From Russia With Love
A better Bond than you might imagine.
You're Electronic Arts. You're making a James Bond game. You're about to kit out the player with new gadgets from Q Branch. In Bond films, of course, Q Branch was designed to provide comic relief while adding new toys to Bond's play-set, because Bond is meant to be exciting and funny at the same time. He's suave and sophisticated, but also defiantly impish. But this isn't a Bond film. It's a game. You know it's a game. The player knows it's a game. So how do you do it?
Option 1: a cut-scene. Bond and Q exchange quips, Bond sees his new toys, the player gets vaguely excited, and we're on.
Option 2: introduce them on level one. Have Q's voice crackle over the radio with instructions on when and where to use things. When the player needs to rappel down a wall, you tell him how. Maybe Q can whine about bringing things back in full working order.
Option 3: You let the player wander into Q Branch by himself. As he strolls around, following Q toward the next toy, he spots something going on through a window. Hanging back, he observes a white-coated gentleman chucking a hook, snagging it on something and then clambering up the wall. Left foot, right foot, left foot, slip! Bang. Cracks his coccyx. Titter.
But don't stop there. Have the player test the toys out and learn the mechanics by doing an obstacle course, but for enemies use comical remote control enemies made out of upper-torso-dummies running around on wheels, with guns strapped to their heads. And make sure a few of them behave erratically. Give the player something to remember.
This time, Electronic Arts, you've picked Option 3, and we like you for it.
It wasn't always this way. In James Bond: Everything Or Nothing, made by the same team, you learnt as you went along. It may have been an original script, but there were still lots of different types of game bent to fit the storyline - and the funny bits were generally reserved for cut-scenes. You did the action, then you got the personality.
But, as anybody who played the original Half-Life knows, there is a better way. If you played that game, you enjoyed at least one behind-a-window scenario; perhaps as a scientist fiddled with a vent only to be grabbed by the head and sucked into it. That sort of thing adds substance to the world, whether it unsettles you or makes you laugh. You know you're in a game, but the game knows you're there too. You're not just watching; you're having to go and look. From Russia With Love reflects that approach to some extent - and if it can spread the punchlines around, we might just be able to overlook the odd "cut to fit" gameplay section.
And, yes, there will probably be a few of them to overlook. This is a fun game, but it's not been designed specifically for us. As EA reps rightly point out, the film has a mass appeal, and the game has to have that too in order to sell. So when you come up against a henchman, your actions will be simple, context-sensitive commands. You can sneak up and bop him on the head, you can take him on hand-to-hand, or you can just shoot him - perhaps using the right analogue stick to target things like his head, his radio, or the grenade on his belt - but it's rarely more complex than it has to be. If you're being shot at and aiming properly seems difficult, you can just pull the trigger, because your crosshair will at the very least be locked onto his chest.
But it's a better design. Spreading the humour around ties you in more. The cut-scenes are in-game and you often have control at the time, allowing you to fiddle with things in M's office as he lectures you about the importance of retrieving the Lector decoding device. When you are forced to put the pad down and watch, it's well directed. One of the levels is based around the hedge maze that marks the opening of the film, and sees SPECTRE agent "Red" Grant, our hero's soon-to-be nemesis, practicing his Bond-killing. Sean Connery creeps around the maze but is eventually hooked by Red's garrotte, only for the blonde-haired hitman to pull a mask off his moustachioed victim and toss it away. In the game, Red tosses it over his shoulder - and the game immediately cuts to the real Bond's hat arcing through the air onto a hat-stand in Moneypenny's office.
What's more, the playable sections have what you might call concessions to the hardcore, including light RPG elements that allow you to accumulate skill points by doing things stylishly. These bits, no longer called "Bond moments" or ring-fenced with graphical filters to remind you what to do, are dotted throughout the various game elements. If enemies come in through the roof on zip-lines, you can target their ropes instead of their guts, and the result is more points, which can then be spent on better weapons and gadgets.
You won't just do it on foot, of course. There are plenty of third-person action sections mixing in stealth-kills and hand-to-hand finishing moves; but there are also sections where you drive around blowing things up with weapons concealed in your Aston Martin; race boats under Istanbul so you can listen in on the Russian headquarters where you plan to steal the Lector. These are all competent enough. You may sometimes have to wrestle with the camera, and the handling on the car may seem slightly erratic, but you can forgive having to knock over the odd roadside object when one of your options is to pull up alongside an enemy car and use your hub-cab spike-device to flip them off the road. There's even a section that has you fighting a helicopter next to Big Ben with rocket launchers mounted on your jetpack.
Mind you, fans of the film are probably scratching their chins about that one. At what point in the film, exactly, did Bond fly around Big Ben with a jetpack shooting rockets at a helicopter? Of course, the answer is that he didn't. But while this contemporising of the film is likely to grate with some, it doesn't seem to be dramatically overdone. There are three new levels, all told, including a slightly different action sequence to conclude - presumably because Bond's brutal wrestling match with Red wouldn't fit in with what the game was doing elsewhere - and the London level seems to be the most significant departure. This gives players the chance to get to grips with various mechanics, and involves Bond foiling a plot to kidnap the Prime Minister's daughter - as played by Natasha Bedingfield. This culminates in Bond rescuing her from a bad-man helicopter, which he does with typical style, scooping her out of the plummeting bird and then introducing himself in mid-air.
Indeed, EA is keen to stress that it has worked very closely with the source material to try and maintain that '60s feel - even in the sections it's changed - and what's more that Sean Connery has worked closely with them to help maintain that Bond feel. He even changed some of his own dialogue to fit better, we're told. And while Christopher Lennertz' score is mostly new, it's been written with John Barry's original in mind - and the theme tune makes it over intact.
The results of EA's endeavours will almost certainly divide gamers, as they did with Everything Or Nothing. But the feeling we get, having played From Russia With Love ourselves and heard what EA's attempting to do, is that it will win more of us over than it has done in the past. It won't be another GoldenEye - whether we're talking about the N64 vintage or the current-gen dirge - but it could well be the best fit in a while. Having been out to the Bahamas to work with Connery, you might even say that EA's much wiser since its goodbye to you, having travelled the world, to learn, it must return [stop that -Ed]. Well, whatever - From Russia With Cautious Enthusiasm.
From Russia With Love is due out on PS2, Xbox and GameCube this Christmas.