Friday, 23 November 2012

Just Finished: 007 LEGENDS

Wow, Jaws looks way more realistic than Bond here...
...oh, right.

Released October 2012.
Published by Activision.
Developed by Eurocom.
Version played: PlayStation 3.

As you might have noticed, 2012 represents the 50th anniversary of the James Bond movie franchise (not the books, they're older).  To be honest, I've felt the festivities to be a little lacking on MGM's part - sure, we got Skyfall and the full series Blu-Ray set (on the Christmas list!) but those could have come out any year.  Hell, the BRs should've been out sooner, I've been waiting far too damn long for 'em.  Still, at least other groups tried to do something a little special to mark the occasion.  Some of them were great fun, like the Top Gear special with Richard Hammond squeeing over all the old cars of the series.  Others, however...

...that would be 007 Legends.
To get the inevitable question out of the way first, no, 007 Legends is not another GoldenEye.  And I mean that in any of 3 possible ways.

The original GoldenEye for the N64 wasn't the first Bond game - there was a Licence to Kill game for early gaming PCs that has since slipped into the cracks of history, and depending on territory the James Bond 007 game for the original Game Boy may have also released before it - but it was certainly the first great one, and has cast a shadow over every subsequent game to bear the Bond name.  While the title doesn't hold up so well nowadays due to a sluggish framerate and primitive enemy AI, enough has been written about its impact on all subsequent shoot-em-ups to ensure its legacy remains in the forefront of most gamers' minds.  Suffice to say Legends offers nothing to compete with that kind of revolution, but then no game since GoldenEye 64 ever has to date (with the possible exception of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare).

More recently, Activision tasked Eurocom with creating a new GoldenEye, originally a Wii exclusive in 2010 before being upscaled into HD and slightly beefed up for its Reloaded release on PS3 and 360 last year.  Again, this didn't do much to rock the FPS boat, but it did quietly receive critical plaudits for its smart pacing, varied and exciting campaign, and fun multiplayer mode - with the return of classic local split-screen play being a particular highlight.  Speaking for myself, I own the game on both Wii and PS3 and dig it out for campaign run-throughs pretty regularly even 2 years on; it's that rare example of a modern FPS where the developers gave a damn about how the single-player experience fared, not to mention it isn't so slavish to the genre conventions to just feel like a reskinned COD.  Eurocom were back on dev duties for Legends, using the same game engine - and yet, somehow, it's not quite the same.

Oh, and of course there was 2004's GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, a weird alt-universe title released by EA where you play as a kind of evil anti-Bond with a bionic eye (which is, of course, gold) and participate in a private war between various Bond villains.  Despite the tone I've been using here, Legends thankfully isn't anywhere near as awful as Rogue Agent.

"Cover yourself up, darling, or you'll start to"
Man, Daniel Craig WISHES he had my gift for the glib.

Plot-wise, Legends plays it pretty loose.  After watching the tail end of Skyfall's pre-credits sequence, Bond is shot by one of his own side, and is left sinking in a river.  However, perhaps in an effort to block out Adele's mopey whinging voice, here he starts to hallucinate, as old faces dance before his eyes and memories of past missions start to come back to him.  Before he knows it, he's 'woken up' in a hotel room in Miami and found Jill Masterson's gold-plated corpse - no time to think about dying, Bond, let's go beat up a fat guy and his hat-throwing bodyguard!  The game jumps through the events of Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Licence to Kill, Die Another Day and Moonraker (in that order - no, that's not chronological, I don't really know if there's any significance to it) with each film split into two separate 'missions', largely cutting out plot and character setup in favour of jumping to the major setpieces.  Though majorly a first-person shooter with the typical modern twists of regenerating health (except on the highest difficulty setting) and aim-down-the-sights-if-you-don't-want-to-miss-constantly, gameplay is split between all-out shooting, stealth sections, vehicle stages and some rudimentary puzzle-solving.

Control-wise, there are few surprises for anyone remotely familiar with the FPS genre.  Left stick controls movement, right stick controls where you look/aim, left shoulder aims down the sights, right shoulder shoots your equipped weapon.  The face buttons handle crouching, context-based interactions (opening doors etc.), reloading and switching weapons, while the d-pad's directions relate to weapon mode toggles and Bond's gadgets.  Other than a tweak to how you aim from cover - with the simple pop-up system of GoldenEye 2010 replaced with a 'leaning' mechanic that owes more to the Killzone series - the game handles itself in the same fashion as its predecessor.  This is a good thing - Eurocom have kept everything feeling fast-paced, yet still give more of a sense of real solid motion than one expects from Modern Warfare, which is so bloody quick and steady you'd swear those hardened SAS types are ice-skating through the battlefield.  That said, pull the trigger and things begin to feel a little bit...wrong.  It's hard to explain, but weapons on the whole don't pack the same audio/visual 'punch' they did in GoldenEye - doubly strange considering both games have largely the same weapon set, a few tweaked options aside.  And yet, firing sounds and enemy reactions feel stilted and toned-down in Legends; this isn't exactly a gamebreaker - and it's nowhere near as bad as Rogue Agent, where your guns may as well have been loaded with peppermints for all intents and purposes - but speaking as someone who derives more than a little joy from the simple act of using a virtual firearm, it does disappoint me.

