Based on Robert Ludlum’s successful novels bearing the same name, Jason Bourne has been within the realm of public consciousness since 1980. The novel of The Bourne Identity was voted the second best spy novel ever in a Publisher’s Weekly poll, being bested only by the truly sublime The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre.
Following the release of The Bourne Identity in 2002, the film was a welcome breath of fresh air to the spy-thriller genre. Having some emotional depth as well as intelligence, Jason Bourne was the quintessential spy for the post 9/11-world – gritty and brutal, yet also human. Ultimately about more than a simple ‘the good guys win again’ plot, the popularity of the series was confirmed with the box office success of the two sequels, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.
Up to this point, you’d be forgiven if you think I’m intending to review the films, as opposed to the games, but I mention the above for the simple reason of stating the entire Bourne franchise has set a fairly high standard for itself. Taking into the account the usual half-assed efforts that are put into games based on movies, I’m happy to report that Bourne’s first interactive outing is well above the usual ocean of mediocrity reserved for tie-ins. However, the game manages to dish up just enough frustrating elements to mar it from becoming one of those rare few tie-in games that are actually damn good games on their own merits.
The plot of the game is ripped from the first film, so there is definitely no tie-in with the Ludlum novels (which are set during the 1970’s and 1980.) As such, it hits all the high water marks of the movie, highlighting every adrenalin-fuelled sequence made famous by the movie. For those not in the know, the plot kicks off with a man found adrift in the ocean off the French coast, near Marseilles. After being rescued by a passing fishing boat, the man, suffering from amnesia, sets out to rediscover his identity. Along the way, however, he realizes that he is extremely proficient with weapons and hand-to-hand combat – a fortunate discovery, since he is hunted and hounded at every turn. As the story progresses, Jason Bourne eventually starts to rediscover who he is, and exactly what happened to him.
While the fidelity to the plot of the film is pretty impressive, the developers take some liberties to expand on the premise. Since neither Ludlum nor the films went into great detail about Bourne’s assignments prior to his memory loss, the game contains a number of ‘flashback’ missions, several which have absolutely no relevance to the actual plot. Thus, while interesting, it bogs down the flow of the actual story, and servers no purpose other than to give the player a mission with gameplay possibilities outside of that offered by levels inspired by the film.
Another problem with the plot of the game is that the question that drove Bourne in the film – why was I shot in the back and left for dead in the ocean? – gets answered almost immediately in the game, since the mission structure is chronological. As such, after you’re treated to the cinematic of Bourne in his watery grave-to-be, you are immediately afforded the opportunity to play the events that lead to him ending up there, removing any intrigue about ‘who the hell is this guy, and why is he so good with weapons and fighting’ by roughly the ten minute mark. I appreciate that most people who will play the game will, in all likelihood, have seen the film already, but since I’m reviewing the game, it does weaken the narrative considerably.
The final problem I have with the plot is that all the ‘human’ drama from the film is essentially reduced to brief between mission cutscenes, which dumbs down the whole pathos of Bourne’s search for identity for sake of brevity. Characterization is also a victim here, and Bourne’s relationship with Marie is an almost perfunctory nod to the film, as opposed to the larger emotional weight her role should carry.
The gameplay consists of three distinct categories – hand to hand combat, weapon-based combat, and driving. The former is, without a doubt, the shining star of the game’s ensemble. It’s a hugely visceral experience, with Bourne’s brutal improvisational style of fighting being represented as faithfully as I can imagine in a game. You have the option to string together combos, rarely consisting of more than three punches/kicks/knees to the groin, which fill up the adrenaline meter. As the meter fills up, Bourne gains the abilities to perform takedowns – the ridiculously cool finishing moves displayed in the film, where he completely overwhelms an enemy with a few well timed and improvised moves. The developers, High Moon Studios, really went to town with this aspect of gameplay, and takedowns are context sensitive to the extreme. Perform one near a table, and your opponent will find his face smashed into the edge; perform the same takedown near a workstation or laptop, and Bourne will duly reduce his opponent to shame from being knocked out by a MacBook. Enemies you encounter later in the game can also perform takedowns on you, so it keep things interesting, since their attacks can end a fight just as quickly as yours.
There are about 10 combo’s I could discover, and compared with the takedown system, it’s easily the most entertaining aspect of the game. Considering that you can take down multiple enemies at once if you have enough adrenaline in your meter, it really does provide a visually gratifying hand to hand combat experience. There’s a fair amount of quick time events (the button presses Yahtzee despises to much) built into the system, however, so take that into account when deciding if you would find it annoying or not. Speaking for myself, I did not have a major problem with it, since the events become a staple of gameplay, so you’re pretty much expecting one at any moment anyway. In addition, the combat AI in the hand to hand sections are surprisingly decent – the AI picks up on it if you perform a particular attack repeatedly on the same opponent, and compensates by having the opponent block said attack. This forces you to improvise and change your method regularly.
