If nothing else, EA's latest Bond outing proves that there are some very brave marketing people working in Redwood Shores - creatively lobotomised marketing people, perhaps, but brave nonetheless - because following a couple of half-hearted 007 adventures since the turn of the century, the indomitable publisher has finally realised what everybody else already knows: that it will never produce a better Bond game than Rare's GoldenEye.
Fortunately for EA, big screen Bond has also been in decline since it took over the license (actually, GoldenEye itself was the last 007 caper this writer remembers truly enjoying) and given the state of Die Another Day, with its invisible cars, pointless CIA ladies and Korean planetary lasers, it should come as little surprise to learn that instead of scrapping the doubtlessly expensive license completely, EA has simply gone after a much easier target - the Bond films themselves.
From Redwood With Love
From the narrative structure and production values to the gadgetry and gorgeous gals throwing themselves at its protagonist, Everything or Nothing is a James Bond film in all but name. It doesn't even start like a conventional computer game - instead it takes you past a roaring MGM lion and deposits you in the shoes of a covert Bond as he prepares to disrupt an arms exchange, gradually introducing you to the third-person shoot-'em-up mechanics via on-screen prompts, before climaxing in suitably pyrotechnic fashion a couple of minutes later and diving into a computer generated title sequence - complete with its own theme song, breasts carved out of silk veils and phallic gun symbols all over the shop. DA-DA! Durrr. DA-DA! Durrr.
Thenceforth the 'movie' script dictates the sort of game you get to play, with various different engines and derivative elements called into action where necessary. Say Bond needs to shoot his way through a crowd - just throw in some Kill.switch peep-and-shoot-'em-up mechanics. Bond needs to catch up with a speeding train? Grab Need For Speed off the shelf. Bond needs to sneak to the front carriage and disable the weapon systems? Look to Splinter Cell. Bond needs to escape before the train explodes? Do something in a helicopter. Later on you'll go cliff-jumping, get involved in a few punch-ups, drive around an open-plan city for a while, race motorbikes at Extreme-G velocities whilst trying to blow up a lorry, sign up for a three-lap off-road race, and of course drive the odd tank through a procession of destructible environments and highly flammable adversaries.
In gameplay terms, EA has clearly decided not to bother innovating, preferring instead to concentrate on what it's good at: glitzy cut sequences, big name voice actors and the fruits of production facilities that no other publisher can offer. As such Bond himself is an almost perfect digital expression of Pierce Brosnan, who also lends his vocal talents to the role, and the rest of cast is a mixture of familiar characters - Judi Dench as M, John Cleese as Q, Richard Kiel as Jaws - and familiar names - Willem Dafoe as the bad guy, Shannon Elizabeth as the Bond girl, and musician Mya as theme songstress and bit part Bond ally. EA even signed Japanese actress and model Misaki Ito as Q's assistant, and elevated her to the front of the box in the Far East in an effort to break into the Japanese top ten. It worked.
Indeed, for a while the new Bond Of All Trades approach works just as well. Throughout the prologue and right up to the end of the Virtual Reality tutorial I was convinced this was going to be fun. It's predominantly a third-person action game, and given the vast range of options - peeping round corners to headshot enemies, sneaking up and choking guards, punching henchmen, rappelling off the side of buildings, using thermal imaging in the dark, etc - it has the potential to be really entertaining. Missions sometimes even have interesting or opportunistic sub-objectives, like taking out a radar dish, or offer a choice of paths or vehicles. It also has what EA calls "Bond Moments" - little pangs of intuition that allow our hero to spot potentially advantageous level gimmicks and exploit them to his advantage; using a chandelier to crush some guards, for example, pausing to massage a young lady during a nightclub break-in, or taking advantage of a particularly outrageous shortcut during a car chase.
Sadly though despite some fine visuals and the occasional entertaining level, EON quickly falls victim to EA's over-ambition. The developer has too many pans on the boil and the result is that most of the game types suffer from niggling flaws. Third-person sections suffer under the auspices of a severely dodgy camera, and an auto-targeting/peep-and-shoot system too choosy about its prey, further hamstrung by a fine-tuning control for headshots that needs a fine-tuning control. The motorbikes meanwhile are just crap. They look like they ought to be fun, tearing around and over jumps at high speed, flames and rockets flung out of every crevice, but they're too prone to over-steer, and thanks to frequent time limits the whole experience is rather like threading a needle with boxing gloves - right down to starting over every time you miss an opening.
As for the car chases, so often a total failure in previous outings (including the dedicated 007 Racing), not even regular use of the Need For Speed Underground engine can save them - they're crude, inconsistent and often tedious, gadgets like smokescreens and rocket launchers notwithstanding. A "smash the limo" mission is pretty typical - forcing you to back off every time you damage your enemy so you can't just mash it into a corner and Carmageddon it to death - and then there are issues like having to stand in a particular position to enter a vehicle, or getting caught on the edge of a ramp because the game engine can't comprehend overlapping pixels.
The game also seems to be labouring under the common misconception that having to memorise increasingly lengthy gameplay sequences in order to make progress constitutes a difficulty curve, aptly demonstrated by one extremely shiny NFSU-inspired New Orleans section. Having raced through the easy opening scenes for the umpteenth time, and realising that outrunning my enemies before being torn to shreds by rockets was virtually impossible, the only way I found I could make progress was to sneak my Aston Martin Vanquish into rocket range of stationary AI vehicles, squeeze off a few rounds and then hastily withdraw, repeating this right the way through the city and onto my destination. In other words, the car chases gradually degenerate from an initially soulless but unobjectionable arcade experience into the vehicular equivalent of that sniper level in Medal of Honour: Allied Assault...
