SSPA – 007: Goldeneye

Some time ago, I read the John Le Carre novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Le Carre’s sober, unromantic description of espionage during the cold war was very gripping and powerful. There are no fantastic gadgets, or cat stroking villains plotting world domination, just ordinary fallible people working two sides of a complex and grim international conflict. His novels make for fascinating and engrossing reading and he was very successful in his day, but something that stood out to me about this book and the rest of Le Carre’s works was how very rare it seems to be that we see a down to earth approach to spy stories. I suppose that, for as interesting as the real world of spies is, it is far too complex and depressingly serious for broad general appeal. Sometimes you just want to see the good guy fool absurdly evil bad guys. People long for the thrill of a sudden gunfight or a final act twist. That may be why one of the most enduring franchises in media history is Ian Flemming’s James Bond.

The James Bond books are crazy stories of action and suspense. The British secret agent always finds himself in the grip of massive global conspiracies that threaten the safety of the free world, and Bond is the one man with the talent and skills to save the day. It’s not realistic in the many ways, but there’s just enough real world jargon and politics to make most of the stories at least semi-believable, although things like diamond encrusted laser satellites and nuking Fort Knox to make your gold more valuable are so goofy you can’t help but throw back your head and laugh. Flemming’s books are a bit of a mixed bag to return to. The writing can be very captivating, but they are very much a product of their time and include all the uncomfortable racism and sexism that one might expect. The film franchise suffers less from this, and even the most ridiculous of the movies are a blast to watch.

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The movies have been going on so long that the lead role has had to change faces several times, and it is only natural to ask, of Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig, who is the best Bond? Does the casual and easy cool of Sean Connery fit the part best, or maybe the cheesey wit of Roger Moore? Was Pierce Brosnan’s take on the character the best move for the franchise, or did Daniel Craig get the formula correct? At the end of the day it really is a matter of opinion, but my favorite was always Timothy Dalton. His more serious, but still entertaining and witty take on the super spy always seemed to me the best version of the character.

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Unfortunately, Dalton was only the lead for two films. After the end of production on Licence To Kill, Metro Goldwyn-Mayer was bought out and the new CEO got caught up in a lawsuit with the original licence holders of the Bond franchise. Even though a third Dalton film was already in pre-production, this suit took over three years to be settled and by then, Dalton had lost interest in continuing with the role. With their lined up Bond’s departure, MGM went into a scramble for a new Bond and a new script. These events lead to the production of the 1995 film Goldeneye, with Pierce Brosnan as the new James Bond. This was the first Bond movie I had ever seen and as the first original Bond story written exclusively for a film (they had gone through all of Flemming’s novels and stories after Licence To Kill) it was a valiant and creative effort.

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This movie was a thrill for me to see, not because I was a die hard bond fan at the time, but because of a video game that had brought me extreme joy as a young child, the 1997 N64 adaptation of the movie, 007: Goldeneye by Rare. This game, one of a few first person shooters on the system, is very fondly remembered as a classic gaming milestone by those who played it in the late 90’s and a poorly aged oddity to modern gamers who did not. Was it all just blind nostalgia and a wonder of the game in its day that led me to think it a classic as well? I think it’s worth revisiting to find out.

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Story:

Shortly before the end of the Cold War, on a mission to sabotage a Soviet chemical weapons facility, British Secret Service agent 007 James Bond, witnessed the death of his partner, agent 006 Alec Trevelyan, at the hands of GRU Colonel Arkady Grigorovich Ourumov. Bond successfully destroyed the facility, but Ourumov escaped. Nine years later, Bond is assigned to investigate the actions of Xenia Onatopp, an operative of the international crime syndicate Janus. During the course of his investigation, Bond discovers that Ourumov, now a General, is secretly stealing Russian government secrets for Janus. Bond’s new mission is to discover what Ourumov’s interests are in a secret project known as Goldeneye, and to discover and eliminate the leader of Janus.

The game’s story plays out almost exactly the same as the film’s, but with several added scenes and differences that range from small to large. For example, in the movie, the scene aboard the frigate La Fayette is very brief. Bond realizes Janus is going to steal an experimental stealth chopper and rushes onto the ship just as Xenia and Ourumov steal it, but he manages to throw a tracking bug on the chopper as it takes off. In the game, this level sees you going through the ship rescuing captive crew members from Janus operatives, disarming a bomb in the engine deck, and planting the tracker on the chopper before it is stolen. Another scene is the escape from the Russian military archives. The film has Bond is interrogated by Dmitri Mishkin, the Russian minister of defense, when Ourumov suddenly breaks in and kills the minister to frame Bond. In the game, Mishkin leaves before Ourumov breaks in and then you fight your way out, but before you leave you have to find the still living Mishkin to get his support to help you fight Janus later.

