Before visiting Eurocom's studio this week, I was rather unconvinced about the team's upcoming re-imagination of GoldenEye. After visiting Eurocom, I must admit that I remain unconvinced, albeit less so than before. But what I am without doubt is far more intrigued by GoldenEye, as well a bit confused.
The Derby-based studio's reinvention of GoldenEye is a total enigma. The game immediately struck as a sure-fire winner upon reveal at this summer's E3, but with closer inspection it's shown itself to be a thornier property than first apparent. The many unique challenges to overcome have all gradually surfaced like giant pieces of flotsam. It's things like the (obligatorily mentioned) limitations of the Wii alongside comparisons to parallel release Blood Stone. Both will hit stores in the same week, but the latter for the more graphically potent consoles. Then there's the endeavour of appeasing nostalgia for both film and game while somehow avoiding alienation of the new Wii audience by self-indulging.
But most curiously of all, I of course started off being squealing-teenage-girl excited about the reprisal of four-player split screen multiplayer in GoldenEye, and yet I now find myself more beguiled by the potential of the game's single-player campaign. It's all still a mystery to me, but I'll try to explain.
Take Valentin Zukovsky. In the film he was an ex-KGB agent who owned a sleazy-looking club; a chunky Russian stereotype with a short fuse and a sick sense of humour. Times and tensions, though, have shifted enormously since then, so now he's been given a virtual makeover. In GoldenEye he's young, chiselled, cool enough to pull off a reverse golf cap and free of any KGB ties - a current Zukovsky.
He is the epitome of the game's re-imagination. As I watched on, the mission set in his lavish Barcelona nightclub hammered home the team's approach to GoldenEye. The club was booming. The surrounding bursts of purple and pink neon blended with a tub-thumping remix of Kaskade's anthem "I Remember".
As Bond was led towards Zukovsky's office he got stopped by security, this giving me a chance to admire the bouncer's impressive facial rendition and animation. The game's motion-capture work, on the back of Eurocom's experience in the field with 2009's superb Dead Space: Extraction, was more than evident.
But inside this glossy, fresh club were obvious nods of nostalgia. In the mission debrief, Craig's Bond dryly boasts about having given Zukovsky his facial scar. The warbling mistress of the film may have been gone, but in her stead was a hussy whom Zukovsky openly groped in front of Bond. There were general things like the pulsing hum of the original intro, now remixed and reverbed in its modern being.
This blend of old and new is lovingly encased within the impressive Extraction engine, but maybe more exciting than nostalgia and production values are the artistic touches I saw repeating through the nightclub mission. As Bond navigated the dance floor, surrounding clubbers became silhouetted against the pink of the lights, their loose, flowing animations producing an absolutely stunning visual effect. Later on, Bond had to return from backroom corridors to the club itself. As he snuck his way behind a bar he was greeted by an all-consuming electronic remix of some Gershwin jazz, this giving the ensuing chaotic gunfight a spontaneous arthouse feel. It all made for a great-looking mission, but whether or not this level of artistry and imagination runs through the whole game is another matter.
Artistry is not what one would expect of a licensed game, but Eurocom did display similar imagination within the mind-bending elements of Dead Space: Extraction. Alongside Visceral Games, Eurocom created in Extraction a light gun game that somehow managed to sit quite justifiably alongside the immense production values of the first Dead Space. So the developer is clearly not daunted by rival Blood Stone. But I wonder if it should be, especially after playing through the Severnaya mission.
As I made my way through the area surrounding the Siberian facility, carefully avoiding guards by darting between the mounds of snow, I was immediately reminded of a similarly stealthy, snowy mission in Modern Warfare 2. That mission was tense, engaging, and required a careful touch. So too does the Severnaya mission require skill; mistiming a headshot will spring a sea of guards out of nowhere and you'll be seeing globules of red fill your screen within seconds. But the atmosphere wasn't there in comparison to the admittedly high standard of Modern Warfare 2. Maybe it was the fairly typical weaponry, the old-school feel of some of the AI movement, or the familiarity of the setting itself.
In short, there was nothing obviously distinctive about the mission (at least beyond the its setup which I won't spoil here). It worked fine, yes - the dynamic melee takedowns were always a joy - but I'm not sure that dressing up GoldenEye combat in the modern garb of arrow-marked grenades and regenerating health helps to distinguish it, especially in a Q4 packed full of impressive-looking shooters.
Beyond the seeming dichotomy of the single-player campaign is the much anticipated multiplayer, this understandably much more of a full-on nostalgia trip. Given how the online revolution has left the split-screen shooter more than a bit forgotten, there's plenty of scope for a timely trip down memory lane.
I played several games with press members and Eurocom developers alike - all of them the conniving sort that glance at your portion of the screen before hunting you down - and I did have great fun. Things like a meaty golden gun kill and a perfectly executed hat-to-the-face were just plain sexy to execute, while modifiers like Big Hands, Singularity (touch anyone else and you'll a-splode), Paintball, and Move Your Feet (stay stationary for more than three seconds and you'll die) all added to the great vibe.
There remain concerns and questions, though. How well it work online? How easy will online play be to set up on the Wii, renowned for its troubles in that department? How well will the fidelity hold up in four-player split-screen on your average Joe's living room telly? Regards that final question, this could be a major issue. I'm not sure there's enough nostalgia for the N64 classic to appreciate bitty-looking enemies, particularly a possibility in long-range aiming, even down the scopes of some of the rifles.
The other major concern, then, is that the nostalgia will be a fleeting novelty for some players. Eurocom hopes that the huge range of 52 old and new characters, the add-ons like proximity mines and bouncy grenades, and the seemingly endless heap of modifiers will all give the mode depth. It will take more than several games to deduce that, but Eurocom is almost fighting a bigger war by trying to bring players back to the cramp of the over-brimming sofa and away from the lure of always available online combat. Players will have to be forgiving of the compression enforced by split-screen, something that is undeniably emphasized by the game being released on Wii rather than on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
There are a lot of different wars the studio is fighting with GoldenEye. There's the battle to balance imagination and artistry against nostalgia and respect for the original property. There's the struggle to distinguish its shooting and combat, particularly in a crowded market that already contains a more visually impressive Bond game. And finally, there's the fight to keep players huddled round the screen in the all-important split-screen multiplayer mode. Who would have thought a simple enough idea like the resurrection of a classic game like GoldenEye would surface so many puzzles to be solved?
Keeps things interesting, though. We'll know all the answers come Guy Fawkes Night.