Version tested: Xbox 360
Being Jason Bourne may look glamorous, but in reality it's probably not. Yes, you get to bring down the silly old CIA using rusty old cars and biros and then go and live on a beach with Franka Potente, but you also have to remember numbers, sleep rough, wipe down hotel rooms and put up with headaches. We'd still rather own a Velcro patent or get a discount at Thresher. Fortunately High Moon Studios thought of that and so Bourne Conspiracy is about doing all the cool things in Robert Ludlum's books and the Matt Damon films, and in some respects it does them well.
There's the nucleus of a fun game in Bourne's hand-to-hand skills, for instance. You have two attack buttons, which allow you to perform a range of basic combos, and as long as you remember to block when the other guy hits back you can quickly build up "adrenaline" and do Bourne's signature takedowns: slick, violent finishing moves that smash goons into the wall and elbow them in the head as they bounce away, or crush their windpipes and crack their knees in one fluid motion.
The fighting snaps the dynamic camera to the side so you can see what's going on, but otherwise we're in third-person shooter territory, running around docks, embassies, yachts and airports ducking behind cover and shooting people with pistols, shotguns and assault rifles. Bourne's super-assassin intuition is replicated by a "Bourne Instinct" button that feeds waypoints to a mini-map and lights up enemies, helpfully guiding your gun-sight to them, although leaving you to adjust the aiming rather than locking on. Aiming is awkward and movement is ungainly, with too many controls to worry about on the first couple of levels, but you get into a tolerable rhythm.
The other major gameplay element is quick-time events, where you hit a face button as prompted on-screen during what's otherwise an in-game cut-scene. The way they're implemented is sensible - you're shown a button layout with the correct response highlighted, rather than just being shown the button on its own, and this makes it easier to react - and they improve a few sequences. One - a long-range rifle assassination in a university - is actually a high point in the game as a whole, as Bourne coolly guides his sights through the chaos on the ground, picking off bodyguards and moving targets as if he's that lanky sniper in the bell-tower out of Saving Private Ryan. All of this is seamlessly integrated with the other elements.
As we all know, there are three Bourne films at this point, but Conspiracy focuses on the first story, Identity, in which Jason Bourne has to work out who he is and kill off the people coming after him. To this end High Moon also recreates a lot of the key action sequences: escaping the US embassy in Zurich, the fight with another CIA assassin in a Paris apartment, the car chase, and so on. These are quite compact levels, rarely drawn out in the way that adaptations tend to be. The CG cut-scenes agree with Doug Liman's film direction and camera angles, and the wardrobe department and set designers, and even the music, although it's subtly different here.
The main difference is Bourne himself, because Matt Damon decided not to get involved, but where the game willingly goes its own way is in flashback levels, which dramatise the run-up to the botched assassination attempt on Nykwana Wombosi off the French coast that got Bourne into trouble in the first place, and show you a few of the CIA's other hits, like a war criminal who runs riot in a Swiss airport with an army of hooded terrorists.
These are a bit more hit-and-miss. They have their moments, usually when the developer's getting the most out of the Unreal Engine 3: fighting your way out of a burning distillery, for instance, and going hand-to-hand with military police on a rooftop as red sniper beams cut past you in the direction of the camera. When they're well-lit, the character models are muscular and convincing and the fight animations are superb. But for the most part these levels are meandering, ugly and overlong, and the linearity grates. The airport level is a contrived procession up and down escalators, through fenced off duty-free shops and food courts and down a subway before ending up on a cargo plane, and wherever you go you're treated to plenty of corridors, offices, kitchens, alleyways and locked doors, served up between inconsistently spaced automatic save checkpoints.
There's a bit of deviation from the above that's worth noting. The initial sprint through the US embassy when you're told not to kill anyone is quite frantic and arresting, and there's also the car chase, which makes good use of the Bourne Instinct to help you steer through packed intersections and panicked motorists in slow-motion, although the rest of the level falls flat thanks to rubbish handling, and canned dramatic detours down alleyways and through glass shop-fronts.
This sort of thing would be easier to tolerate if the fight-and-shoot gameplay was going anywhere, but it doesn't. You'll chuckle along to the first dozen or so hand-to-hand takedowns, but "weaponising" the environment - using fire extinguishers, pens and other props to pull off different takedowns - always amounts to the same thing with a slightly different animation, and there's no evolution of the core combinations, just less tolerance of mistakes and impatience. You'll come to resent the boss enemies' resilience and patterns, too - the inevitable production of a knife, and never taking damage when you block their attempted takedowns, even though you do if the opposite happens to you.
Shooting never gets any better, either, as you struggle to target people until you've shot them enough to trigger the spinning-round-firing-helplessly death animation or an unconvincing contextual topple over a railing. The gun takedowns, which also use quick-time events, don't look as good as the hand-to-hand ones, although you'll still try and use them to avoid more shooting. After games like Gears of War, Uncharted and GTA IV, Bourne's alternative is a letdown.
Bland and repetitious level design and uneven gameplay isn't a very glamorous problem to have, but in the end it fits. Even the in-game advertising is boring: no, we don't want a MasterCard, but thanks for asking on every billboard in every level. You aren't going to "Become Bourne", as the box instructs, because that would be difficult, so you just perform simple approximations of a few of the things he did in the films over and over again as the game pushes you down set paths. There's no multiplayer, and for replay value all you've got is the option to hunt for glowing passports a few paces off the beaten and boring track.
There are still times when you'll enjoy yourself, but they're few and far between, and ultimately prove to be poor compensation for the loss of the intrigue, subtlety and intelligence that characterised the films and books whose bullet-riddled back the game is straddling. Whether it's possible to make a good Bourne game is debatable anyway, but this is a bad argument for another.
5 / 10