Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Game Review: 007 Legends

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Mega Man Legends and its sequel. And now for something completely different.
007 Legends
  • Publisher: Activision 
  • Developer: Eurocom 
  • Release: 
    • PlayStation 3 / XBox 360, 16 October 2012 
    • Wii U, 11 December 2012 
  • Genre: 3D Action (First-person shooter) 
  • Players: 1-4 offline, 2-12 online
Funny thing about Mega Man Legends 3: even though I've been raising such a stink about how it was cancelled ever since I heard of its untimely demise, I actually don't have much of an emotional investment Mega Man as a whole, apart from re-discovering how much of a great sequel the second Legends game was. As a matter of fact, my favourite fandom is James Bond, and you should know that by now, seeing as how I devoted 24 reviews last year to all its films (that matter). As such, I waited eagerly for the 2010 Goldeneye remake on Wii, and my expectations were met, on the whole, but there's frankly no need for me to review it when its follow up is so similar. Replace the self-contained plot of Goldeneye (either the N64 or Wii one) with a buffet of neo-retro film reboots, and you get the follow-up Activision and Eurocom pulled off for 007's 50th anniversary, known as 007 Legends.

Given its role as an anniversary milestone, Legends's storyline is more or less a tribute to Bonds past. The settings are re-imagined excerpts from various films, one for each actor who played 007: Goldfinger (from the Sean Connery era), On Her Majesty's Secret Service (George Lazenby), Licence to Kill (Timothy Dalton), Die Another Day (Pierce Brosnan), and Moonraker (Roger Moore). On the whole it's a fine selection, I will admit, however the incorporation of Die Another Day in a retelling of other Bond stories is redundant, seeing as how the film itself is a re-hashing of the franchise's famous moments. With or without that choice of source material, in terms of storytelling, this may not have been the best way to go about things. Unlike, say, Goldeneye (either one), which had the time to build up a plot and the antagonist's reasoning behind setting it into motion, each of the five stories in Legends relies on awkward info-dumps to explain everything. If you've never seen the movies in question, you may get left in the proverbial dust. The environments capture the essence of their silver-screen counterparts with a modern flair to create a very slick aesthetic worthy of the 007 legacy. It's too bad the characters' stilted facial animations and the terribly dodgy shadows have to negate those graphical strong points. A handful of actors from those films have returned to provide likeness and voice talents; however Bond himself, here modeled after Daniel Craig, has received a sound-alike voice actor, and not a very good one at that. Dude, mister Goldfinger is about to cut you in half with a frickin' laser beam, you think you could at least sound scared?
Say what you want about Moonraker, but it makes for a fun level.
But despite all the fanservice, there was one thing that totally soured the experience for me: the levels they divided these scenes into are too dang few and too dang long. There are only eleven levels, and the majority can last a half-hour or longer. As discussed in my review of Goldeneye: Rogue Agent, having to invest more time on a level diminishes its replay attractiveness. But it gets worse: because of these larger levels, the loading times average around one minute a pop*. And if you need to re-start from a checkpoint, due to death or choice, that's another minute's worth of loading headed your way! Now, compare that to the Call of Duty games, which only waste a few seconds of your time on reloading levels, and there's no justification other than Eurocom sucks at optimisation. Dangit man, if you're going to imitate something that's already been imitated to the detriment of the industry as a whole, at least imitate it properly!

So enough about what 007 Legends is; what does it play like? There's a reason I brought up Call of Duty a few sentences ago, because apart from the horrendous loading times, it follows the same basic gameplay precepts of said franchise. Regenerating health, limited weapon slots, aiming down sights, unskippable cutscenes with quick-time events, and all those other things that have made first-person shooters less than fun. "But wait", you say, "aren't you forgetting its more innovative features?" And to that I say: be patient, you. The Classic health system from Goldeneye (either one) marks a return, only this time you can opt to use it on any difficulty level, not just the hard mode. Which is good, because I've never been too keen on the concept of regenerating HP, with or without the benefit of superpowers to explain it. Granted, I will take advantage of it if provided, but if the consequences of your actions (read: damage) are automatically nullified, it takes away from the challenge, and challenge is the reason we play video games on the whole, no? And because of how long the levels are, you can find not only body armour but health packs in the Classic modes. A welcome concession, although this should've been taken as a sign that the levels should've been broken up better.

