Bound to be rubbish, right? Let's see. The Bourne Conspiracy is a bit of an anomaly in the world of movie-licensed titles. There's no movie of that name in existence, for a start - and although some of the game's sequences are taken from the first movie, The Bourne Identity, it's described as a companion piece to the existing series rather than a re-telling. There's also no sign of Matt Damon, or any of the movie's stars; Bourne himself is a re-imagined, brown-haired everyman with piercing eyes and a nasty line in lethal combat.
Moreover, The Bourne Conspiracy passes one of the key tests for quality in a movie-licensed game, in that it's not actually coming out remotely near to the movie. Nothing screams shovelware like a tie-in game that launches alongside a film; built to an incredibly short schedule, with an eye to release windows rather than game quality, they're almost uniformly awful (for example, last Friday's Jumper: Griffin's Story, which we suspiciously haven't been sent). The Bourne Conspiracy, by comparison, is appearing significantly after the last film in the cinematic trilogy disappeared from multiplexes. That's a good sign.
The Bourne Conspiracy, as mentioned, follows the events of the first movie to some degree - but then takes the opportunity to explore Bourne's memories as they return to him, running through his previous operations as a merciless Treadstone assassin. As such, some of the famous scenes from the movie make an appearance, but much of the game is concerned with Bourne's past as a perfect human weapon, rather than his later adventures as a remorseful assassin on the run.
Several different types of gameplay make an appearance as you progress through the game. There's a high-speed, Burnout-style car chase through the streets of Paris, which holds together surprisingly well given that the game isn't a racer (High Moon chief creative officer Emmanuel Valdez tells us that the Unreal Engine 3 made building the technology for the racing section surprisingly easy). There are shooting sections, where Bourne's heightened abilities allow him to slow down time momentarily or perform "takedowns", player-triggered quick-time events that pop caps in multiple miscreants at once. There's even a high-speed chase through the American embassy in Zurich, a race against the clock full of hand-to-hand combat and quick-time events.
The beating heart of this game, however, is the fighting - a hand-to-hand combat system that's brutal, bloody and given additional spice by Bourne's ability to use his environment to perform bone-crunching, eye-watering takedown movies on his foes. Frequently, combat is a group affair, with Bourne taking on three or four henchmen at once - more high-powered takedowns allow him to hammer as many as three hapless bad guys simultaneously using stylish martial arts movies.
The highlights, however, are gruelling boss fights involving multiple takedowns - and the bosses, who range from security chiefs through to other Treadstone assassins, can also try to perform takedowns on Bourne, which he needs to dodge in quick-time button-press sequences. These fights can last several minutes, and generally see both characters getting visibly badly beaten up - not to mention resulting in badly smashed up environments. They also offer an opportunity for the game to show off its brutal credentials, neatly capturing the sound of someone's skull clunking with vicious force against an iron railing.
Valdez is something of a veteran of fighting games, having previously worked on the Ready 2 Rumble boxing series. For The Bourne Conspiracy, however, he called in the best professional help that Hollywood has to offer - the services of legendary fight choreographer and stunt co-ordinator Jeff Imada, who was visionary behind the fight sequences in the Bourne movies (and in almost every other action movie you care to name, frankly, with an IMDB credit list longer than a gorilla's arms).
"When we looked at the design for the hand to hand combat system, we knew we wanted the distinctive style that Jeff Imada created for the movies," Valdez says. "That was the look, but the feel was that we didn't want to make a hardcore fighting game - because the Bourne fan-base goes beyond hardcore gamers."
That desire evolved into a combat system that simply has two attack buttons - light and heavy - and a block button. Combining moves on those buttons (mostly in the form of three-tap sequences) gives Bourne a vast range of movements and attacks - and landing attacks successfully charges an adrenaline bar. Fill a segment of that bar, and the fourth face button becomes active - allowing Bourne to use whatever he's standing nearest to in the environment for a takedown.
Bourne To Be Wild
The combat system itself works rather well - reminding us, in a more solid and gritty way, of the combat in Yu Suzuki's cult classic Shenmue. The basic fight mechanism works nicely enough, with punching, kicking and blocking all flowing nicely, but it's all broken up by the incredibly satisfying takedowns - quick-time events which call for swift button presses in time with on-screen cues in order to cripple your unfortunate foes.
"Takedowns are really what makes Jason Bourne, they're really what set him apart from any other character," enthuses Valdez. "Takedowns are anything from him weaponising an ordinary object, turning it into a lethal weapon, to using his environment in any means possible. Everything around him is a way of disposing of henchmen and different enemy types."
Some of the takedowns are from the movies - yes, the infamous fountain pen stuck in between the fingers during the Castella fight is in there - while most are entirely original. You'll find yourself drowning your foes in kitchen sinks, pile-driving them through doors and windows, smashing them through tables, walloping their faces into ceramic plant pots, beating their skulls with fire extinguishers... No fight is without its requisite wince moments.
Other aspects of the game play more of a supporting role. The shooting sections are fairly competently put together, using the same adrenaline system to perform long-range takedowns - but much of the time we found it simply more satisfying to close in to our foes, throw down the guns and engage in a bout of fisticuffs. The destructible environments, however, remain a key part in the shooting bits - barrels and cars go up in explosions when shot, while wooden crates can be destroyed easily enough to get at the fleshy enemies cowering behind them.
One section we're not entirely sure about at this stage is the game's chase and evade gameplay, which we got to see in the scene where Bourne tries to escape the Zurich embassy. An iconic scene in the movie, here it's extended to include more action and combat - but it's also full of quick-time events and will take a few retries to get through, which carries unwelcome shades of trial-and-error gameplay.
Valdez acknowledges the difficulties in making an effective chase sequence. "It's really hard to design a chase sequence - chase means you're being pushed, it's about intensity and it's about pace. We saw it as a great opportunity, because that's the Bourne that everyone knows from the movies. He's always on the run. But from a gameplay standpoint, historically, being on the run and being chased isn't necessarily the most fun thing to do."
He reckons they've got it right with The Bourne Conspiracy's linear, quick-time-event-filled stage - all of which takes place against a prominent countdown timer. "I think we succeeded," he says. "You're always on the edge of your seat, and it's not one of those moments where it's trial-and-error and it's going to take you an hour to get through. We do throw in a couple of gotcha moments, just to keep you on your toes. That's what we wanted - to create tension and pace, and keep players moving and engaged." Whether the team has succeeded in that or not, we'll be able to see when the game launches in a few months' time - with the promise of a demo version so you'll be able to take a gander for yourself if you're not convinced.
Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Conspiracy is due out on PS3 and 360 later this year.