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Almost every level is like this, expanding on the events of the film and rearranging some scenes. However the game attempts to involve the player in parts of the story that never involved Bond in the film. For instance, the Siberian satellite control base is a focal point of the story where Natalya Simonova witnesses Ourumov steal the Gondeneye control system and use it to destroy the facility. She barely survives and makes her way to civilization. Bond and the rest of MI6 only find out about this after the base is destroyed, but the game dedicates four stages to this area at different times. Early on you infiltrate the facility to scout the base during its construction and copy the Goldeneye control system. This is supposed to be four years before the La Fayette mission, after which you track the stolen chopper to the Siberian base and infiltrate it to stop Ourumov from stealing the Goldeneye key only to be captured and forced to escape with Natalya. This extra detail does a good job making the player feel like they are a part of the story, though you’ll have to read all the mission briefing flavor text to really understand how the story has been altered for the game.

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Gameplay:

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Goldeneye is a first person shooter on the N64, and is help back by all the limitations that implies. Don’t get me wrong, at the time of release, this was one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences you could have, however much has changed in twenty years, and revisiting this game is trying to say the least. Most first person shooters in the early 90s were variants on Id Software’s Doom, and while this made for a frantic shootout, aiming your weapon was imprecise. To a large extend, the game handled it for you and all you had to do was point in the right general direction and fire. In 1994, Bungie’s Marathon introduced free aiming, where you use the mouse to look around and move with the keyboard.

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Id’s Quake brought it into common usage, and for most PC gamers it’s the preferred way to play first person games. Unfortunately, home consoles have had to struggle with making first person control work well on a controller with limited inputs, usually just a D-Pad or single analogue stick. Being able to comfortably move and aim in first person games was a real challenge. Eventually, dual analogue controllers made playing much easier, and some game’s like Metroid Prime managed smooth single analogue control, but in 1997 things had not been fully worked out and the N64’s pronged controller design was ill-suited for complex camera movement.

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Goldeneye uses single analogue control. You move forward and back with the stick, but also use it to look left and right. The C-buttons can be used to look up and down or strafe to either side, and if you hold R, the C-buttons will let you manually aim around the screen. This isn’t the worst control scheme, and you can change the button configuration and sensitivity to a certain extent, but the gameplay is saved by a very generous auto-aim system. The enemies are affected differently depending on where you shoot them, but the manual aiming is so cumbersome that more often than not, you’ll be spraying bullets while the auto-aim sorts it out. This control scheme is not impossible to manage, but seeing as how things have improved so much over the years, it can sometimes feel like pulling teeth going back to such an arcane control scheme.

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One of the more challenging aspects of the gameplay is how your health is managed. While older FPS games littered healing items all over the stages, and later games give you health that regenerates over time, Goldeneye gives you one full health bar for every mission and no healing items. If you lose health in the stage, there’s no way to recover it. The only reprieve to be had are stashes of body armor. These bullet proof vests give you a shield that will allow you to take some extra hits. This does not however, restore your base health and it is used up more quickly. It may not seem like too much of a challenge at first, but on the later levels and harder difficulties, you’ll be cautiously walking through the stages, avoiding as much conflict as possible.

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Each level requires you to meet some objectives before leaving the stage. In some stages this can be as simple as getting to the end, while others send you on long detours to carry out specific goals under a time limit. The number of goals in the stage depends on the difficulty you’re playing on. For example, the first stage expands upon the opening of the movie, where Bond bungee jumps from the top of a dam to infiltrate the chemical facility. On the simplest difficulty (agent), the only objective is to get through the guards to the jump off point. On the medium difficulty (special agent), you have to destroy all the alarms in the dam and install a tracking bug on the base’s communications system before getting to the jump. The most challenging setting (00 agent) adds another objective, to enter the dam itself and intercept a signal from the base’s computer.

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With every new difficulty setting, you have to complete all new objectives in addition to the enemies shooting harder and ammo being scarcer. The objectives themselves can be a real pain to complete. For example, the 00 agent objective in the dam level has you delve into the base to use the computer. Unfortunately there are lots of guards down there that hit like a ton of bricks. If you are careless, the firefight might hit one of the computer terminals and destroy it, causing you to fail the objective, forcing you to restart the whole thing. You can only play the next level on difficulty equal or lower to the last level you completed., so if you beat the Dam mission on Special Agent, then you can play the Facility mission on Special Agent and Agent, but not 00 Agent.

