"Make up your mind. Do you want everything or nothing?" the sales clerk at EB asked me.
Funny guy. Ha. Ha.
So, first off, have you seen the credits on this thing? The driving team had like 30 engineers on it? Jesus Christ!
Some mild spoilers follow.
This really is two games in one - two separate teams made two separate games and stitched them together. I wonder if the code is in separate modules which swap at runtime - I couldn't help but notice that vehicles that are destructible in the driving game are represented by undestructible proxy in the action game. Unlike Halo, where the driving uses the same interface as the shooting, the control schemes for the driving and shooting portions of EON seem to have been invented by two disparate design teams. Only rarely did this cause a problem for me. (What button is shoot, again?)
I like to sometimes make my wife play the beginning of a game to see how hardcore it is. "The wife test", a variant of Blizzard North's "Mom Test". This game completely fails the wife test: there were four points in the first three levels where she would have thrown down the controller and quit if I wasn't there to explain it to her. Four shelf level events.
I've been arguing with my acquaintances about tutorials lately. There's three schools of thought:
1.) have no tutorial. Your game should be so simple that no tutorial is needed. (Diablo)
2.) have a tutorial which explains the entire game up front. Hey, when you play chess, you learn all the rules, and then you play, right? (Splinter Cell, Call of Duty)
3.) spread tutorial events out throughout the game (first third, first half, whatever.) Mark Nau calls this "Black & Whiting it" because Black & White was a shining example of it. So was the new Prince of Persia.
EON went with a modified #2. They did a very James-Bondy-get-you-into-the-action quick segment...which was very cool...you plug the CD in and the game opens on an arms deal and then you're fighting. But it wasn't until I played a second time that I figured out how to get to the multiplayer modes. Then after that segment there was a big fat tutorial which teaches you how to play pretty much the rest of the game.
Assuming your game is so complex that a tutorial is in order...seems like most games these days are...option #3 is clearly preferable to option #2. Option #2 has several problems:
- You can hit a shelf level event early, before the game has really hooked the player (once the story has kicked in and they actually want to see what comes next, or before they've seen what makes the game cool) [We had an example of this in Die By The Sword, where there was a running jump in the tutorial that failed the Mom Test. (It was Mark Nau's mom. Hey, she likes Heroes of Might & Magic, we thought there was a chance...)]
- People forget. God, I've been watching focus tests lately, and people sometimes seem dumb as posts. If you dump a large amount of data on somebody, context free, they're going to lose a big chunk of it. With EON, both a friend of mine and I forgot about "Bond Sense" - I rediscovered it by accident a quarter of the way into the game - he played the whole thing (on easy mode) without ever knowing how it worked. Option #3 doesn't totally solve this problem, by the way. Prince of Persia took the extra step of telling you everything at least twice...
- It's not playing the game. It's learning the game. It's a pill you're making people swallow before you let them play. By concealing it as part of the game the way Zelda does, it makes learning fun. Almost.
More on Bond Sense: this is one of EON's biggest innovations. Like GTA3, you lock onto a target with one button and fire with another. Unlike GTA3, you can slow time to a crawl - so slow it's almost stopped - rotate the camera, and pick a target. This means you can crouch roll into a group of people, Bond Sense, kill one, Bond Sense, kill another, etcetera, all the while taking very little damage. It represents a new level of pandering to the "I want to be an awesome badass!" crowd, which is a huge market that includes me. It's a whole additional level above Max Payne, because you're not just slowing time down, you're stopping it, and it's free. The only thing that makes it beatable is all you can do in this mode is pick targets.
Here's the problem with Bond Sense: they ran out of buttons, and tied Bond Sense in with your inventory. When you switch weapons, you're in Bond Sense. This has two drawbacks: it's hard to enter Bond Sense without accidentally switching weapons, and it makes it hard to learn - no doubt the reason why my friend and I took so long to figure it out. (Side note: putting two functions on one button is a bad idea. Another example of this is SSX3 - a brilliant game, but there's three different buttons that have two functions each and if you're in the wrong context pressing the button can be catastrophic. Bond Sense isn't that much of a problem.) The Bond Sense problem could have been easily solved by removing one of Bond's hand-to-hand attacks - I could not tell the difference between these two punches - and putting Bond Sense on its own button.
They don't have many save checkpoints in the action sequences, where you need to kill dozens of guys without dying. The frustration this caused me was my own fault, as I insisted on playing on medium difficulty up to the last level, where I finally caved and switched to easy. Which was too easy.
I've got one last gripe, the same gripe I had with Call of Duty: it breaks George Broussard's One Game Design Rule, which is Things In A Game Should Behave The Way The Player Expects Them To. There are a couple boss fights where the bosses take either infinite or a very large number of bullets before dying. (And there's one boss fight where it arbitrarily decides to not let you use guns, call that gripe 1A, give me liberty or give me another game.) The worst thing is stuff in the environment that a real James Bond could easily jump, vault, or even *step* over which your jump-buttonless James Bond cannot. Call of Duty had the same issue, so maybe this is becoming one of the conventions of gaming. Max Payne 2 did it right; if there was a place Max couldn't go, it *looked* like he couldn't go there. Fences or other obstructions really sealed him off. There's one level in EON where a waist-high brick wall prevents you from proceeding, so you have to jump into a pit and walk through underground mines, until you finally come up on the other side and can escape. I shit you not.
