Previews: Warm up the Aston Martin and reload the PP7. We're taking both out for another spin.
If you were sick of James Bond and his comic-book action, his gadgets, and the fact that three or four decades ago, he became an image with no hint of a real person inside, Daniel Craig and Casino Royale
(2006) had your cure. While purists might complain that Royale
strayed from its roots, the movie brought a new edginess and depth that was long lacking in the iconic series. Now, Activision is bringing Bond to consoles, handhelds and the PC once again in Quantum of Solace
, a game set to coincide with the upcoming action picture of the same name. It's a game with some big shoes to fill, and lately I got the chance to spend some hands-on time with a playable PC demo to see how it measures up.
DS version (obviously).
First of all, Quantum of Solace
is built on the Call of Duty 4
engine, firmly placing it in shooter territory. The CoD engine makes for a great-looking game, but the choice to do Bond as a standard shooter seems an odd choice since the super spy relies more often on his wits than his gun. There isn't much about this demo area that requires much of the classic attitude or smarts usually associated with the licensed-to-kill spy?the closest it comes is a few handily-placed generators that serve the role that fifty-five gallon drums do in most other shooters: they explode when you shoot them, taking out nearby enemies in the process. No surprises there, but they do reward players with violent explosions and flying bodies that fit the tone of a Hollywood blockbuster action picture.
In fact, Quantum
's main goal is to reproduce the movie experience, drawing on the upcoming flick and the last release for its story. The developers boast having access to thousands of reference photos, all the primary actors, and still-confidential information in their attempt to duplicate important scenes from both movies, including the classic crane fight scene from Casino Royale
. Around those scenes, they're fleshing out the world with locations that they claim will give the players the choice to follow in the footsteps of 007 or find their own solutions to the game's situations. The short sequence presented in the demo doesn't bear this out, however: it's a short, linear experience that drops the player into an ancient sewer system beneath Siena, Italy with nary a branch or a choice in sight.
An Xbox 360 screenshot.
The demo level includes a fairly commonplace shooter set-piece with Bond on one end of a room taking potshots at generic turtleneck-wearing bad guys leaning out from behind cover until the hero caps them. The game includes a couple of items that will be familiar to players of recent shooters: a cover system and an automatically regenerating health system. The health system is faithful to what's become a standard in current games: waiting around a few seconds allows Bond to regain any health lost in the last firefight. I don't usually approve of this kind of system, but it probably fits this game well, because it allows players to push forward from one engagement to the next with Bond-like aplomb. The cover system is similarly becoming an old favorite, but the execution in Quantum
beats that in other games such as last year's hit Gears of War
. By holding down a key and aiming at a cover location, the player can make the suave spy dash to cover while the camera moves to a third-person view. That way, we get a good look at 007 as he leans around or over obstacles to take shots at his enemies. The cover system works better here than in some other games, since it requires a key press from the player?the character won't automatically snap to nearby cover when you're planning to run on by.
The developers promise that the unscripted A.I. in the game will react dynamically and intelligently to player actions, but on multiple passes through the demo, the bad guys behaved more or less the same each time. To be fair, the area was relatively narrow without much room for maneuver, and my behavior didn't give the A.I. a whole lot of variety to respond to: I advanced to cover, took out a couple of targets, and advanced to a better location to lay fire down on more bad guys. A few times I did see enemies go on the offensive and advance on me, so with a bit more room to operate in different situations the A.I. might be smarter than it seems in this one small piece of the game.
What the game might lack in variety, it makes up for in drama, using short, scripted sequences to create a mood that feels a whole lot like a blockbuster Bond experience. The ground shakes under your feet as you move through the narrow, water-filled passages and electrical junction boxes explode and spark. Stones fall from the ceiling just in time to raise impressive dust clouds and block your way, so that you have to climb over them by hitting the space bar. And the pacing is amped up still more by the fact that you're chasing a man who just killed a fellow agent?he stays just out of your reach, invulnerable to your bullets as he leads you, Alice-and-the-rabbit style, from one area to the next. It's all calculated to give a great cinematic experience, and even the hand-to-hand combat system works in a similar way. When James grabs an enemy, the camera zooms in to a close third-person view and gives the player just a few seconds to use the mouse to line up a pair of reticules and click. If the player succeeds, she's rewarded with a scene of Craig's character knocking the snot out of the bad guy. If not, Bond takes the damage and play jumps back to the first-person view.
A PC screenshot from the demo used for the preview.
Before I sign off here, it's worth mentioning a bit about the Nintendo DS version of the game, which includes a few features that might make it the most interesting game out of all the versions. The DS version allows the player to improve and customize 007 by collecting points and special item cards throughout the game. The Bond Points can be spent on special items, while the cards found in-game can be used to unlock and enhance Bond's abilities depending on how the player prefers playing the game. If the player prefers shootouts over stealth, she can buy better firearms abilities, for example. The DS version will also reward players who love exploration with rare and powerful items hidden throughout the game. It will also include a conversation system with multiple choices for player responses?this might be where we'll see that Bond charm show itself, since conversations can unlock new abilities and special items. The DS version also promises a stylus-only movement and combat control system, and if that works well, it might help make that the Quantum
version to have.