Quantum of Solace: Xbox 360 Game
There really is no getting past it – GoldenEye is the Sean Connery of James Bond games. You may be newer, younger, more energetic, you may have ten times the bang and twice the laughs, but in the end you simply won't be as good.
Quantum of Solace is exactly what you expect it to be, and possibly slightly less. A rushed-seeming tie-in to a film series that adequately puts you in scenes from the movie – movies, in fact, as Casino Royale is also included – but never reaches beyond the basics.
So while the 007 movie series was able to reinvent itself with a reboot that arguably changed the very genre of a 'Bond film', the videogame makers have yet to acknowledge that a real change of tack is in order. So-so FPSs led to not-much-better third-person shooters that did much the same things, and now Activision have taken the rejuvenated film series, not to mention the extra available oomph of the current-gen consoles, and chosen to utterly maintain the status quo.
Story-wise, the style is laid out good and early. The game begins at the end of Casino Royale, with Bond putting a bullet in the leg of evildoer Mr. White. Unlike the film, bad guys then spew out of nowhere, forcing you to battle through White's villa and its surrounding gardens before bringing down the helicopter that's arrived to escort him away.
Basic videogame adaptation formula: between each gun-toting incident simply insert henchmen, a locale that can only be traversed one way, and throw in a helicopter.
Quantum of Solace is an odd film to adapt as a pure run-and-gun game, because much of its action – a gritty car chase, a hectic motorboat battle and an airborne dogfight – emphasises the vehicular. Bond games of the past, particularly non-adaptations like Nightfire or Everything of Nothing, got around this in various ways, but mostly settled for some gadget-laden driving levels, and maybe the odd arcade-style shooting-on-rails sequence. Quantum of Solace has a whole other way to handle it.
By not doing it.
Looking to get behind the wheels of the Aston Martin? Tough. The closest you'll get is by leaning inside the display model charmingly unlocked as a 'bonus feature' to look at but emphatically not drive. Boats? Nada. That entire section of the movie isn't even mentioned. And as for the planes...well, now we're getting to a key issue.
One of the most understandable, but least satisfying, decisions made for Quantum of Solace is to avoid cinematic scenes almost entirely. This it not to say there are no cut scenes – there are oodles, with M, Tanner and Bond nattering over the phone – but they're almost always entirely laid over MI6 computer readouts. A nifty GUI to be sure – identical to the movie, and apparently created for the game by the same team at MK12 – but an awful cop-out. So when Bond and Camille fall from a plane, we never see the action; instead we're shown two radar blips as Judy Dench desperately tries to describe what's going on.
Niftily these are used to disguise loading times, so points for effort there. But go look at The Darkness to see the job done properly.
Once in a very rare while a scene will be shown in something resembling intended quality – there's a sequence at the end of the Casino Royale section that cuts images of Vesper drowning and Bond being tortured with the character driving towards White which is actually quite affecting – but even then the makers go to great lengths to avoid having to do lip-synch. Still, these moments are rare – mostly they just didn't have the time. Unlocked storyboards of yet more intended cinematics only make the sense of missing out all the stronger. Sure, we know, scheduling and cost, blah blah. But boy does this ever feel cheap.
In fusing together two linked movies the makers of Quantum of Solace face what should be an easy challenge. The films, after all, are only separated by minutes of story time. So why start with the closing moments of the first film? It doesn't make the title Quantum of Solace seem any more appropriate, and only leads to a ghastly jump later on – after four levels Bond leaps, with scant incentive, into a flashback. At which point the player is invited to work their way through Casino Royale.
Of course, even that film didn't really provide enough game levels, so we do get one of my favourite protracted in-jokes. A scene cut from the film, and not even included on the DVD, showed Bond replacing casino gambler Mr. Bliss on his train to Montenegro. Here this becomes an up-and-over journey through yet more thugs, aided by the rushing movement of the train, until, amusingly, you find and kill Mr. Bliss – who is based on a model of Quantum of Solace director Marc Forster.
While the voice acting from the major players is spot on, often eerily reminiscent of the original movies' delivery, the storytelling itself is all over the place. What starts out as Bond's flashback is later shown to be recorded intel being checked over by one of the bad guys, then leaps back to being Bond subjective again...then concludes as intel after all. As levels end a voice demands that we wind forward to the next incident, giving the player zero narrative to grab onto. You remember the movies, right? You'd better – these scenes won't make a lick of sense without them.
