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.