James Bond isn't a man afraid to reinvent himself. Changing his face as often as Dr. Who, he's tried desperately to stay current despite his chauvinistic ways and predictable clichés. He'd nearly lost his appeal during a six-year hiatus in the early nineties before Pierce Brosnan took the mantle as England's greatest super-spy in GoldenEye. While the movie was decent enough, it had a greater impact on gaming when the N64 shooter based on the film became a cult phenomenon upon release in 1997.
This was partially due to a dearth of console first-person shooters at the time. Similarly, last year's reimagining on Wii showed up on a console hungering for shooters. Now, that same reimagining has been given a high-def skin and ported to Xbox 360 and PS3, where it must compete against a cavalcade of FPS behemoths. Unfortunately, Bond's latest doesn't do enough to carve out its own identity in today's shooter-saturated market.
The Bond license is certainly a missed opportunity. Swapping Pierce Brosnan out for Daniel Craig would seem a sensible move as Brosnan's smarmy charm was more suited to wordplay, while Craig's cool efficiency seems more appropriate for a game where Bond spends most of his time killing. In truth, it's a superficial swap, with Craig half-heatedly mumbling what few lines he has. Even his avatar looks confused about what he's doing here.
Perhaps GoldenEye 007: Reloaded's most distinct mechanic is its emphasis on stealth, though this is fiddly in execution. It's not always clear what will set guards off when you can unload several silenced bullets into a man's chest as he cries out in pain - which no one seems to notice because, well, the gun had a silencer. Body detection isn't an issue as corpses mysteriously vanish upon hitting the ground, which was forgiveable in 1997, but jarring in 2011. It's a peculiar approach, but once you get the hang of this bizarre logic it becomes satisfying to get the drop on a series of isolated enemies.
The problem is that levels aren't open-ended enough to take full advantage of this. Stages are linear and while paths will occasionally split in two or provide an alternate route through an air vent, there are rarely enough options to vary your approach in any meaningful way.
Case in point is Bond's ability to hack into enemy sentries with his smartphone (yes, there's an app for that). It's a nifty idea, but criminally underutilised; it can only be used in a handful of occasions, most of which are set up so you'll come across them naturally.
Inevitably you'll get spotted, and while GoldenEye 007: Reloaded dabbles in stealth, it's primarily about shooting guys in the face. Enemies can only take a realistic amount of damage (save one ludicrous late-game boss), so they make up for it in numbers. Their AI is limited, but smart enough to roll for cover and flank you. Generous "snap-to" iron sights make it easy to mow down a ridiculous quantity of enemies. Entertainingly, they all die like movie henchmen. Shoot a foe next to a railing and they'll be sure to flip over it for no apparent reason.
It's competent, but nothing exceptional. Guns fail to convey much sense of weight and, half the time, melee attacks offer no feedback, making it difficult to gauge if you've hit an enemy. While these are mild annoyances, sprinting is a problem. There's an invisible stamina meter and it's never clear when you're able to hoof it. The recharge time seems inconsistent too, making it even more unreliable.
This doesn't hurt the game as much as one would think. Reloaded's best shootouts are set in cramped environments, densely populated with destructible cover. Finding a place to hunker down is never difficult and first-person cover is handled well. If you're ducking behind cover and aim down your iron sights you'll automatically peek over the edge. It's a seamless and pleasant stop-gap between the traditional FPS and more recent cover shooters.
The only downside to the game's cover is that you can't lean around corners. Curiously, the Wii version allowed this with the Wii remote, but it has been excised here, even with the Move controller. Having tried both control methods, I ultimately found the PS Move less precise than dual analogue sticks.
One of the few places where Reloaded shows inspiration is how it handles difficulty. Harder settings add more objectives to each mission, ensuring you get to explore more of each level. It's a great bonus and unlike last year's Wii version, these additional objectives are entirely optional.
Moving away from the single-player, GoldenEye 007: Reloaded contains a host of competitive multiplayer modes (available online or in up to four-player split-screen) with an exceptional amount of customisation. Aside from the basic modes like Conflict (i.e. "deathmatch") and Team Conflict, there are more unique options like the classic Golden Gun mode where the titular weapon grants one-shot kills and bonus points, though it takes ages to reload. There are further modifiers for private matches, where you can tweak how long players can sprint, whether the radar is on or off, or make only headshots count.
There's a ranking system where you get experience for kills, especially if you meet certain criteria like having a kill streak, or getting revenge on your former murderer. Levelling up gives immediate goals but it also makes it more impenetrable for new players. At the time of writing, matchmaking was an issue on PSN with certain game modes hard to get going and imbalanced teams being formed; hopefully this will get fixed shortly. Despite a few novel modes, nothing thrilled me the way FEAR 3's unique multiplayer did earlier this year.
New to this version of GoldenEye are the additional single-player challenges dubbed MI6 Ops. These task you with eliminating all enemies as fast as you can and some have certain conditions like not being spotted or defending a series of consoles. Much like multiplayer, you can impose modifiers onto these, then upload your score. If you wish to best a friend's high score you can conveniently play the stage with the same conditions as them. It's a nice thought, but these levels drag on too long and pale in comparison to the punchier pace of the main campaign.
GoldenEye 007: Reloaded is a serviceable shooter, but it lacks the spectacle of Call of Duty, the tactical options of Deus Ex or Crysis, and the urgency of FEAR. In their place it has, well, not much. Some will admire its simplicity - and there is something to be said for its casual approach. But the sad fact is that just as Bond was succeeded by Jason Bourne in the cinemas, his gaming legacy has also been usurped by those he inspired.