My favourite example, though, is the conclusion to the free running sequence. You may recall that, after charging across rooftops and over a construction site, Bond concludes his chase in an Embassy. Well, the game makers have no such recollection. the roofs and construction site are there, but then we jump out to that all-familiar GUI...and a voice informs us that the bad guy was caught and killed. Off-camera.
Still, okay, maybe we can forgive not seeing lower-quality versions of famous scenes and permit some skipping around for the sake of brevity. Maybe we can even forgive the fact that only four levels in Quantum of Solace are actually based on the film that bears that title. Ignoring all that, how does she play?
The good news is that Treyarch have done some smart work with the Call of Duty engine. Though you play through Bond's eyes when moving, the game switches to third person whenever taking cover. Which happens a lot. The change is swift and simple and never jars, but it does make one question the decision to stay first-person. During every battle you'll constantly be crouched behind cover, leaning out to take pot-shots before ducking back. Attack head-on and pretty soon that nifty gunbarrel-and-blood combo is going to close in (a neat near-death indicator if ever there was one), the screen's going to go black and white and you'll be dead. (Though not if you back off quickly; five seconds behind a pillar is apparently enough to shake off any pesky bullet wound.)
The guns available are taken from whatever today's version of The Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit (remember that?) is. Pistols, machine guns, shotgun, rocket launcher, sniper's rifle, blah blah. While I applaud the resistance to any dual wielding – so not Bond's style – there really is nothing to get excited about here. They all do much the same when you shoot the constantly-available collection of exploding canisters, and never really feel solid while doing so.
Enemies are many in number and few in design. Somewhere there's a momma who dresses all her octuplets the same who's about to get a very sad phone call from the Quantum organisation. But she was probably expecting it – they were never very bright. Running at secret agents with big guns, taking cover but usually leaving a handy foot or head sticking out. It's a kindness, really. They also take bullets in surprisingly few ways, no matter where they're shot.
So you plod your way through the completely linear levels – no benefits to wandering off the beaten path in this game – and get to grips with the 'get to new room, defeat hoards, repeat until comatose' mechanic. With minimal challenge in the five or so hours of barely-dying-ever-on-standard-difficulty gameplay, you take a moment to look at the surroundings. And they're...adequate. If this is the best looking Bond game, it's only by default – by having the extra kick of the 360 and two brilliant film teams to rob from. Whenever the game has to find its own style, as it does inside the roof of a museum, you'll find yourself in generic pipes and platforms land. Metal grilles and elevator shafts. Ooh, and an air duct to crawl through! How special.
EA's Everything or Nothing, frankly, did it better a generation ago. And far fewer of their cut scenes showed objects floating above the surfaces they were placed on. The addition of depth-of-field focus that's not always snapping to the area you want to look at, and slow-mo shakey-cam during big explosions, does little to improve things.
The sound is equally average. Aside from the main players the voice talent is given a couple of 'He's over there! Take cover!' lines each and sent home good and early. Guns and explosions are utterly average, never feeling tangible. And boy do they like to wheel out the Bond theme every minute or so – another indication that the films, which are now much more sparing, have evolved past this type of game.
There is the rare decent moment, though. The stealth sections of the opera house level are enhanced hugely by piping in chunks of Tosca...and, later, revealing that it's a recording being cued up. Ninety-nine more touches like that and we'd really have something.
The title theme, meanwhile, is a humdrum ditty that screams 'videogame track' just as Mya's song for Everything or Nothing did. Estonian singer Kerli sings about gold and love in between dropped in riffs from the Bond theme. Quite why this track is here, laid over a titles montage that includes a mockingly pre-rendered car chase you'll never get to participate in, is hard to say. With two film themes to choose from, could the makers simply not make up their minds?
In between the shooting – and there are some decent sniper moments to break things up – Quantum of Solace does, to its credit, try for a little variety. Sneaking, or even just plain running, up to an enemy allows you to perform a takedown, a Craig-Bond physical move that quickly and quietly defeats an opponent. Click the thumbstick to begin, then press whichever controller button the on-screen prompt asks for. It's not rocket science, in fact it's barely Simple Simon, but the animation's decent and it does at least put you within grabbing distance of the current 007's style.
Better still is the balancing act. During gameplay you'll have to walk across narrow planks and girders, and when you do we cut out to a third person view as you attempt to keep Bond balanced via an on-screen gauge. Sadly this happens about a tenth as often as it should – it brings a Prince of Persia vibe to the game and nods smartly to the way 007 forever seems to find himself very high up.
The only other time this is toyed with is when Bond has to traverse narrow ledges, wall-hugging his way along. Once, and once only, this will include timing your movements to avoid a search light. Another half-dozen times we go to a split-screen view, forcing you to wait until the window you'll be passing is clear of enemy goons before you leap across. (I say leap, it's the slowest action of the game.)
