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.