James Bond 007: Blood Stone with Neil Thompson
As I sit in a room just next to what seems to currently be the Bond section of Bizarre Creations' contemporary studio just outside of Liverpool, I really feel positively chilled. The atmosphere in the studio at the all-but-completion stage of Blood Stone is one of relaxation and satisfaction, and no-one epitomizes that more than studio art director Neil Thompson. The first time I met him was at the Blood Stone launch event, at which he looked as cool as cucumbers with his dark suit and champagne glass in hand. Yet somehow, with just under a month until his game releases, he looks even calmer. Nonetheless, I take the opportunity to grill him about Blood Stone from top and bottom, and even sneak in a cheeky Geometry Wars question at the end to try and break his cool. A small spoiler alert here, but I didn't break his cool. Maybe next time.
So Neil, we're now nearing release date for Blood Stone, and it's been a long time in development. Are you feeling confident?
Ha-ha, about sales? Um... I think we've got a solid product, you know. Within the universe of Bond games, I think it is right up there. We've added a little bit of our own Bizarre flavour with the racing that hasn't really been done before, so yeah, I'm absolutely confident. I think the best you can be with a game when you've finished developing it is to be proud of what you've done and I'm pretty proud of what we've accomplished.
Fair enough. You sounded less confident about sales...
It's a difficult market. It's impossible to second guess the market. You'd think with a big popular franchise like Bond and a good entry in the series that it should sell well, but then who knows? Black Ops comes along...
I was just going to say... it's a busy Q4. Do you think the game can stand out?
I hope so, yeah. I think it can. I think it's strong enough. It has enough of those types of impactful moments so that it should review quite nicely. But yeah, I'm not going to second guess that.
Like you said, Bond is a popular franchise so the game should sell well. But Bond has been something of a poisoned chalice for some developers in the past. What made Bizarre decide to take on Blood Stone? What was the big thing that motivated you guys to do it?
It was an opportunity for a British developer to do Bond. Licensed games are always very difficult to make because you either are or are not very, very close to the franchise or sport and it becomes difficult to do it justice. And when it's a sporting license it usually turns into an annual affair and then you don't really have time to develop or put in new ideas. For a British developer to do Bond, considering it's every schoolboy's dream to be Bond, we felt that we could do the game justice.
The one thing you guys have been hush-hush about up until now, completely understandably, is the story. But we're getting a bit nearer and I feel it's about time we learnt a little bit more about what's going on. We know that Bond is chasing this guy Greco at the beginning of the game. Presumably the story expands into other spheres after that.
Well, I'm not going to give too much away. It does broaden out quite significantly. There are multiple villains that make an appearance. The story is all over the world, taking us from Athens to Istanbul to Siberia to Bangkok, so there's plenty of scope there. It's quite a contemporary story - it involves bio-weaponry - but I'm not going give any more away than that.
Well, I'm going to press a tiny bit more. The one character we don't know that much about is the new Bond girl, Nicole Hunter. We know that she's a socialite who teams up with Bond in the game. Can we expect stuff between her and Bond to occur?
Yeah, they have an involved relationship! It's not like Team America, we're not doing the first virtual sex scene in a game or anything. They have an interesting relationship as well. It's not a straightforward Bond vs. Bond girl relationship, there's a lot more substance to it and it's very much more involved with the stuff in the narrative, so it's interesting.
And what does Joss Stone bring to the character?
It's interesting, actually, because I think we were all quite surprised by the choice of Joss for the role. But she performed beautifully, her lines are fantastic - wait until you see some of the cut scenes. She gives a really good performance, there's real emotion in those lines. That's quite something to ask in a virtual scene.
In terms of Bond in the game, with the nature of the franchise and how you can't really change the character, how hard is it therefore to craft a story around him in a video game?