If there's anything that separates the 007 games from the post-Modern Warfare Call of Duty model, even under Activision's tenure, it's the stealth segments, and Legends adds a few "refinements" to the formula. A meter will pop up around the centre of the screen pointing to guards and indicating their states of alertness (see also: Far Cry 3). I would call this helpful, but when you can stand ten metres in front of a guard and it takes him a couple of seconds to even walk over to check it out, well, this game can only support so much willing suspension of disbelief. Oh, and let's not forget about the gadgets! In many missions, Bond gets to use a laser watch and a pen that shoots tranquiliser, shock, and distraction darts. Sure, it's fun to use them all to carve out different paths through the stealth sections, but I for one couldn't help thinking about how the recent films tended to shy away from this sort of techno-gee-wizzery. Canon? What canon?
I don't see how lasering a guard helps, but it works wonders on cameras.
In the interest of cinematics, you'll also get into fight scenes where you flick the analog sticks up or down to throw punches. All the correct moves are identified with on-screen commands, but at the same time your foes leave their own visual cues as to their weak points. As a result, once I got used to this mechanic, my thought process turned to, "Okay, I get it, you can remove the training wheels now", never to cease. Furthermore, Legends attempts to bridge the gap between multiplayer and single-player experiences by incorporating features from the former into the latter, namely by a separate experience-point system, and weapon attachments you can purchase with said points. And in lieu of the time trials from Goldeneye (either one), many levels also feature bonus trials which can be performed on top of your other objectives. There are still time trials, yes, but also stealth trials, target trials, and elimination/specialist trials, which require you to focus on using one particular gun. These can be fun, but again, I'd be more inclined to take them on if I didn't have to spend so much time just finishing the level, to say nothing of the loading times I'd incur if I had to re-play any parts.

Speaking of multiplayer, if you're considering purchasing 007 Legends for its online multiplayer component, don't bother. Yes, it's the traditional level-up-and-unlock-weapons-and-perks gadgets routine that has become another consequence of Call of Duty's dominance of the first-person shooter genre, and I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't hooked onto this sort of thing to some degree. However, I've only been able to find public matches in the traditional Team Conflict mode, or if I'm lucky, the Legends mode, a free-for-all where you play as classic Bond characters. Having all those other fun modes like Golden Gun and Escalation but no one to play them with is a darn shame. Oh well, at least there's always split-screen...

Since 007 Legends does so may good and bad things at the same time, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. But then I realised... The over-long levels? The slavish adherence to other games' customs? The blatant disregard for canon? ...This is Activision's answer to Goldeneye: Rogue Agent! And as I recall, that game didn't turn out so well for EA, who only put out one more underwhelming 007 title before surrendering the licence. What's more, the case of 007 Legends may be one of history repeating: after its underwhelming retail performance, it was de-listed from various download services, and developer Eurocom was shuttered after almost 25 years in the industry. Under other circumstances, I'd react with shame, but hopefully this will give the James Bond video game franchise the chance for a fresh start. (At the risk of starting a flame war, might I suggest Infinity Ward? At least they can do loading right.)

+ Brilliant set designs reinvent the source material.
+ The freedom of stealth sections.
+ The single-player upgrade system.

- Poor story integration.
- Too many generic first-person shooter mechanics.
- Long loading times.*

Control: 4 martinis out of 5
Design: 2 martinis out of 5
Audiovisual: 3 martinis out of 5
Value: 2 martinis out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

So that's my review, but before I go, I'd like to indulge in a little editorialising regarding the game's downloadable content. Two missions based on the new movie Skyfall were made available for free upon the film's release. In the case of North America, this was three and a half weeks after Legends came out. The two levels are on the short side, and only cover the first act of the movie, not even mentioning its main villain. Now, one thing I noticed is that the download size of this "update" was a paltry 100KB*; in other words, it was more than likely a file to unlock content already on the disc. As someone who has witnessed the tragedy of "disc-locked content" in games like Capcom's Street Fighter X Tekken, this should've sent up a red flag in my head. But if ever there were a proper excuse for disc-locked content, this would be it. One, delaying access to the Skyfall content until the movie was released curtailed the possibility of unwittingly walking into spoilers (not that the levels spoil too much about the film anyway). But most importantly, it's free, so any fears about being coerced into forking over more than the game's purchase price are moot. But just as a warning to game developers everywhere, and Capcom, do NOT pull this [noun] on us again. (NB: Also rendering this point moot, the Skyfall levels are available out-of-the-box in the Wii U port, since it was released after the film.)

*Marked observations are based on the PlayStation 3 version.

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