So, all that said...this game is AWESOME. It is the epitome of the funhouse-ride action-driving hybrid. It raises the bar to new level. Actually, it's better than a funhouse ride, because although you are on rails, there are forks in the road. You can choose one path one time and another path the next time. This works well for a console game without save-anywhere; you actually do get to see most of the paths before you win.
The 007 moment is the biggest innovation in this game. It works on so many levels:
You may have asked yourself, "How can we encourage the player to act like the character?" The 007 moment does it with simple recognition. "You acted very much like 007 just now." It gives you points which give you silly rewards but I think that's immaterial - the main thing is the recognition. That was enough to get me to keep asking, "What would James Bond do?" In any other game, my tendency was to shoot the enemy instead of shooting the explosive barrel next to the enemy - that was the most direct way to victory. The 007 moment induces me to shoot the barrel. And if I didn't get recognized for every explosive barrel kill, that was okay, it's not like I particularly minded shooting the barrel. It did make a nice explosion. (An intermittent schedule of reinforcement.) The moment also gives the game replay value - I probably will never find time to go back and play it again, but I wish I could, because I want to find more of those moments. They're more interesting than the typical "secrets" of yesterday's games, since they're sometimes set pieces which involve big things blowing up.
(There was one time where I blew this helicopter up and then jumped over the exploding helicopter in a motorcycle...I'm not sure if that was a set piece or a meticulously timed event or just dumb luck..."emergent narrative"? Not likely in an EA game...)
Another great innovation is the way the game deals with cover. When you crouch behind a crate or back against a wall (you can tell these are gameplay elements because there are buttons for them...two bad that on the Xbox they're black and white) you are nearly immune to enemy fire. Maybe this has been in another game, I remember MGS2 had a wall mode that was similar...though I don't remember if you could shoot from that position or not...I'm sure someone will correct me in the comments section. Then the levels are laid out with lots of corners and crates - almost like an arcade shooter - and the result triggers my gamist pleasure centers and my "this is just like a Bond movie" pleasure centers and my "I'm an awesome badass" pleasure centers all at once.
Games aren't really about reflexes anymore, have you noticed that? I'm not sure how long it's been this way. Maybe a decade. Even games that have a counter button make it optional, give you such a large response time that anybody can do it, or both. This game isn't about your FPS skills, either, with its lock-on mode and its Bond Sense. For the most part the action portion is a strategy game. "I'll cover here, take these two guys out when they run out, run around and get this guy, this guy isn't coming out from that crate so I'll use a grenade, I'm low on ammo so I better fight hand-to-hand some (trading health for ammunition), wow I'm clever, etcetera."
More on the Bond Sense: one of the big problems with games in general is that you have a 90 degree field of view and (unless you have a kick-ass sound system) very little idea of where sounds are coming from. I've been playing a lot of Tron 2.0 lately and I've been noticing getting killed from behind a lot - and Tron 2.0 does a cool little monitor-shutting-off effect when you die, so you don't even get the courtesy of seeing where the killer was that shot you, like you do with Quake. The Bond Sense solves this problem - if you're getting shot, you can flip to Bond Sense, turn the camera until you see where the guy is, and then either shoot back (if you had a weapon in hand) or get the hell out of the way. But it's not totally free - time is still creeping forward, so you can't dawdle.
The set pieces--a particular example being when two tanks and a helicopter are about to kill you and M. says over your earpiece "you better shoot out the gas station, Bond" and you shoot the gas tank between them to take them all out--have very little to do with games but a lot to do with entertainment. The only interactivity in this scene is "press the A button to advance"--it's barely more interactive than Dragon's Lair. Still, these moments *are* cool. Although it's hard to argue with "if I wanted a movie I'd go see a movie" when there's a bunch of cinematic elements in your game it definitely adds value. (There's one prerendered "stunt" - triggered by pressing the A button, again - that really was clever and I wouldn't have been surprised to see it in a Bond movie.)
Although EON doesn't pass the Wife Test it does pass the Gamefaqs test. How many times did I need to consult Gamefaqs? Zero. So it seems like they must have done a fair amount of gameplay testing. But if that's the case, how come it doesn't also pass the Wife Test? I'm guessing that EA only did testing on medium-to-hard core gamers. (A problem we have at Activision, too: casual gamers aren't really interested in coming to a videogame focus test.) This can lead to what Costikyan calls Grognard Capture, where you're struggling so hard to please the hardcore you end up alienating other customers.
The rumor is this game got delayed for around a year. As I understand it, EA does a thing where they hire reviewers to review their game in secret, then they look at the average, and if it's too low, they slip the title. I can only speculate, but I think EA must have spent a fortune on this. I'm guessing over $20 million on the development alone, with at least a million just on the voice talent. (If only games were like movies and the budgets were known...) It's clear they're putting quality first, speed-of-delivery second, and cost third in their scheme of priorities, something they were only able to do by making a game that isn't tied to a specific movie...which makes me wonder just what happened with Agent Under Fire and Nightfire...not that I ever played them, but Gamerankings isn't very stoked about them.
[Oh hey. I didn't realize until just this moment that Everything Or Nothing is the first Bond game with the actual (current) Bond cast. Now I feel like a sucker. I thought I was buying the game because it got consistently good reviews, but maybe I'm just succumbing to celebrity hype. (Hey, I was going to buy Beyond Good & Evil but EB was out of stock!)]
Do movies ever slip? Do they ever enter the editing stage and people say, "Well, this isn't as good as we thought, let's rewrite this part and reshoot this part and so on. We'll put it out next year."