As an enduring icon of pop culture, it should come as no surprise that James Bond 007’s onscreen antics have inspired a slew of virtual efforts to recreate the vodka guzzling adventures of the British super spy. But conversations around the impressive series of James Bond video games always seem to circle back to the enduring popularity of GoldenEye for Nintendo 64, when in fact there’s a handful of Bond games just as good and some even better than the 1997 classic.
The launch of GoldenEye 64 undeniably changed the direction of console first-person shooters forever. Originally designed as a light-gun rails shooter (á lá Time Crisis), the developers went for a more realistic approach, expanding on the popular Doom model and giving the player a full 360 view of their surroundings. The levels aimed for a tense realism – players could blast their way through the levels all guns blazing, or they could opt for a quieter, stealthy approach. The key ingredient that unlocked the game’s immortality was the ability to play against three of your friends (all appearing as classic 007 characters) in a great big split screen death match. This approach quickly became the norm for first person shooters, leading us to the Call of Duty generation of today, where dozens of FPS games are pumped out annually, all owing a fair share of their existence to GoldenEye’s legacy.
So beloved is the game that the corresponding film is frequently misremembered as a classic, when it’s above average at best. There’s no getting around it: GoldenEye 64 is one of the best, most influential games ever made. Some argue that it is indeed the best video game ever.
But it’s not the definitive James Bond game. How could it be?
While the game is an absolute belter, there’s so much more to Bond films than just sneaking around shooting people in underground facilities. Truth be told, there are entire Bond films where old Jimbo doesn’t fire his famous PPK once. The films blend action, romance, danger, driving, breathtaking stunts as well as the very occasional gunfight (an indulgence that became more commonplace in the post-Rambo Pierce Brosnan era). It’s odd then that it’s become such a centrepiece of most Bond games. Throughout the 90s and the naughties, the gaming 007 has tried valiantly to both embrace and shake off the specter of its N64 legacy, for a truer Bond experience – with mixed results.
Following the mammoth success of GoldenEye, the Bond gaming rights were quickly sold off to the highest bidder – EA (best known nowadays for their sports games and Star Wars-related controversies) – who pumped out a lacklustre Tomorrow Never Dies game faster than Jonathan Pryce could chew scenery. It’s absolutely a bad game, but it’s the kind of weird bad that warrants further examination (unlike the film, the game ends with Elliott Carver literally snarling “Tomorrow Never Dies, Mr Bond!!” at a pixelated Pierce). Following this was an attempt to veer closer to GoldenEye with a decent first-person interpretation of The World is Not Enough for PlayStation and N64. The lovably shite 007 Racing gave players the chance to get behind the wheels of all the classic cars from the films in a game that was about as fun to play as the weird electric-shock Space Invaders-meets-Risk thing Sean Connery had to suffer through in Never Say Never Again.
The beginning of the sixth-generation of consoles was arguably the beginning of the Golden Age of Bond games. EA – for all their contemporary shortcomings – continued to pump out consistently decent 007 games on an annual basis. First up was 2001’s Agent Under Fire – originally designed to be a PS2 port of The World is Not Enough, the game used an original plot and a faceless, composite Bond because Pierce wouldn’t sign over the rights to his face. The game’s plot was bonkers (as would become the tradition of these games) but the combination of GoldenEye-esque first person action and Bondian gadgets was a welcome one, even if the game was too short.
Should there be any true successor to the GoldenEye way of doing things, it’s undeniably Nightfire, the follow up to Agent Under Fire. Crisper graphics, neater gameplay and some Prime Pierce face time (the Navan man signed over his looks even if his silky voice was still off limits) was all delightful but once again it was the multiplayer that stole the show – with all the pomp and circumstance of GoldenEye 64 and the addition of updated graphics and controls, Nightfire is the only true successor to GoldenEye’s multiplayer throne. The highlight of Nightfire’s multiplayer was the ability to fill up a map with customisable AI bots ensuring an epic challenge even if you only had a few (or no) friends to play with. Nightfire’s campaign was serviceable if pedestrian – like GoldenEye it offers the player multiple different paths to take and there are some fun vehicle levels, but the plot is a goofy rehash of Moonraker that feels like it was written by a child.
The next game was Everything or Nothing. There’s a level where you ride a Daytona bike over rooftops before drifting through a gap in a waterfall and then skydiving over a mountain to save Shannen Elizabeth – who’s been thrown out of a helicopter – while the Bond theme blares. When you finally catch her, Pierce smirks “Nice to catch up with you!” before swinging away on a grappling gun… this is the definitive James Bond game.
