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We head down to Bizarre Creations' Liverpool studio for some hands-on time with James Bond: Blood Stone...
There's a perception held by some that games have long been the understudy of film. Since the early days of the medium developers have attempted to recreate the impact of celluloid on silicone; some attempts were risible ('Night Trap' anyone?), others misguided (Kojima's endless cut-scenes...), but recent games such as 'Uncharted 2' have begun to sketch the outlines of what decent 'interactive movies' might look like. It's no secret that games have overtaken film in revenue terms in the last year, and sadly it might be the solvency of the industry that ultimately leads to a more widespread recognition of their cultural value. With MGM off sick with financial flu, and the future of the Bond films in flux, it falls to Activision to foray into the footlights and give fans their fix of floozies and fisticuffs in the footsteps of their favourite spy.
The game begins in typical secret agent style with Daniel Craig leaping out of a low flying plane onto the deck of a yacht belonging to a shady billionaire businessman. After effortlessly dispatching a couple of sentries in a cutscene, the game hands you direct control of Bond for the first time. Game mechanics will feel familiar for anyone who's played a third-person shooter in recent years, with the obligatory cover system inviting you to flit from low wall to low wall as you pop out to shoot enemies in the face. Should you get close enough to initiate a melee attack, you'll be treated to one of Bond's seventy-odd takedown animations; a single button press initiating a flurry of blows to the head or a shakey-cam face-meets-wall soap opera. Takedowns vary depending on environmental and positional factors, somewhat like the 'Heat' moves from the Yakuza series, and are based on motion-capture footage of Bond stuntman Ben Cooke commissioned specifically for the game. Each successful takedown earns you a 'focus shot': a sort of slow-motion auto-lock-on headshot activated by holding the left bumper; three of which can be stored up and chained together in quick succession should the need arise.
Linking together a sequence of take-downs and focus shots towards the end of the yacht, you're suddenly plunged into a high speed boat pursuit, complete with ramps, exploding ships, and a collapsing lighthouse which echoes Half Life 2; it's much more 'on-rails' than Valve's game though, with only steering to really occupy you and shooting limited to the occasional slow-motion QTE. Back on dry land and after another on-foot battle through a hotel lobby, the level culminates in a final car chase which has you ramming your rival off the road at its climax. It's cinematic stuff, but at times, you can't help but feel that the game is almost playing itself. Still, it looks good while doing it. Neil Thompson, Blood Stones' Art Director, was keen to nail the aesthetic of the recent films:
"There's a specific look to the Craig movies which is almost a reflection of his persona as Bond; they're quite grey, they're quite desaturated, they use very traditional camera movements - dollies and static movements - which obviously we've followed to the letter".
Blur developer Bizarre Creations have had every assistance from Bond production company EON in bringing the big screen experience into player's hands; there's a script written by 'Goldeneye' scribe Bruce Feirstein, voice-overs and facial animation captured from Daniel Craig and Dame Judi Dench, and a new Bond theme penned by Joss Stone and Eurythmics producer Dave Stewart exclusively for the game. Hollywood crossovers are nothing new in the industry of course - Feirstein himself has been writing for Bond's console adventures for years - but there's a sense of scale in the resources being employed, and a sense of intent in the action/set-piece/car-chase structure of Bizarre's design that suggests they're trying to take on Hollywood at its own game.
"I think as the techniques cross-over, then the personnel cross-over, the experiences cross-over and the two things start to become more of the same thing", said Nick Davies, senior producer on 'Blood Stone'. "There's some good story-telling in movies and you can't help but take from techniques that they use, from camera angles to narrative delivery styles", he continued, "The key is to not just copy that wholesale but think how can I blend this into the interactive game experience as well."
As this is Craig-era Bond, gadgets are thin on the ground, and you're limited to a single smartphone which functions somewhat like the scan visor in Metroid Prime. In a construction yard at the start of the second level, you're introduced to the smartphone's functions; switch it on and the screen turns green and grainy, highlighting weapons and enemies through walls, and alerting you to mission critical objects and intel. Engaging in combat causes the effect to turn off abruptly, and if you leave it on for too long, the screen starts to fuzz and distort, in an effort to discourage keeping it constantly engaged. The computer hacking tutorial - which has you travel from hut to hut in the construction yard, scanning laptops - is somewhat tedious, but the action soon picks up when the final portacabin is hoisted into the air by a crane and you have to make a last ditch dash for safety (or in my case, fanny about in circles for a few seconds and cackle cruelly as Craig falls to his doom).
Spotting a lone guard at the edge of a deep excavation pit moments later, I crept up and delivered a sharp kick to knock him off the edge; unfortunately my angle of attack was off and I simply knocked him to the ground, but mysteriously unlocked the 'freefall' achievement anyway. The maze-like concrete-walled section that followed was where the stealth cover/takedown mechanics really began to shine; hiding behind a corner and waiting for a hapless guard to walk past into an oncoming elbow, then scurrying beneath a window and pulling another through with a fatal chokehold like some kind of nomadic trap-door spider in a suit was gratifying, but there were times when I longed for a bit more input with the take-downs than a single button press could provide. The melee animations are brutal, visceral events, but after a while, they start to feel a bit like those esper-summoning cut-scenes in Final Fantasy; all very impressive at first, but ultimately an immersion-breaking distraction that leaves you waiting to regain control of your character.
Some of the later extended firefights can start to feel a little 'Gears by numbers' but there's always a new car-chase or scripted event to break up the action. There's a good weight and feel to the car sections - as you'd expect from a studio with such a distinguished racing pedigree - and a liberal sprinkling of oncoming traffic and exploding petrol tanks helps to keep the tension up, even if they do have a slightly arbitrary trial and error feel to them. Tellingly, the weakest moments are when there's a let up in the action and you're left wandering around in a slightly clunky manner wondering what to do; thankfully these are few and far between as your smartphone is always on hand to shepherd you towards your next objective.
Not every game has to be ground-breaking to be enjoyable, and obviously there are challenges in creating such an extremely linear, cinematic experience in such a fundamentally non-linear medium, especially if people aren't willing to play along with the spirit of the narrative and do what is expected of them by the game. Bond is known for his shallow but fun, throwaway big screen adventures; from what's been shown so far, Bizarre have done an admirable job of replicating the film experience with Blood Stone.
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