Well, it wasn't very limiting. It was more of a challenge to keep the title within the realm of the Daniel Craig universe - it's not Roger Moore, it's not Sean Connery, there are no gadgets, and there are no cars that turn into plants or that kind of thing. But because he is a very physical Bond it allows us to do lots of really subtle stuff around the art direction of the game. The game's got a very steely look to it, it's quite desaturated, and that came from watching the films again and again. So we're trying to take elements of Craig's Bond and visualize it through the environment and through the scenes. So it's always quite cloudy, the sun might be breaking through the clouds but it's never a full-on blue sky, stuff like that. So it was quite inspiring and invigorating rather than restrictive.
You mentioned the environments there. Watching through the Athens level in full, I was quite impressed by how you really captured the architecture of the city, touches like the Venus de Milo statues in the hotel and the tiling of the floor. Is that something that runs through the game, and in terms of being authentic how far did you research all these locations?
Yeah, we did quite a lot. So there are some levels in Bangkok, so we sent out guys to do reference shoots in Bangkok. We never intended the levels to be authentic-authentic; they're not like Project Gotham-authentic where it's like street-by-street. But you always want to have that authentic flavour, so even though the levels are designed with gameplay and narrative in mind, they still have to look like the right place.
In terms of the visuals, you've obviously got this big budget film franchise with its special effects and everything to look up to, and while gaming is quite advanced with its visuals, did Bizarre find it a challenge to have to live up to the visual quality of the films?
Yeah, particularly the Bond films which have such intense sequences. In fact, we set up a specific team to handle that - we call them the events team - and they're specifically there to do the 'wow' spectacle moments, so all the explosions, all the particle effects, and all the things collapsing were done by one specific team of guys who just went through the game and did that. And I think it worked really well. Things like the refinery driving level where lots and lots of stuff comes down and explodes around you, rather than that being a secondary diversion it was the focus of the level to make this an extreme, intense experience. These guys are going to do that, so the level designers worry about how the progression and gameplay work, but they don't have to worry how it feels because these guys are going to add that afterwards. So yeah, it is difficult to pack a $100m movie into a game, but we gave it a shot.
That's the thing, isn't it? You've got Bruce Feirstein working on the script, Craig and Stone providing the vocals, Ben Cooke doing the stunt work, and all the other film crew involved. What was it like to integrate all these different elements together?
It was a challenge. Yeah, we've never taken on a game of this magnitude before. It's a big, big game. Working with that kind of A-list talent can be intimidating. Fortunately, they were all very professional and a great pleasure to work with. And I think we've done it justice. At the completion of any game, you always think 'Oh, I could have done that better, could have done this' and so on. I think we'd all like to give it another shot as well, just to try it again, so maybe a sequel...
Oh, is that something you guys are confident of getting...?
Ah, I don't know, I'm not going to [talk about that]. It's not really up to us, but we'd love to do it all over again. It was certainly a hugely enjoyable experience. And we learnt so much from this, working with voice talent, working from a script, trying to piece together different gaming dynamics such as the on-foot action, driving action, and the boating action into a cohesive game has been really fun.
In terms of the gadgets, you said that it's quite gadget-light but there is the smart phone which feels like the elephant in the room to me. It can pinpoint enemies here, intelligence there, objectives to be completed there, and so on. Is that something you just decided to go with despite any unrealism or have you tried to explain it at all within the world and story?
No, we haven't tried to explain it in terms of the technology. We think that it's plausible without being realistic, and we understand that because of the broad appeal of the Bond franchise that this is not a game that's just going to appeal to a hardcore gamer, that it's got to appeal to a mainstream audience as well. And a mainstream audience may not be familiar or have the appetite to go through a hardcore shooting level without knowing anything about it. So it's a way-finding device that gives the more casual player a little bit more information to enjoy the experience rather than batter their heads against a brick wall, literally as well as figuratively. What we have done with it is that we're very clear we don't want the player to have it on all the time. So you can't use it as a get out clause for everything. You can't perform hand-to-hand combat with it on, or shoot with it on, and if you run then the signal fragments as well, so it encourages you to turn it off in those instances. So it's there when you want it, but you don't want to use it all the time.
