Think fast! When you think 'James Bond video game', what genre comes to mind? Probably first-person shooter, right? Well, Activision recently served that market quite well with their remake of the classic GoldenEye. However, some of us sometimes like to actually see our favourite suave, sophisticated secret agent as he mows down bad guys and makes time with the ladies. That market has gone fairly underserved since the release of the fantastic Everything or Nothing on the last generation of consoles (that Quantum of Solace game never happened!). So, you can imagine that I was fairly enthusiastic when Activision announced Blood Stone, an original cover-based third-person shooter in the 007 franchise. Now that I've gotten my hands on a final build of the game, have my expectations been met?
Basically, Blood Stone is a third-person shooter where you play as Daniel Craig’s interpretation of Bond, on a mission to find a man named Malcolm Tedworth who is selling classified research on a cure for Anthrax to the highest bidder. Not long into the game, it turns out a man named Pomerov has purchased this research and created a strain of the disease that can only be cured with this antidote. He plans to spread the plague around the world and cure only those who can pay. Standard Bond trope, but the traditional ‘Bond girl’ (played by Joss Stone) actually adds a few interesting wrinkles to the plot. Blood Stone 2: Bloodier & Stonier? Well, as they say, “James Bond will return...”
I was actually pretty optimistic about this game when it was announced. Some may think it’s just another Gears of War clone, but those people always seem to forget that the Bond franchise was one of the frontrunners when it came to cover-based shooters. Everything or Nothing was, in my view, a masterpiece of gameplay. It seamlessly blended stealth gameplay, shooting, melee combat, and vehicular sequences into one shaken (not stirred) cocktail of Bond perfection. So I was hoping Blood Stone would be able to recapture that magic. Did it succeed?
Um... can I say a hesitant yes? Blood Stone does indeed bring along all four of the aforementioned gameplay types, so let me break it down:
First, there’s the shooting, which is of course what you’ll be spending most of your time doing. In addition to his standard P99 silenced pistol, Bond can hold one other weapon. You can tap ‘A’ (or ‘X’ on the PS3 controller) to take cover behind most objects. It even has an advantage over Gears of War in one area here, as if you hold the button when on a corner, you can round the corner without breaking cover. However, it has the permanent cover-shooter disease of your enemies not being able to see you even when your body is sticking halfway out from behind that tree or wall. To shoot, you pull the left trigger to aim and then the right trigger to fire - standard stuff for the genre. However, the aiming feels loose. You know how, in a game like Halo or Call of Duty, when you want to hit a guy who’s walking slowly to the left, you just need to move the analog stick ever so slightly in that direction? In Blood Stone, nudging the stick slightly one way usually results in Bond overshooting your intended target by a fair distance. It can be very finicky and annoying when trying to fight at long-range, so you’ll want to get in close.
Fortunately, this is where Blood Stone starts to fare better. The close-range combat is simple, yet satisfying. If you run out of ammo and duck behind a doorway, and an enemy follows you in; it’s a matter of a simple well-timed button press to grab him and smash his face into the wall. It may sound easy, but the challenge comes from lining these hits up in the middle of a firefight. It’s beneficial to take down foes this way, as doing so earns you special Focus Kills, similar to those in Splinter Cell: Conviction, which let you kill any enemy with one shot - useful for getting out of tight situations or saving time when you’re trying to catch up to some fool who’s running from you.
If you’re so inclined, you can often avoid confrontation altogether, as Blood Stone offers several options for the stealthy gamer. The silenced P99 does what it says on the box, so it’s useful for taking out enemies silently. Used in combination with a Focus Kill (up to three of which can be stored at once and used at the same time), it becomes possible to clear a small room or hallway of enemies in an instant without being seen. Bond is also as silent as the night, so if you’re nimble enough with the analog sticks, you can sneak up behind someone and quickly end his misery without being noticed. Actually, some aspects of the sneaking around are relatively jarring, most notably the fact that, despite the great attention being given to water splashing sound effects and various echoes, the enemies never seem to notice these things.
Despite the uneven quality of those three gameplay styles, they do mix together quite nicely to create that familiar ‘Bond’ rhythm. You’ll sneak up on a guy, flip him over your back, then shoot someone across the hall with your silenced weapon. Then you’ll walk out across the path, thinking you’re being all sneaky, when a guard will call out “THERE HE IS!” Pandemonium will ensue as you unload your AK into his face, use two Focus Kills on the guards firing from above, then make a dash for the cover of a distant doorway, elbowing the guy in the face who tries to ambush you on the way. It does all feel very natural and very Bond-like.