The shooting aspect, while enjoyable initially, tends to exist to draw out levels, especially since there’s an absolutely unforgiving autosave system in place. There is a particular sequence where you fight slew of enemies in an airport terminal, and on higher difficulty levels, you tend to die from two or three bullets finding their mark. As such, I replayed this section an annoying amount of times, simply because it is nigh on impossible to make it through on the first go due to enemies coming from unexpected angles. Thankfully (for sake of completing the game) enemies spawn in scripted positions, so after a while it became an exercise in pattern memorization.
There’s a cover system in place, although Bourne can’t blind-fire, something I found frustrating at certain points. Still, the gunplay itself can be described as solid – it the implementation that causes frustration. The main problem is accuracy, which is something Bourne isn’t big on – locking onto and killing enemies seem like a surprisingly irritating chore when firing from cover. The game has something called Bourne Instinct, which shows the world in a faux-washed out view with usable objects and enemies highlighted. Using this depletes your adrenaline meter, so it’s a trade off, albeit one that doesn’t really work, since the effect lasts only a few seconds – rarely enough to lock onto an enemy and kill him.
The driving section is, without a doubt, the one with the least amount of thought spent on implementation. The Mini you drive is built like the bastard offspring of the new Batmobile and a brick-outhouse, withstanding frankly laughable amounts of damage, while the car manages to steer like the most nimble radio controlled car imaginable, making hair-pin turns at top speed. While I can accept some fudging due to artistic license- people saying that Bourne is just that good – it’s a vast chasm between this driving physics of Conspiracy and a game that doesn’t even lay claim to accurate driving physics, such as Grand Theft Auto. You can also implement Bourne Instinct here, where it activates a bullet-time feature that allows you to navigate between cars and obstacles with greater accuracy.
There is a final gameplay mechanic which occurs frequently enough that I feel it appropriate to mention: from time to time, there will be a cinematic sequence that requires you to perform a series of quick time events to navigate it. While it maintains the cinematic feel of the game, they may become frustrating, especially if you don’t like this kind of ‘press button X to not die‘ business to begin with.
The game does the Unreal engine proud, generating a pleasing amount of destruction that you leave in your wake – objects will shatter as you shoot them; bullet holes line the walls where you did not find your intended target; sections of a table will splinter as you drive the horrified face of your enemy into it after a takedown. I also noticed no texture pop-in, something the Unreal engine has achieved some infamy for. The textures and models were of a high quality, and the entire game really looks quite pleasing, with no noticeable frame rate issues. There are some rather glaring clipping issues, but nothing to break the game as a whole.
The voice acting is of an acceptable level, considering that there is no big name talent in the cast, and the music is pretty much the John Powell score from the films. Some sources I’ve Googled claim that some tracks are exactly lifted from the film – a view with which I agree – while others say that the music is reworking of the film soundtrack. Either way, it does a good job of providing some intense, pulse-pounding electronic music to accompany the action.
Apart from gameplay issues I mentioned earlier, I have some other problems with the game as well. To start off with, this game is probably more linear than Snake & Ladders, offering little replay value other than getting the achievements. There’s rarely a choice as to how you approach any given fight, either, since the level design forces you to approach from a certain direction, which in turn forces you to revert to gunplay or fistfights, as the developers intended. Even something as basic as the order in which you accomplish your objectives is set in stone. You can unlock boss battles by finding collectibles in the form of passports as you progress through the levels, but the incentive is very low to find these collectibles anyway. Since you need to find all passports on a particular level to unlock the boss battle, concept art and music for that specific level, I don’t think it’s something a lot of people will get around to.
Furthermore, the developers intentionally tried to recapture the motion-sickness camera style used in the films, andÂ while it does provide fidelity to the look of the movie and makes you feel as if you are ‘there’, it can lead to horribly frustrating camera set-ups when fighting moves to a corner, pretty much taking a top-down style view in certain instances.
In closing, I can honestly say that The Bourne Conspiracy is miles better than you’re average film tie-in, but it brings it’s own set of design problems to the party. Frustrating shooting and flat-out poor driving mechanics takes a lot off the shine of the enjoyment factor, and the story, while decent enough on it’s own, compares poorly to the big-screen versions thereof. The game wants to be a movie so badly it hurts, and as such, it falls somewhat short of that lofty goal. I’d recommend it to fans of the films and the 3rd person action adventure genre, but keep in mind that once you’ve finished it once, the game likely won’t see any action again.
Gameplay: 6.8/10 [Hand to hand is very satisfying, but driving and shooting let it down] Presentation: 7.5/10 [The destructible environments and good looking models are a treat, but some clipping and camera issues drag this score down] Sound: 8/10 [Good enough soundtrack, with decent voice overs] Value: 5.5/10 [The definition of linear gameplay] Plot: 7/10 [Decent enough, but it lacks the punch that essentially the same script had in the movie. Seeing as this game aims to be cinematic to the extreme, it doesn’t live up to high aspirations.] Overall: 6.5/10 [An above average film tie-in, bought down by decidedly average gameplay sections.]
Better Than: [Standard movie tie-ins] Worse Than: [Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune]
Last Updated: July 14, 2008