On a couple of occasions you'll be asked to pursue someone, or at least get to a destination very quickly. Your limited sprint ability will help here, though generally you're unlikely to fail more than once. The variants on this are interesting, at least – one run you have to perform while drugged, another belongs to that same famous free-running section. Sadly the execution is so lumpen and unchallenging that you'll barely remember doing them. The free-running, in particular, should have been swift and thrilling. And who the hell decided the drugged dash to the Aston Martin should include a mid-way checkpoint?!
In most environments you'll find locks to, erm, unlock, and these, too, now require some Simple Simon-esque D-pad pushing to get through. Halting the flow for no good reason, I'd rather have just fired the Walther at them. But then Treyarch seem to be big on unnecessary add-ons. When there's only ever one way through a level, and we're given a 'which way to go' indicator at the top of our HUD, what was the point of giving Bond a phone that showed you a map of the area? Or hack-in access to live security cameras? I guarantee you'll stop using either of these approximately four minutes after discovering them for the first time.
On a basic level, there are further irritations. The typical issue of some items being leap-able and others not, despite being the exact same height, is especially prevalent, and I can't be the only one annoyed to see yet another game that doesn't allow split-screen multi-player. We're not all playing online, y'know. More aggravating still, if you want to play the single-player mode through again at a higher difficulty, if only to feel like you're getting anywhere close to you money's-worth, you'll have to erase your previous progress.
Almost as frustrating as all the flaws is the fact that, just towards the end, things start to become fun. Every level is short on variety and far too short – a curse of being so low on ideas, sure, but you feel like a caption is about to tell you how to download the full game – but scale begins to sneak in with the Venice climax to Casino Royale and triumphantly arrives with the explosive desert hotel finale of Quantum of Solace. A shame, then that these are the last two levels – and neither offers a full boss battle (though to be fair the few of those that exist are yet more Quick Time button-pushers; pretty to look at, dull to play). Like almost every level, it's kill the last of the blokes, maybe run in a certain direction, and fade out.
Which brings us to the ending. Spoilers here because – as with the train sequence – Treyarch have included something absent from the film. Also known as Dumbest Thing Ever.
With the villain defeated (once again reported by an M voiceover) we jump to Bond watching a briefly-mentioned suspect though binoculars. His name – Guy Haines – is only mentioned slightly less fleetingly in the film than in the game, so either way you won't recall who he is, but he's with Mr. White, so we know he's a wrong-un. "I'm going inside," says Bond.
And it stops. The credits role. End of.
No, tell a lie, after the credits we get a couple of voiceover lines regarding the briefcase of money taken at the end of Casino Royale. "It seems we're looking at the wrong man's estate..." says Bond. And that's the end.
To say I felt cheated would be an understatement. Treyarch's problem, of course, was that the last scene of the film, a one-minute cliffhanger presumably similar to this, was dropped from the movie. And as this was one of the few scenes to feature a rendered cinematic, they must have been loathe to lose it. But it was the wrong decision, no question.
Nobody expects a gaming pinnacle with a film tie-in, especially one that has to rush itself out to meet a release date, and it's not like playing Quantum of Solace was a wholly miserable experience. But with an existing engine in place, not to mention more than 50% of your game based on a film that's already out on DVD and thus easy to adapt without fear of changes on the production, this really shouldn't have been so utterly mediocre. Playing as Bond is always going to be fun, you'd have to seriously fuck up to make it otherwise, but this surely can't have been the gold standard Activision were aiming for when they swiped the licence from under the noses of Electronic Arts.
It is, I think we all know, time to try something else. The ghost of GoldenEye is still hovering too close. The best of the recent games, Everything or Nothing, succeeded, more or less, by trying something new. Not much, it has to be said, but it came the closest anyone's managed to shaking off that spectre (pun quite blatantly intended).
What we really need, though, is a whole new genre. To reinvent the Bond game just as Eon have reinvented the film series. Grand Theft 007? No, maybe not. Third-person certainly seems to be wiser, though. Where's the spying? The recording of conversations, the tracking of suspects, the selection from one of three ways into a building? Interrogations, seductions, side-missions? What about optional poker playing, challenging face-offs with the bad guy? How about expanding the mythology in a meaningful way, something a little deeper than 'I was Max Zorin's son, you know'?
If anyone's played the multiplayer – I haven't – by all means let me know if it's any good. I am not, as you might imagine, expecting miracles.