Jettisoning the first-person obsession of its predecessors, EoN finally allows the player to see 007 in the frame, allowing for a greater diversity of gameplay, encompassing shooting, cover, stealth, driving (cars, helicopters, motorbikes and a tank) and the kind of madcap stunts you’d expect from a Bond movie. Good old Pierce finally gave the full martini – lending his luscious likeness and voracious voice work in what would ultimately be his final dalliance with Double O duty (as a year or so later – to paraphrase Timothy Dalton – he got the boot). Series veteran Judi Dench returns as does John Cleese as the new Q, who sometimes feels like he had more to do in these games than he ever did in his brief film appearances. A mo-capped Willem Dafoe (!) plays Bond’s nemesis Nikolai Diavolo with enough vim and vigour to rival the best of the onscreen baddies – he’s undoubtedly the very best of a fairly faceless bunch of game antagonists.
Other levels see you piloting explosive robot spiders through underground soviet bases and rappelling down the sides of buildings while dodging bazooka fire…it’s the only game I’ve ever played that truly has the breathtaking, breakneck feel of a bonkers Roger Moore Bond movie like The Spy Who Loved Me. With its bananas nanotech plot, invisibility suits and the aforementioned Q-spiders the game pushes the franchise farther into true science fiction than it’s ever been (Die Another Day undoubtedly providing this creative licence) but strangely, it works because it’s a video game and not a film. I really love the idea of John Cleese sitting in a recording booth shouting about shield generators for £1,000 a sentence.
Clever level design and enemy placement means you must carefully assess the situation, using a combination of gadgets, fists, guns and wits (as well as carefully rationed armour drops and limited ammo) to outsmart your enemies. It’s a similar feeling to having to think like Batman in the Arkham games. The enemy AI is prehistoric and the controls are a bit creaky by 2020 standards – lock-on aiming is mandatory and stiff, which can lead to some clumsy encounters with enemies who come around corners at precisely the wrong moment, leaving you powerless to shoot someone at point blank range…this is a small complaint though. For a seventeen year-old game, it holds up remarkably well.
EA followed EoN with a rare clanger – in an attempt to rekindle nostalgic feelings for the classic game, the tepid GoldenEye: Rogue Agent featured a boneheaded plot about an MI6 dark horse literally named ‘Agent Goldeneye’ with a literal golden-eye who joins a criminal organisation run by Auric Goldfinger, Scaramanga and other classic villains in a war against Dr. No. It’s a novel concept, but it feels more like fanfiction than fanservice and it had almost nothing to do with the actual GoldenEye film or game.
Undoubtedly the oddest Bond game, it was followed up by the second oddest – From Russia with Love starring none other than 74 year-old Sean Connery voicing his 35 year-old likeness. By far the least game-appropriate installment of Connery’s films (presumably chosen as it was reportedly his favourite), the game had the unenviable task of being an accurate adaptation of a fairly realistic, down to Earth espionage film while also capturing the larger than life high-tech feel of the later Connery films and the modern understanding of Bond. The game does an admirable job of at least attempting to capture the look and feel of 60s Bond – there’s a level where you get to explore the MI6 offices and meet M and Miss Moneypenny (all with accurate voice-a-like performances). Unfortunately for all the low-tech levers and beep-boop computer terminals, the developers evidently couldn’t escape the allure of cartoon science-fiction madness.
This results in a weird hodge podge that feels wildly unfaithful to the realism of the film and verges into Austin Powers-levels of silliness. The perfect example of this is when Bond and Red Grant have their trademark fight in a train carriage (the most iconic moment of the film, reduced here to a lacklustre cut scene) and a minigun-wielding strongman randomly appears in frame, leading into yet another boring shootout level. Other levels include gadget-laden Aston Martin chases, jetpack battles above the houses of parliament and a showdown at an underground O.C.T.O.P.U.S. lair (a haphazardly renamed SPECTRE, due to all the legal nonsense that’s surrounded the Bond franchise for so long).
That’s not to say the game isn’t fun – it’s great to swagger around a game looking like Sir Sean in his prime (who cuts a better image as a suave secret agent than EoN’s Dadbod-looking Pierce Brosnan) and the game allows you to switch between different classic outfits. It just never reaches the heights of Everything or Nothing – the levels aren’t as intricately designed, the gadgets aren’t as interesting, there aren’t any bad ass stunts and constant armour and ammo drops make it all feel a bit too easy to blaze through levels Rambo-style as opposed to the smoother 007 approach necessary in the aforementioned game. Absolutely worth a look and fun to imagine what could have been; imagine a Roger Moore-voiced Spy Who Loved Me game…
With disappointing sales in the mid 00s, the licence to thrill was sold to Activision who took it upon themselves to usher in the Daniel Craig era. The first attempt was a narratively clumsy attempt to recap Quantum of Solace in digital form – given that film’s turbulent production history (the 2007 writers’ strike resulting in Daniel Craig himself scripting scenes onset), developers were forced to guess the broad strokes of the movie, leaving them with almost no plot to work with. To solve this, they filled most of the blanks with flashbacks to the events of Casino Royale (a film that didn’t get a corresponding game) – leading to a surprisingly fun Bond adventure.
