it also fills in a few of the gaps in Casino Royale's story.
Our demo starts with a chase through an exploding sewer tunnel. It's a fast-paced and cinematic opener - when something particularly impressive happens, such as a massive column toppling into an adjacent tunnel in the midst of an explosion, the game goes into a sort of slow-motion mode for a few seconds to showcase the action. We're told this is still being tweaked, which is good, because it does rather interrupt the flow of the game when it happens just as Bond is about to enter a fire-fight rather than when he's hiding behind a wall, brooding.
The game's levels are structured around what the developer is calling 'mousetraps', shootable objects that trigger an environmental effect, from the usual exploding barrels to things like falling chandeliers and fire extinguishers that spray in the faces of nearby enemies - similar to the "Bond Moments" concept employed in the EA titles. On higher difficult settings, these mousetraps are key - the enemies are too good at hiding behind cover to succumb to Rambo tactics, and conserving ammo becomes necessary - but really their effect is to give the levels a cinematic structure, encouraging the player to create their own set-pieces with toppling columns and exploding buildings rather than just presenting us with a succession of men to shoot down.
It's not exactly the world's most subtle gameplay element - mousetraps are clearly signposted with a familiar glinting effect, and may therefore succumb to the same criticisms EA faced - but this is a Bond game, and the levels ought to be a series of dramatic, explosive events. It's not unchallenging, and it's not facetious; you don't have to take advantage of every single environmental effect, or any of them for that matter, but the game is considerably less fun to watch without them.
Control-wise, Quantum of Solace feels similar to Call of Duty during the gunfights (arguably no great problem), but the AI is all its own. Instead of COD4's scripted enemies, Treyarch has reworked the enemy intelligence to make sure that we won't be engaging in the exact same fire-fight from beginning to end.
It also differentiates itself from Call of Duty in its stealth elements. After our demo's explosive opening, which sees Bond escaping the collapsing sewer system and continuing the chase along the rooftops before the developer pulls the plug to prevent us seeing any important plot elements, we're shown two slightly less action-packed levels from the Casino Royale section, one of which has Bond sneaking around in a hotel, shuffling along window ledges to avoid detection. A nice-looking picture-in-picture feature is showcased here, where the game goes split-screen to show both Bond's position outside the window and the guards talking and moving around inside the room. The developer claims that there will almost always be a stealthy option for gamers who'd rather play the game like an actual spy rather than a gun-toting action hero.
Sneaking up behind enemies for a stealth kill, or dispatching them with a silenced pistol outside the visual range of security cameras, is often more appropriate for an MI5 agent (apparently - although Eurogamer's editor lived a stone's throw from Thames House for a while and never saw any of this, possibly because he never threw a stone at it), and it prevents reinforcements from arriving to make things difficult. Bond can also make use of his phone - the game's one gadget - to patch into live camera feeds of the whole level, which work in real-time and show enemies chatting or patrolling, important locations, and Bond himself, if he's in visual range, staring gormlessly down at his palm in a familiar 'I just bought an iPhone' posture.
It's no Splinter Cell, mind, but then Bond is not Sam Fisher, and a lot of the people buying this aren't going to have the patience for a game that punishes you harshly for running into gunfights. Generally, Quantum of Solace appears to be striking a good balance between appealing to the people who'll only be buying it because it has 007 on the box, and offering options to anyone looking for a little more depth. It's possible to play largely as a stealth game, and also entirely viable to just stick it on the easiest difficulty setting and enjoy it as a visually impressive, explosion-filled action game.
During our Games Convention demo, Treyarch also divulges a few more details about the multiplayer, which is aiming to recreate GoldenEye and Call of Duty 4's successes. Disappointingly, there's no split-screen, but there are rank and persistence elements in the multiplayer that recall COD4, and we're promised more 'Bond-specific' game modes. There are no specifics for us today, but after a little probing it seems likely that something along the lines of Splinter Cell's spies-versus-mercenaries game modes is on the cards. There's also a straight-up arcade deathmatch mode where everyone starts with a pistol - this, especially, seems heavily inspired by GoldenEye, and if Quantum of Solace even comes close to that game's multiplayer success (or Call of Duty 4's), it's worth getting a little excited about.
Quantum of Solace is a Bond game, though, through and through - and that's not a negative. It's a professional production, developed over two and a half years with close attention to the new breed of films, and although it's designed to appeal to the broad range of players, it has enough depth to the gameplay and enough polish to the presentation to make it worth looking forward to, if not quite unreservedly. It might not turn out to be GoldenEye, but it certainly won't be a Rogue Agent.
Quantum of Solace is due out at the same time as the new film, which is scheduled for release on 31st October. It's heading for PS3, 360, PC, DS and Wii.