Even though the controls are a bit clunky and some of the objectives can be downright cruel, this game is still a blast to play once you get the hang of it. There are tons of weapons to find and the enemy AI will get creative about avoiding your shots on harder difficulties. There are also special bonus missions as rewards for completing the harder difficulties, and fun cheat codes to unlock by clearing certain missions quickly enough. Unfortunately you cannot use cheats to beat levels you haven’t already cleared

(Unless of course you have the obsessive patience to input a series of complex button combinations to trigger specific cheats to make the most frustrating of levels just the tiniest bit easier, but then there’s that one mission in the Cuban base where you have to keep Natalya alive in the middle of an insane firefight and she dies so quickly on 00 Agent difficulty, but cheats don’t protect her so you’ll have to replay from the beginning up to that part of the mission over and over and put in those same damn button combos over and over until they’re burned into your brain and AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!)

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One of the most memorable features of Goldeneye was the multiplayer. Oh sure, us younguns didn’t have the know how or resources to set up a LAN party for Quake, but if you and some friends could each bring a controller to the home of a kid with this game, you had an amazing night ahead of you. The multiplayer mode lets up to four players play split-screen together in various deathmatch modes. At the time, the gameplay was just something you had to deal with. We didn’t have anything more advanced and we were all fine with it. There are a ton of characters you can play as, from key figures from the movie to classic bond foes, but for most games it was a race to see which of us could pick Bond first. If you missed Bond you’d fall back on whichever actor portrait looked coolest, and if you just want to watch the world burn, you would pick Oddjob from Goldfinger.

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You could use cheats in multiplayer to make things pretty crazy. Invincibility would be pointless, but you could have some real fun with turbo speed, all guns, infinite ammo, paintball mode, and DK mode. Considering how well remembered it is, It’s funny to think that the multiplayer was actually something of an after thought for Rare. Late in development it was used to bug test the engine and levels, and right before finishing, they decided to include the mode in the final release. It may be pretty basic, but it certainly made for some of the most fun times you could have with an N64 and some friends.

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Presentation:

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It is true that early polygon graphics have not aged too well, and that is definitely the case here, but there is a point where you have to respect some game developers for doing the most they could with what they had. For the N64 at the time, Goldeneye was actually a pretty solid looking title. The character models were full sized people with realistic proportions as opposed to goofy cartoon characters, and they were animated with motion capture, giving them a bit more realism in their movements. They would react differently depending on where you shot them, and with a well placed shot you could shoot off their hats or make them lose their guns… Or other unique tricks.

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Since release, many would agree that the game it doesn’t look terribly good. Character limbs look misshapen and their faces are deformed photos draped across lumpy polygon heads, while the environments are pretty muddy, undefined, and have a pretty low draw distance, but this was pretty advanced stuff at the time and while the N64 couldn’t offer as much detail as the PS1, it still looked okay. Yet, despite my nostalgia for the game, I’d be lying if I said the graphics make the game easy to play.

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Pretty often, you’ll run into a room spraying and praying your guns hoping to weave through a barrage of bullets coming out of the mist far away. To mitigate this, a lot of levels are set in pretty close hallways with a few larger set piece rooms, and by keeping things close, the graphics look okay, but when you have an outdoor level, you’ll have to be extra careful. It was possible to tweak the game’s resolution a bit and change the field of view to to widescreen or letterbox view for bigger TVs. Yet, novel as this feature is, it doesn’t really clear up the graphics that much.

One of the best parts of almost all the games produced by Rare in their golden years was their soundtracks. From BattleToads and Donkey Kong Country, to Perfect Dark and Jet Force Gemini, Rare’s teams of composers had a near perfect run of fantastic and memorable soundtracks. Goldeneye’s music was composed by a dream team including Graeme Norgate, Grant Kirkhope, and Robin Beanland, all of whom have produced fantastic scores and would go on to make other great hits. Almost every track is a sort of remix of the original James Bond Theme by Monty Norman. Although this could potentially be restricting and repetitive, the Rare team managed to give every piece character to fit the urgency and mood of each level.

The music does a good job resembling the film’s score with the use of similar moods and sounds.

Conclusion:

When I first saw the film, I had so deeply memorized the game that seeing the scenes in live action was a genuine thrill. To see Bond in the armored train use a laser in his watch to cut a hole through the floor to escape while Natalya tracks Janus’ headquarters just like in the game was exhilarating. The bungee jump form the Russian dam and the confrontation on the satellite antenna cradle were almost beat for beat perfect, and this is a real rarity on movie tie in games. However, regardless of how much I adored this game as a child, I can’t ignore the serious deficiencies that make it a chore to play these days. Awkward N64 controls are muscle memory for me, but anyone new to the experience will find it devastating cruel to play.

If you too fondly remember playing this game with your friends, or had that rush of excitement seeing the movie bring the story to life, then you will likely still love Goldeneye. For others though? If you are an avid games collector or a serious Bond fan you should give it a go, but modern gamers will probably want to leave it in the past.

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