If there's one thing about EA, it's persistent. Doggedly so.
From Russia With Love isn’t a follow up to last year's critically pounded - nay, brutally pulverised - Bond title, GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, but there's certainly an air of suspicion and cynicism around the latest endeavour of everyone's favourite British secret agent under the EA umbrella. Yes, this is more of a continuation from the third-person action style as seen in Everything or Nothing, but there's no doubt that many will arch a Roger Moore-esque eyebrow at the company's continual annual fleecing of the 007 licence after last year's debacle [and many others down the years, lest we forget - Ed].
So, what do you do when there's no new Bond movie to hang the game on and you're looking for a way to recapture the love for digital 007? If you're EA, you look to the past and pull a suave Sean Connery. "That's the Chicago way", don’t ya know.
Shrewd. Very shrewd. The use of what many consider the One True James Bond for an adaptation of one of the better films is almost a masterstroke for EA in terms of damage limitation, even if the choice was made before Rogue Agent got shot in the face. No doubt, From Russia With Love emphasises Connery in almost every way. He may be not far off Octogenarian status but the smooth talking Scot was enlisted to be the voice and likeness of the company's freshest 007 gambit; another coup for EA.
So not only is Connery the not-so secret weapon, but the game follows the film extremely closely to the point where the cut scenes are nigh on an exact digital replications of the actual source material shot for shot. To underline the point, when we got the chance to play the almost complete title, EA had a large TV showing the movie which ran next to the hosting Xbox (which were flanked by pictures and signed posters of Mr Connery). We half expected the man himself to suddenly smash through a ceiling, emerging for a guest appearance, complete with a dry martini for the ladies and a pistol whip for anyone who dared insult the game.
Thankfully, from what we played there wasn’t too much for Sean to get totally upset about. The levels on display - an opening hedge maze section, a training exercise in Q's lab, and a driving stage that led to more on-foot action - were largely predictable but extremely competent. In short, a Bond adventure through and through.
License to maim
The template of Everything or Nothing essentially means gameplay that is mostly action-based with slight genre changes to keep the variety up. The first level of the demo had us taking down opponents quickly and quietly in an attempt to breach a mansion and find an enemy that will look fairly familiar to those who know their Bond well. It's all in the stealth, and to that end we were allowed to slide up back-first against hedge walls, peer around corners and use a handy zoom targeting mechanism to shoot out the radios of any guards before they call for backup. Or indeed, zoom in on certain body targets for a hot bullet injection.
But as we were casually reminded by the attending EA staff members, Bond often doesn’t just stand around shouting obnoxious obscenities and mass killing like, well, Rambo. So after a brief moment of gung-ho bullet spraying via a stolen automatic weapon, we were encouraged to try out some of the context sensitive moves that can be used during melee attacks. Smartly, getting up close to an enemy allows Bond to take them out by following a button prompt on the screen. Press the right one, and you activate a short sequence where 007 uses some fairly cool martial arts to finish off his target. Oh James, you're so masterful when you're hospitalising people!
In addition to those moves, there's also context sensitive actions for defence and movement, such as tipping furniture on its side for cover, scaling walls with a rappel and jumping over low obstacles with the greatest of ease. And to complete the dynamism, there's a healthy array of gadgets (a laser watch was the order of the day) to play with courtesy of Q, who lets you explore his lab, watch his staff make cock-ups of faulty experiments, and throws you into an obligatory training level to kill some non-human targets for a change.
It's the car right? Chicks love the car
Once we finished fooling around with Q, flirting with Moneypenny (strangely with a large rifle in hand - she must love the gun action) and getting a briefing from M (who didn’t bat an eyelid after we sprayed his office with bullets from said gun - he must love it too), we took to the roads of Istanbul for a short driving section. Smithers, unleash the heavily armed Aston Martin DB5!
Here the aim was to eliminate a number of vehicle-bound goons using the Aston Martin's front mounted machine guns, tyre punch or guided rockets, ducking into a bizarre garage to replenish health. Again, after driving through outside seated café areas, trying to run over civilians (sadly you can't) and generally creating rampant destruction, we were casually reminded of how Bond should act and went about getting on with the mission. Pfft.
But it did all allow us to get a good grasp of how it all handled, with the car a little more slippery in its controls than it needed to be; hopefully it will tighten up for the final build, as it made accurate driving a little too haphazard at times. That said, it didn’t stop it from being fun, and these on-road sections could provide a welcome break from the on-foot action. Given there's 14 levels in total, we expect a decent amount of tweaking to balance things up.
No Mr Bond, I expect you to die!
Finishing off the demo, was a split-screen multiplayer option, with up to ten playable characters fighting it out via a third-person view. Variants of the standard modes such as capture the flag and good old standard deathmatch will be available in the final version, while the demo we played managed to show off a number of weapons and gadgets including jet packs, sniper rifles, the golden gun and mounted artillery. Slightly more novel was the inclusion of gas bombs and Q's mini copter/remote mine.
Again, this managed to be decent fun under the conditions, but suffered from a slight lack of gameplay balance between certain weapons and also the same issue that we found apparent in the single-player mode; namely a looseness about the controls that made it hard to manoeuvre and target at times. This could be the deciding factor for the game on a whole, so it should be interesting to see if the development team can get around this particular death-trap.
But still. The usual spark of fantastic presentation managed to maintain a powerful Bond atmosphere and feel, even if controlling the man occasionally made him look as suave as an ape on Tamazipan. The music and sound stage, meanwhile, were pitch perfect, and EA has captured Connery's mannerisms to a tee, along with his poses and facial quirks. In fact, the detail on the models and environments were immediately impressive, as were the incidental effects and the larger touches such as fire and explosions. The only thing we could possibly raise an eyebrow about regarding the production was Connery's voice, ironically sounding like a caricature of itself at times. Schocking... scheriouschly schocking.
007 will return
There's still plenty of time for the kinks to be ironed out, however, given the game's late 2005 release. There's also promise of a upgradeable weapon feature which allows you to earn points for armour, health, weapons and gadgets after performing stylish Bond attacks (without the obtrusive audio cues that plagued Agent Under Fire, we hope) like group take downs and one shot kills. So there's plenty of promise left in the secret agent yet.
And let's face it, there has to be. There's been a Rogue Agent on the loose for far too long for anyone's liking. Go get 'em, Sean. Make him pay.