That being said, the driving missions are the clear standouts here. It is no wonder that this was made by Bizarre Creations, chiefly known for their racing games. The physics feel very tight, and the graphics on the cars are some of the best in the game. There’s a real sense of speed involved as you’re chasing a bomb-equipped tanker across a crowded highway, or attempting to catch up to someone who committed the extraordinarily stupid sin of betraying James Bond. The only problem with these sections is that they are very unforgiving. If you run into something just once, your target will almost assuredly get away before you have time to speed back up again. Still, these are easily the most enjoyable sections of the game.
Actually, the difficulty level is one of my primary problems with the game overall. I was never able to adjust it to a level that felt just right. On the Field Operative difficulty, you can take a grenade launcher to the face and live to tell about it, while Agent (the next level up) kills you in about two hits from the average machine gun. I was never able to find that satisfying sweet spot between challenge and feeling like a badass.
The other thing is that the game often seems to forget that it’s a game. Many of the more impressive stunts, including fights with the main enemy and escapes from big explosions, are handled via in-game cinematics. Remember the Prophet of Truth in Halo 3? The guy you’ve been chasing for nearly two games? Remember how, once you finally caught up to him, you were expecting an awe-inspiring boss fight, only to have the Arbiter stab him from behind in a cutscene? Yeah, you’ll be getting a lot of that in 007 Blood Stone.
From a visual standpoint, there’s nothing particularly special about the game, though it does look nice. Daniel Craig is recognizable as Bond, despite the travesty of inexplicably giving him black hair (c’mon, guys, he’s supposed to be the blonde Bond!). As this is a third-person action game, appropriate attention has been given to Bond’s every animation, and everything from choking some fool to leaping from a burning shipping container feels the way it should. It’s just a shame that Bizarre fell for the gaffe with their ‘HD’ game that most developers left behind by 2007, which is that ‘making everything extra-shiny makes it look great!’ No, it really doesn’t, all it does is make Bond look like he’s covered in Turtle Wax.
As far as sound is concerned, Blood Stone is a mixed bag. There are some nice orchestral beats that kick in during the action scenes, and the intro theme by Joss Stone isn’t bad, though it’s nowhere near as memorable as the one found in GoldenEye. The dialogue is well-written, with some funny jabs at recent war efforts being highlights. I stumbled upon a nice little touch here and there, too. You know how in some stealth-based games, you’ll see a guard talking on a radio, you’ll walk up and strangle him mid-sentence, and no one on the other end will seem to care? One time in Blood Stone I came upon this situation, only the voice on the other end of the radio shouted and alerted guards in the area that I might be around. That was a nice touch, though it’s too bad Bond’s voice-acting seems very stilted and forced. It feels like Craig took this gig for the paycheque and didn't really care how he sounded.
I honestly can’t say much for the value in this game. Single-player took me around four hours on Field Operative, and Agent seems like it may have taken around seven or eight if I cared to inch my way through it. There is no incentive to play through the game again besides an unlockable difficulty level, and it really didn’t interest me enough to want to replay just ‘for fun’. There is no local multiplayer to speak of, and I’d have left the barebones, lag-filled online alone after two or three matches were I not playing the game for review. It’s got an experience system and a fair few maps, but there are no interesting game modes whatsoever, and the lag killed it for me every time.
It’s a shame that Blood Stone is such a mixed bag, as there are the ingredients for a great game here. Stealth, shootouts, fistfights, and fast cars - the Bond franchise is practically tailor-made for video-gamedom. On average, these elements are handled well (especially the driving segments), but pretty much everything here has been done much better in other games. Even this game’s predecessor, Everything or Nothing, does a much better job of putting you in the shoes of a third-person James Bond. The game has little replay value, and graphics and sound that are merely decent. Oh, and despite the cliffhanger ending, the fact that Bizarre Creations are in dire financial straits right now makes it questionable whether or not “James Bond will return.” If you have a backward-compatible PS3 or 360 and need a Bond game, I highly recommend going to your local game store and picking up Everything or Nothing for five bucks. Otherwise, if you’re looking for third-person action, there are much better options available on your HD system of choice.