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With almost no emphasis on stealth whatsoever, the game is a reasonably accurate (if explosive) recreation of that film’s plot, with impressive vocals from most of the stars (including Dan the Man himself as well as Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen) and a neat third-person cover system that marries the FPS tradition with the desire to actually see Bond in action. While it’s arguably the height of the Daniel Craig games, it’s also a brazen copy of Call of Duty and once again Bond feels more like a Terminator-esque killing machine than a gentleman spy. Interestingly, a lesser-known PS2 version opted for a third-person approach (as that console couldn’t handle CoD’s Unreal Engine) with many fans considering it to be superior.
During a dearth of Bond movies between 2008 and 2012, Activision plugged the gap with two more 007 games released almost simultaneously – the ill-advised GoldenEye: Reloaded (a beige remake of the original, but with Daniel Craig instead of Brosnan) and the underrated 007 Blood Stone. There’s not much to say about Reloaded – it’s essentially a remake (rather than a remaster) of the original, environments are similar if not quite the same and the plot is largely reimagined to fit the style of Daniel Craig’s Bond. More interesting is Blood Stone – an entirely original third-person adventure in the tradition of Everything or Nothing and very similar to the early Uncharted games which were gathering steam at that point.
007 Blood Stone came off the heels of Quantum of Solace at which point the Craig era was still rebelliously adamant about not using gadgets of any kind. Without gadgetry, the Bondian edge comes from a ‘focus’ mode that allows the player to build up XP points so that they can execute one-shot kills with speedy precision. It’s a fun little mechanic that rewards stealth. Other than that, lavish environments and a few so-so vehicle levels fail to mask a bland story and repetitive levels. Nevertheless, it’s arguably a better, truer Daniel Craig experience than its predecessors, even if Quantum had a bit more fun. A sequel to Blood Stone was being developed by Raven Software (and likely would have been great, if some of their Marvel tie-ins are anything to go by) but sputtered out of existence early on.
The final Activision game to exploit the Bond licence should have been the best – 007 Legends promised to transplant Craig’s Bond into a variety of levels inspired by classic installments in the franchise. It did so in a manner so laughably haphazard it felt like one of those ‘Plug-n’Play!’ games you see in Tesco for young children. Once again employing bland, Rambo-esque shootouts with few opportunities for stealth and almost no diversity in gameplay, the nail in the coffin came from the excruciatingly bastardized uses of classic scenes and characters. The levels culminate in agonizingly bad quick-time event boss fights where you punch Bond’s greatest adversaries to death, for some reason. The game failed miserably and the 007 licence was soon dropped into oblivion.
The legacy of the EA and to a lesser extent, the Activision eras of Bond games shouldn’t be ignored – while people constantly preach about GoldenEye’s legacy, it’s undoubtedly EA’s consistent output of Bond games throughout the 90s and 00s that introduced Bond to a brand new audience and ensured his relevance entering the new millennium. Growing up during this time, James Bond felt like one of the true heavyweights of gaming, rather than the creaky relic of pop culture he is often accused of being. I would argue that as many people were introduced to the franchise through Nightfire as there were through GoldenEye 64.
With no new Bond games in eight years (and just two films in that time), the time is certainly ripe for a new Bond game, one that finally moves away from the specter of the N64 and adopts the kind of third-person action truer of the character. The recent Hitman games, are the most James Bond-like games I’ve played in a long time. With no driving and no stunts, it’s difficult to imagine how this could be the case, but they effortlessly capture the feeling of infiltrating an evil organisation and taking out a few specific targets with limited tools. When things go wrong and you become embroiled in a firefight, it’s because you made a grave error in your planning, not because the game is tediously carrying you from one theme park experience to the next.
As is the case in the best Bond films, every shot fired actually means something, every punch is felt, every discovery is shocking. Gadgets feature in the game in the way that they did in the classic Bond films – as a means of distracting enemies or bypassing security, rather than as a convenient way to escape from cheesy deathtraps. This would be a step in the right direction for the Bond franchise – embrace the cold, stealthy danger of Bond over the larger than life madness.
Agent Under Fire is probably not the most memorable of the Bond games but using an original ‘Game Bond’ rather than trying to tie in who is playing the character on the big screen is the only way to ensure a new series of games can develop their own identity. Just look at Arkham and the recent Spider-Man game’s wise decision not to try and follow the lead of their big screen counterparts. To retain some of the breathtaking stunts and shooting mechanics, some kind of combination of Uncharted, Just Cause and Arkham would surely do the trick. If this sounds like a combination of different game engines, remember that we’re unlikely to see another Bond game before the next generation of games. Why not think big? It’s worked for the movies.