For once, none of Bond's well-documented adventures on the big screen form the basis of Agent Under Fire. Instead the game has its own storyline which is a montage of Bond stereotypes, and fans of the books and films will find déjŕ vu on the lips of every new character and in the objectives of every mission. Far from annoying, it's what makes the game such an achievement. EA have finally produced a Bond game worth its salt, after three abortive attempts on the PlayStation. Agent Under Fire's tacky story leaves you with no doubt of its ancestry. With the last few movies, simple motives like love and revenge have driven our hero, and EA, not eager to take any chances with a confusing thinking man's plot, have gone with a standard-issue secret agent story. Bond's job is to undo the work of a nefarious worldwide organisation with key genetic data on world leaders. Their plan is to replace each leader with a cloned sympathiser, with the overall aim of world domination. This will not stand. So Agent Under Fire is a first person shooter first and foremost, and beyond that it features classic Bond sections such as car chases. Boasting a high framerate and a surprising lack of aliasing or flickering, it makes a strong impression in the visuals department within seconds of being fired up. The levels are enormous, often filling the picture with polygons and intricately detailed textures, and Bond's surroundings are also well lit. Explosions are fairly common, and when they happen they flood the screen with colour and have a tendency to startle. Bond himself is The Matrix's residual self-image equivalent of several actors, looking like every stereotypical secret agent in the world. As always, he's sharply dressed thanks to some excellent cloth animation, and along with the key players in the game his shape and profile are in perfect harmony.
The Man With The Golden Pun
The story is told through the use of in-game cutscenes, where the extensive facial detail afforded to our hero becomes obvious. Each character can show off a variety of emotions simply through facial and body language, and of particular interest are the eye movements. Zoe Nightshade has a particular way of looking seductive using her eyes, and the Bond girls are all harshly curved and amply endowed. Complementing the mostly excellent graphics is some fairly decent voice acting. Unfortunately, although you may have seen John Cleese on the TV advert bemoaning 007's ability to keep precious toys in good condition, he along with Judy Dench and Pierce Brosnan all escape the rigors of the recording booth, replaced instead by some of half-rate clones. That said, they did do a good job, and unlike in Confidential Mission, Time Crisis and a hundred other secret agent 'em ups, there's no meaningless drone from the leading part. The music is somewhat less impressive though. You will already have heard the classic Bond tune on the Agent Under Fire TV advert, and if you plan to buy the game you will soon get used to it. EA has clearly paid a premium for the music, and at every twist in the plot and on-screen discovery, your ears are blown to smithereens by another vibrant bombardment of Bond music. Apart from this niggle though, Bond's adventures on the PlayStation 2 are good-looking and sounding - just like the man himself in fact - but the real question is how they play.
Bond's orders come directly from M, either via intercom or in-game, and each level has a definite objective, with a distinct lack of distractions along the way. There are 'only' twelve levels in the game, although each of them is huge and offers a varying challenge depending on the skill level. As such it takes about ten hours to complete the game, but the experience is nowhere near as involved or continuously rewarding as in recent PS2 successes Half-Life and Red Faction. Even the vaguest hint of stealth and the game becomes a pale shadow to the great Metal Gear Solid, and the action sections, while exciting, barely make up for this. The various gadgets and weapons don't really compensate you either, with each verbal explanation from Q branch a patronizing rant through the intercom. Bond does make more than a fleeting appearance in other modes of transportation, with some refreshing driving sections that really show off the EA team's daring, but if you were in search of a single point of failure to dwell on, it's the game's inability to surprise the player. That's what made Half-Life, Red Faction, Metal Gear Solid 2 and all those other action-adventure games exciting, and EA's effort is strictly by the numbers. The best example is the level design - it's not so much boring as built around what the player might expect to do. It's as though the developers said, as a Bond fan, what would you do with item X? For every single point. For example, in one section Bond and Nightshade are captured and left in jail cells on a ship. This is a very typical Bond situation and it's obvious that either magnetic-watch-swiping-keys, flex-from-lightbulb-to-strangle-guard or playing possum will get our heroes out of it, but none of that matters. Because a few minutes ago you were told in nauseating detail about the Q-laser on your watch. It's about the only new toy you have, and inevitably getting out of the jail cell involves Q-lasering the lock, then stealing the guard's gun from outside. To make matters worse, the guard will completely ignore your actions, even if he is facing the jail cell door. Ultimately, the single player campaign offers an above average Bond adventure, but it lacks measure. Just like the jail cell, every level is brimming with an obvious application for your new Q-toys and weapons. And herein lies the problem, the game is far too predictable, because your inventory is practically an itinerary of the troubles in your path.
You Only Live Twice
Agent Under Fire does have its redeeming features though. For starters, Bond's obvious arsenal of Q-gadgets is startlingly complete. Amongst Bond's toys are a Wolfram P2K (that's your Walther equivalent), The Golden Gun, Koffler & Stock KS7 (an H&K equivalent), various grenades, a rocket launcher and a host of other weapons, along with Q-decryptor, Q-claw, Q-specs, Q-card, Q-jet, Q-laser and several others. There is plenty of mileage in the practical arts of killing and spying, and you won't see it all for a good few hours. Bond's control system is also remarkably simple, although there is no keyboard and mouse support. You can customize the hell out of the controls of course, but it's nicely responsive for a start, and just as good as the Half-Life system I was praising not a week ago. Finally, there is the multiplayer mode. In strongest GoldenEye tradition, Agent Under Fire is an absolute hoot in multiplayer, with up to four Bonds at a time and plenty of multiplayer-specific power-ups dotted around. Although it sacrifices a bit of detail, it gets one up on its N64 forerunner by maintaining a perfectly acceptable 30 frames per second. It also features an enormous level of customisation. Of the various pre-designated modes, the deathmatch equivalent 'Combat Training' is the best bet, with Protect the Flag, Golden Gun (one shot kills), Anti-Terrorist Training and Top Agent also on offer. You can lose a lot of time to the multiplayer game, and it's worth it.
Can Bond really save himself with a last minute reprieve? Well, yes. Agent Under Fire is a good looking and sounding Bond adventure with a splendid multiplayer side to it. The single player game is well worth playing through once, even if you find yourself a mite unimpressed from time to time by the events unfolding on-screen. Repetitive? Okay. Predictable? Sure, but it's still a Bond adventure, and thanks to the multiplayer mode there's some real longevity here. If the last Bond game you played was GoldenEye, it's time to freshen up.