Never noticed before now, but Tracy basically wears the
same exact outfit as Blofeld, except in a girl's cut.  Weird.

Beyond the shooting, the developers clearly sat down with a list of nitpicks gathered from the last game, and spent a lot of time brainstorming ways to improve these areas.  I can't fault this attitude - hell, given the stagnation apparent in most other shooters these days, I'd rather like to go hug everyone at Eurocom for at least trying - but the results are hit and miss.  Let's take stealth as an example.  It was a simple enough business in GoldenEye; enter a given area and the enemies would be unaware of you, take them down silently when they're out of each others' sight-lines to stay covert, get noticed by noise or action and you'd have a few precious seconds to take out the alerted enemies before they'd sound the alarm and all hell breaks loose.  Nothing to tax the mind of someone raised on Metal Gear or Splinter Cell but it broke up the pace and let the player show off a little by trying to do things 'smartly'.  Legends has the same idea, but takes things further, aiming to really challenge the player's planning and timing.  The main change is that dead enemies no longer disappear after their death animation, and the persistent bodies are enough to raise an alarm if discovered by still-living guards or left in the view of a security camera.  Doesn't sound like much?  Well, consider Bond has no means to move bodies around - where they fall is where they stay.  And the patrol routes of the guards are very cleverly pieced together, with lots of overlap points where they can see one another.  Believe me, these sections are hard, and on one particular occasion (a point during Licence to Kill where staying quiet is mandatory) very nearly made me quit playing altogether.  That said, when I got past them without checking FAQs for help, I felt no little sense of pride - I'd just really prefer if I could drag the dead guys out of sight when necessary is all.

Gadgets also play a bigger role in this one.  In GoldenEye you were limited to Bond's phone, which could interact with Wi-Fi nodes to reprogram sentry guns, open doors and not a lot else - that said, the game was very much in the style of the Daniel Craig films, themselves largely gadget-void, so this felt pretty natural.  With the more broad Bond focus of Legends, though, comes a more hearty selection of Q-branch wizardry, most of it well-implemented.  The phone remains, though its hacking features also allow it to track power lines through walls to discover hidden machinery, and its new biometric setting allows Bond to scan for fingerprints (amongst other things), helping locate more hidden stuff and - and you have no idea how smart I thought this was - letting you bluff your way through keypad locks by highlighting the buttons pressed by previous users.  Bond also carries a pen that's actually a dart gun, which can dish out silent knockout shots, electro-shock darts with an area effect, and 'distraction' darts which I honestly couldn't figure out the point of (isn't shooting anyone with anything kind of a distraction for them?).  Lastly is Bond's watch, which provides an active radar that can track nearby enemies' movements even through walls and across multiple elevations, and shoots a laser beam that can break security cameras quietly or fry radios and other audio equipment to catch enemy attention and draw them off their normal positions.  Learning to use these toys effectively is largely left up to the player, and they compliment the core mechanics smartly.

Bond's true ultimate gadget: disposable totty to do the boring
computer work for him while he shoots stuff.

And then there's the hand-to-hand fighting.  Not the regular melee takedowns - still executed with a click of the right stick, still looking pretty swish - used during gunplay, I mean the big fights against the Bond Villains and their henchmen.  Now, when it came to throw down with Trevelyan or Xenia Onatopp (giggle) in GoldenEye, Eurocom simply turned the fight into an in-game cutscene, still viewed from Bond's POV, with player interaction limited to quick-time events.  In fairness, the QTE button prompts followed a certain sense of logic and were threaded throughout the game as a whole so they didn't feel random or obtrusive, and the fight animations were very well done, but you know how it is - QTEs have become something of a cliché and a well-worn whipping post amongst internet fandom.  So, Eurocom have gone in a different direction, and each major fight is now much less scripted.  Instead, the villain squares up to Bond - complete with their own life bar - and you have to target your punches as either low or high, left or right, according to where their guard is let down.  Screw up and you get punched in return.  The system works, but...well, for starters it never really changes from the first instant to the last, irrespective of who exactly you're fighting.  True, sometimes dodging or disarming the enemy is involved, but there's no difference between doing that to Oddjob or doing it to Blofeld.  And those guys are not very similar.  Then there's the fact that occasionally, you use the system to combat generic guards, for some reason, which just makes the fights with named villains seem less dramatic.  Lastly, what with the close-range enemy, boxing stances and movement prediction gameplay, it feels like Punch-Out!! 007 Edition, so it's basically impossible to take seriously.