You Only Live A Few Hundred Times
EON's flaws even conspire to obscure its best moments. A tanker chase on a bridge renders road and motorists a mere blur as Bond tears along at phenomenal speeds, only for the eventual pay-off to prove frantic and predictable as Q encourages Bond to take out the tanker's tyres, while henchmen wait to take pot shots every time he's knocked back towards them for his troubles. The third-person sections aren't safe either - inventory use is fiddly, potentially cool gadgets are either too clunky (like the remote control spider mines) or worn down through repetition (like the remote control laser/car toy), enemies are like time bombs on conveyor belts, waiting to explode out of the next spawn point, often unseen, or impossible to shoot because you're in peep-and-shoot mode and they've crept beyond the arc of your auto-target, and death is all too frequent.
In fact, after a certain point, cheap forms of death and having to start huge levels again right from the start are inevitabilities, whether you're in a car, sneaking through a Bayou mansion, or jumping off a cliff to try and rescue a plummeting heroine. The latter example actually broke my heart. After his girl is thrown off a cliff, Bond dives after her and has to slide left and right across banks of air to dodge rocks and platforms, occasionally shooting enemies below and often edging into clear air right at the last moment, all the while the stunning shoreline below races up to meet him at an alarming rate. It's probably the most exotic looking, groundbreaking and adrenalin stirring level in the whole game, but there's no clue as to how you can improve your chances of catching the wayward Ms. Elizabeth, and when I finally did manage it I had no idea how or why - an experience that epitomises all of the game's problems.
In the end I get the impression EA's designers don't know how games actually work any more. For me the carrot isn't the next cut sequence or Bond in-joke, it's whether I like what I'm doing with the pad in my hand. But after a while the only reason to continue playing this is to see what Willem Dafoe cooks up next, whether they can really justify hauling Jaws out of retirement, and whether Bond can actually get off with both Shannon Elizabeth and Misaki Ito. It's window dressing as a substitute for gameplay - there are actually three famous ladies involved who don't really serve any purpose whatsoever. Heidi Klum is just a plot device, Misaki Ito is a marketing tool, and Mya presumably got her cameo on the proviso she penned the game's rather boring theme song.
For Your Eyes Only
That said, as window dressing goes, EA puts on a fine display. Carriages rock along the tracks during an early train level, the ground visibly racing past beneath the mesh floor, and hanging cables and unsecured machinery wobbling this way and that with each clomp of a sleeper; whenever the game goes outside you're guaranteed a sprawling vista of fields, cliffs, oceans forests in every direction, intricately constructed temple ruins, old mineshafts and dazzling lighting effects; and the developer does a very good job for the most part of disguising gameplay gimmicks like spots of cover, rappel points and Bond moment triggers so that EON requires some degree of observation skills to play.
But even motion captured protagonists and painstakingly accurate models of Shannon Elizabeth and co. can't fill the gameplay void, and despite the lofty production values even the dialogue-driven cut sequences fail to evoke any emotion. Women seem to kiss Bond for no obvious reason - and by once again failing to deliver believable tonsil tennis surely EA proves that no amount of money can buy you love (not believable love, anyway). Even the dialogue is forced. Jokes about past bad guys like Max Zorin (Christopher Walken in A View To A Kill) ought to be funny, but don't really connect, and the score/save screens and "MI6 Interludes" don't exactly nurture a feeling of continuity. (And setting them all in that Highlands retreat from the start of The World Is Not Enough means we don't get any exotic facilities like that lopsided warship in Golden Gun's Hong Kong harbour. For shame.)
Still, if the goal was to produce something on a par with the current crop of Bond films, then EA has done a much better job than ever before. The narrative is disjointed and unremarkable and characters are seldom developed, but it certainly has all the hallmarks, from turncoats to mouthy villains and overly elaborate death plans, and fans of recognisable action sequences and gadgetry for the sake of it will probably lap it up. Despite my various misgivings it's also easy and palatable enough to persevere and finish, and if you pick it up for an hour or so every night you'll probably stave off some of the frustration our necessarily protracted sessions unfortunately induced.
The Dropping Framerates
In terms of which version is "best", I can only comment on the PS2 and Xbox incarnations as EA didn't send us a Cube review copy, but it's pretty much the usual trade-off - Xbox looks better and doesn't exhibit much slowdown, but PS2 has the Dual Shock, which I've always preferred to the Controller S. Your mileage may vary. Oh, and the Xbox version will slide smoothly into widescreen right from the get-go if you have the Dashboard toggle set up correctly - the PS2 version does have a widescreen mode, but starts you off in 4:3 and for reasons unknown won't let you switch to 16:9 for games already in progress, even if you reset the game and load your progress from a save file...
All three versions offer the same amount of replay value for the dedicated double-oh agent, including a co-operative multiplayer mode with its own levels, but the endless pursuit of a "perfect" score and the concept artwork at the end of the road isn't worth the bother and regular cases of death-by-design-quirk, while the co-op mode feels rushed and misses out on the PS2 Online features found in its American counterpart. Xbox Live is of course completely off the menu due to EA's continued spat with Microsoft.
A Licence to Kill
Overall James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing represents progress, and proves that the abysmal Nightfire was a genuine blip rather than a sign of things to come, but the more discerning gamer will still come away nonplussed. EA is sometimes guilty of trying to polish its way out of a hole in order to hit a ship date or justify a license, but here it's as if it started with the polish and laminated fact sheets and worried about the game once the script was in the can. It's a new approach to licensed games, a sort of component project wrapped up in silk and platinum, and if given the right development resources in the future and a few more creative types at the controls, it could bode well for EA's next few Bond games. It hasn't got there yet though, and judging by EA's apparent desire to exploit the GoldenEye name in its next project, I probably won't get my wish. Still, never say never, eh?