It's interesting, because it reminds me of Batman: Arkham Asylum a lot. I think that's a fair enough thing to take some inspiration from that game. Another similar game is Splinter Cell: Conviction, which we've talked about it before. Do you think that the smart phone combined with the takedowns and mark-and-kills lean the game towards stealth play rather than all-guns blazing?
Well, actually, when we were at Gamescom we had Pete [Collier, Level Designer] demonstrating one of the Istanbul levels, and he played it both ways. So he said, "Well, you can do it this way," - and he played very stealthily, with the hand-to-hand, not alerting anyone to your presence and so forth. That's a satisfying way of doing it. Or you could just go in all-guns blazing. Either way is fine, really. 'Cos we didn't decide to do that beforehand, we just went there and then it transpired that was how we were going to show the game. And then at the end of it we felt that it was more Daniel Craig-like just to go running in and beat the crap out of people, and I think that it's somehow more satisfying to play the game in that way. But it's entirely up to the player.
In terms of comparing Blood Stone to other stealth games, it's not one of those things like Metal Gear Solid where if you get spotted you have to run away and hide. Do you think that maybe makes the game a little too easy, and is that something that alters in the harder difficulties?
You don't have to run away but you would have to make much better use of the cover. The demos we've got here are obviously running on easy mode. So when it gets up to 007 Mode and it is one-shot-to-kill then it becomes quite challenging...
Basically, in the harder difficulties there isn't so much scope for all-out attack.
No, you'd probably be a little bit more careful. With the Focus Aims as well.... you'd have to use a lot more strategy in the way you clear a level. On the higher difficulties and later on in the game, you'd make much more judicious of the Focus Aims, and use them to the best of your ability because it's not an option to run into a room and just take everyone out.
With the driving segments, it's so interesting that Bizarre has this history of Blur and Project Gotham Racing, but really Blood Stone draws more from recent disaster games like Split: Second and Motorstorm: Apocalypse. With those games there are things are happening around you all the time, whereas with Blood Stone it feels like it's not quite as frequent because you don't want to go into the realms of fantasy. So how do you make it as exciting as those games without making the segments too ridiculous?
Yeah, that's a toughie. It has to plausibly follow the narrative, right? We have two quite destructive driving areas - one of which we're not allowed to reveal today - but the other is the Refinery Driving level. There's a balancing act between having an intense spectacle for the player to enjoy without having them throw the handset away because it's just so ridiculous. It also didn't need to be artificial. In Refinery Driving there's a specific reason why all the stuff is falling down. You set that chain events into action in the previous run-and-gun level. You don't just happen to be driving through Siberia with this refinery falling down, it's a chain of events that you set into motion. So when you play it through in order it makes sense and it doesn't seem unrealistic that it's happening. Whereas if we just drove you through Istanbul and collapsed the city around you I think that would be a step too far, not even a Bond movie would go that far. So there's a fine line between plausible reality and utter nonsense.
If you took away Bond from the game, what would you say is the USP that will separate it from other games coming out at the moment?
I think the cover-based combat system is quite original. It's been influenced by many but it's done in a quite original, and I think it's quite satisfying to do and I think it's a very satisfying experience to play. But also I think the blending of driving and action is - well, it's not unique, but I think we've done it well in terms of the pacing of the story. It's trying to effectively make a cinematic piece that's longer than a movie, to borrow the pacing of a movie but to extend it over the period of five, six, or seven hours rather than an hour and a half, and I think we've been quite successful with that.
Just before we go, then; if you could be any Bond - Craig, Connery, whoever - who would you be?
Roger Moore. He was the one I grew up with. The first Bond movie I went to see at the cinema was Moonraker. I think you always have that affinity to the Bond who was current when you were growing up. I think Daniel Craig is great, and I think Casino Royale is probably the best Bond movie, but I definitely have a soft spot for the Moore years.
And finally, it wouldn't be right for me to come all the way to Bizarre without asking or begging you to make Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 3. So what is going on with Geometry Wars?
We've got plans...
(laughs) You wouldn't expect me to say any more, would you?
It was worth a try. Thanks for your time, Neil.