Just imagine it's Super Macho Man standing there instead.
Uncanny, right?

On a less mechanical note, the game's pacing and variety - two things GoldenEye did very well - are suspect.  Much of the plot(s) is condensed into book-ending cutscenes between stages, leaving the actual gameplay as frequently little more than getting from point A to point B to do one relatively important task, only for 3 or 4 other, more important things to happen either offscreen or without your input.  It doesn't help much that, of the 5 films involved, 3 of them feature first levels that boil down to 'sneak through a factory'.  Taking Bond away from the recognisable sights of all given films, these brown-and-grey industrial warehouses blend into one big mess of meh in short order.  Then there's the cut material from the films.  In fairness, writer Bruce Feirstein was put in a tricky position here, being forced to cram the stories of each film into playable sections that barely last longer than the films themselves; correspondingly, nearly every conversation is on the expositional side as there simply isn't time or space to weave things together more organically.  Even so, more could have been to maintain the dramatics of each film; with scant chatter between the characters involved and no set-up scenes of note, big moments like finding Felix Leiter after his brush with death or Bond cradling Tracy's corpse in his arms fail to register a response.  There's also virtually no narrative linking the films together; you could swap out any of them for any other selection of Bonds down the years for the same effect.  That the game simply goes to credits at the conclusion of the Moonraker episode without anything resembling an epilogue gives one a deflated feeling - there is no closure here.

On a sidenote, the initially-locked Skyfall missions have since been released, and are a complete waste of time - based solely around Bond's pursuit of hitman Felice, they cover only the pre-credits sequence and a quick bullet-sponge boss fight in a Shanghai skyscraper, neither of which involve the movie's main villain Silva or have anything to do with the movie's actual plot.  Makes you wonder why they bothered locking them in the first place.

Graphically, the game runs on the same engine as the HD versions of GoldenEye, which means it's pretty without being exceptional.  You'd never mistake these visuals as belonging to a Killzone or even Medal of Honor-grade shooter, but they're hardly ugly, sporting a smooth framerate at all times, some nice effects, good draw distance and especially noteworthy animation (a frequent strong point for Eurocom).  Whenever they got the chance to rebuild and reimagine classic Bond architecture, the designers went in with gusto, expanding on what's seen in the films whilst still maintaining the familiar quirks, styles and colours - the attention to nerdy detail is fantastic.  Character models have some noticable jaggy edges, but the likenesses for most of the cast are very strong, save for the few who deliberately stray from the source material for whatever reason.  The voice acting features a few welcome returns from certain film cast members - hearing Michael Lonsdale's droll put-downs as Drax again is squee-worthy - while most of the replacement VAs do good work, not necessarily impersonating the originals so much as doing their own spin that still works.  I have to wonder why Daniel Craig didn't lend his voice to Bond this time, though, especially since the stand-in is a little weak...the in-game music complements the action very nicely and carries that brassy sense of 'Bond swagger', even working in elements of the old scores as needed, and David Arnold provides a neat instrumental remix of the Goldfinger theme for the title sequence.

Yes, you too can BE bleach-haired '80s Christopher Walken!

The multiplayer perhaps fares better than the campaign, largely by remaining unchanged from its predecessor.  The same full-featured (if unremarkable) online set-up is paired with the more welcome split-screen, and largely the same modes return, with the GoldenEye Strike renamed Icarus Strike for obvious reasons.  There's a selection of perks and gadgets to muck around with, and the new levels are every bit as smartly crafted as the older game's pack.  And suffice to say playing as retro Bond villains still isn't getting old; it's especially welcome to see so many nutters who don't appear in the campaign turning up here with terrifyingly accurate likenesses - Dr. No, Rosa Klebb, Emilio Largo, Max Zorin, Scaramanga...

In truth, the most maddening thing about Legends is how close it feels to being great.  The core engine is solid, the gunplay is largely fun, and the individual pieces are all well-designed.  Indeed, every so often you reach a stretch of the game that feels almost perfect; all the vehicle sections are terrific, and free-floating in zero G aboard Moonraker's space station, exchanging laser fire, is a fantastic change of pace that opens up a literal new dimension to the combat.  But this 'selection box' of Bond moments never clicks together in the fashion of one of the spy's great adventures, and in the process of aiming for a genuine evolutionary leap from their last entry Eurocom have sadly managed to bugger up the purity that made GoldenEye so lovely.  It's a 5 out of 10 - or in Bond terms, somewhere between A View To A Kill and Diamonds are Forever.

Stung by my accusations, Bond chooses to end it all in a
blaze of glory (or as much glory as can be found in Die
Another Day, at least).

No comments:

Post a Comment