Why have we never had a great Bond video game? Maybe the worst car Aston Martin ever made will serve as a good metaphor.
The Aston Martin Cygnet was an ugly little thing. It was a Toyota IQ that had Aston Martin badges bolted to it. It was that sad paradox: the city car. All economy and efficiency, the romance of cars – freedom, mobility, escape – was hammered into a machine designed to operate within confines. Cars drive through cities; it’s sad to think of them crawling around, trapped in them.
The Cygnet was stamped with good intentions: It brought Aston Martin’s fleet carbon emissions down. But Machines as beautiful and savage as Aston Martin has wrought don’t come from intentions such as these, and it takes more than a badge to forge them.
Through smoke and mirrors
The first game most will think of when asked to name a great Bond game is Goldeneye. Released for the N64 in 1997, Goldeneye was the ‘Hello, World!’ for console first-person shooters. The graphics were sublime, the level design intricate, and the multiplayer was at the humming heart of frenzied dorm rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms the world over.
That devil’s trident of a controller force-fed us a new rulebook for console shooters, and it took some getting used to. My reaction to Goldeneye was akin to Alice reading “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking Glass: “It seems very pretty… but it’s rather hard to understand!” By the time I’d finished my first multiplayer match, my conclusion echoed hers: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.” It didn’t take long to fall in love.
However, whilst Goldeneye is by no means ugly or sad like the Aston Martin Cygnet, it’s still a creature carrying a badge that doesn’t belong to it. Great shooter? Yes. Great Bond game? No. It had the likenesses, music, and locations of what was, at the time, a two-year-old Bond film. It cashed in on the excitement of a franchise revitalised with a new star at the helm, but while it was a terrific shooter, that’s all it was. It had a licence to kill, but it didn’t pull the trigger.
You could take Goldeneye and re-skin it completely, and it would still be just as fantastic without a pixelated Pierce to eyeball. In fact, that’s exactly what Rare did. Three years later, Perfect Dark came out and cleared the bar. More guns, more intricate and beautiful levels, a compelling original story: Perfect Dark improved on every aspect of Goldeneye, and though it didn’t – couldn’t – have the same impact as its predecessor, it demonstrated handily that Goldeneye succeeded on the merits of its play, and not on its identity.
From Redwood with love
EA’s best crack at the Bond formula came by way of Everything or Nothing in 2003. EA Redwood Shores (latterly Visceral Games, proud purveyors of the Dead Space series) struck a good chord a little too late. Despite an original plot penned by Bruce Feirstein – who had written Brosnan’s first three Bond films – it lacked any originality in its play. It borrowed from some popular places: its driving sections were lifted from Need for Speed; its cover-shooting mechanic was lifted from Kill Switch; but it was never anything more than the sum of these parts.
Its gameplay was only ever solid, but it had identity. Pierce Brosnan, Judy Dench, Richard Kiel, and Willem Dafoe lent the game their talents, and it felt like you were playing Brosnan’s secret fifth film, replete with a wardrobe of handsome suits and a cache of cars. It reflected Bond’s identity at the time; sadly, at that time, Bond’s identity wasn’t so much in decline as free-fall. The films’ desperate thirst for restraint carried over into a game filled with late-in-the-day Brosnan bombast, nanobots, and without a single good line of dialogue in its winding, brassy plot.
One of the game’s deft touches was its “Bond moments”, a series of hidden tricks to be uncovered. These were, in their way, a precursor to the achievements and trophies that followed in the very next generation. They rewarded thinking like Bond – shooting a winch and dropping a jumble of crates on a group of loitering enemies, or stopping on your way through a luxury hotel massage parlour to give some lady in waiting a quick rub down. It was a wonderful way of tapping into the feel of Bond, of realigning the player’s mind-set and rewarding them for thinking creatively, or mischievously, just like England’s suavest bastard does.
The only shortfall of this mechanic was just that: it was a mechanic. It was very… video gamey. These moments felt contrived, and what should have been intoxicatingly shaken into the cocktail of the game, was instead a mechanical moving part. It was operating within confines.
The rule of diminishing returns is one that applies with bite in From Russia with Love. An odd proposition from the start, Redwood Shores dove deep into the past and returned bearing tacky trinkets. Sean Connery reprised his role, but with the kind of stubbornness that a man in his position can afford, he recorded all of his lines for the game in unadulterated Scottish.
Much of what can be said of Everything or Nothing can be said of From Russia with Love: it’s Connery-era ‘60s Bond, yes, but it’s late Connery in terms of its noise – mid-air missile trading in a jet pack above the Thames from the first mission, the Q-copter (!), and all the explosive cover-shooting you can sigh at. It’s a competent game, but it showed its hand too often, blew its load early, and captured a caricature of Bond.
Any thug can kill
The perfect Bond game has been made, just not assembled; its constituent parts are lurking out there itching to be re-badged. It belongs in third-person, not just for the gameplay, but for the aesthetics. The trappings of Bond are extremely important; it has always been concerned with surface. A punch thrown is only as important as the tailored cloth that ripples in its wake. This isn’t shallow; it’s expression.
The visual storytelling, light and space, and expressive animation that live in the heart of Uncharted 4 would be perfect for Bond. In fact, while we’re at it, the gunplay, stealth, and hand-to-hand would be right at home as well. Call it fair game for the stonking great set-piece homage to The Living Daylights toward the end of Drake’s Deception. Imagine the ornate intricacy and detail of Hitman’s level design, with the detective sleuthing of the Arkham games.
Verbal sparring is something that has never made the jump to Bond games outside of cut-scenes. Imagine a Fallout-style dialogue choice mechanic wherein you could ‘win’ encounters by bluffing and picking the ballsiest one-liners possible. Extra points rewarded for the cheesiest puns, of course. The driving would have to be nicked from somewhere with the airy thrill of outrageous handbrake turns and glossy motion blur – somewhere like the oft-overlooked Driver: San Francisco.
Bond at its Zenith takes time to soak in the texture of its world. Car chases, shootouts, and wild stunts have always been a part of it, but any number of action heroes can indulge in those set-piece thrills. Bond represents a far more intimate fantasy: the perusal of rooms marked ‘private’, the smoking of cigarettes, risking it all playing baccarat at buzzing tables in lavish casinos – and winning. These restrained calling cards have eluded Bond games for so long and they don’t have to any more. Other games have proven there is room for a defter, assured approach.
It’s ironic that the way to fix the Bond game problem is the same way it’s been broken all these years: re-badging. It isn’t that we need to plaster the name over borrowed property; now, it’s that we need borrowed property to forge the name. We need a creature of savage beauty.
For Thomas Jaitly, for his knowledge of all things Bond, cars, and talking about Bond when I probably should have been working.