Is ‘Bourne’ A Better Bond? A Look At The Newest Secret Agent Game

You play a secret agent with special abilities tasked with taking out any foreign baddies who get in your way.

And your story is based on a series of popular books and films.

No, you’re not James Bond — you’re Jason Bourne.

When San Diego-based developer High Moon Studios (“Darkwatch“) began working on the video game adaptation of the “Bourne” movie franchise, they knew they wanted to stay true to the protagonist. Paul O’Connor, vice president and design director at High Moon, said the challenge was to make an action-packed game while remaining faithful to the complex character that is Jason Bourne:

“The movies are extraordinarily fast-paced in places, but they’re not the kind of wall-to-wall action that is commonly seen in a video game. At the same time we try to remain true to the Jason Bourne character… We needed a way to find and embrace the action possibilities of that character without going over the top and making Bourne into this kind of remorseless killing machine, so lot of the more action-packed missions are set in Bourne’s past where he was — frankly — a son of a bitch.”

At a demo held at the Dream Hotel in New York last week, I was able to see exactly what O’Connor meant, by taking a look at a few levels of “The Bourne Conspiracy.” I found out that not shooting people was actually more fun than pulling the trigger sometimes, and that Bourne is no Bond…

After a trilogy of films, the last of which came out last August, I asked, “Why a game now?” “Vivendi’s intent was to see this established as a new action game franchise, not necessarily something that follows the movies directly and not necessarily a movie game per se,” O’Connor explained. “There’s the [Robert Ludlum] novels on the shelf, there’s the movies on another shelf, and we have yet a third shelf that has the video games on them. So we always looked at the property as being another expression of this character and this world as opposed to something that follows day and date with the movies.”

With license securely in tow, the game-makers went straight to the source: Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter for all three “Bourne” movies (and who was recently Oscar-nominated for writing and directing George Clooney vehicle “Michael Clayton“), was consulted throughout the initial writing process to make sure the feel of the game captured the essence of Jason Bourne. While the title didn’t have to be tied day-and-date to any movie, High Moon did want to poach the films’ storylines. “Because the films are so rooted in the popular imagination, we wanted to take everything we could from them, so what we chose to take from the films were things like the cinematography style, some of the plot points, the general sense of pace,” O’Connor explained, saying that “The Bourne Conspiracy” was heavily based on the first “Bourne” movie “The Bourne Identity.”

But okay, enough talk — on with the game. I was able to get my hands on one of the early levels, which had Bourne escaping the Zurich embassy. Starting off on the bottom floor, and surrounded by armed guards, a third-person Bourne (yours truly) takes out a few guys before running up the stairwell. Playing on an Xbox 360, I quickly learned that “X” is the light attack, “Y” is the heavy attack — both can be used for combos — while “A” blocks and “B” performs a “takedown” move (which I’ll explain later). My right bumper allowed me to sprint frantically, camera bobbing up and down as I ran (and it’s a good thing Bourne never got tired).

On my way up the stairwell chased by guards, I received my first quick-time event. With bullets flying past, I saw a security gate about to close and block the hallway; a button prompt appeared and I quickly hit “X,” as it told me to, letting Bourne slide through the gate just before it closes. As I headed down the hallway, I kept running up more stairs, punching guards out along the way. All the punching I did filled up my “adrenaline meter,” a three-tiered bar in the lower right-hand corner of the HUD. It slowly filled up as I landed punches (holding down the “X” or “Y” buttons charged up the attacks, gave them more impact and filled up my meter a bit faster).

When a tier is filled, I could hit the “B” button and perform a “takedown” move via a cinematic, which let Bourne do an ultra-cool action using nearby objects, depending on the environment. If he’s near a mail cart, he’ll throw an enemy into it; the same goes for white boards, desks, filing cabinets, electrical panels, etc. If the enemy has a weapon, he’ll take it from them, but if Bourne isn’t near anything, he’ll perform a series of martial arts moves. If there are multiple enemies around with your meter full, you’ll do a “multiple takedown” and get several guys at once.

For the combat system, they went to fight choreographer Jeff Imada, who also worked on all of the films. Imada was so involved in creating the combat, he had his stunt team show up at High Moon’s motion-capture studio for a few weeks, all donning ping-pong ball suits to capture accurate fight footage for the gameplay. “Jeff got deep down into the guts of building that fight system with our director Emmanuel Valdez,” O’Connor said. “I think it’s fair to say that we could credit him a a co-designer in the development of the fight system; it was a real close working relationship.”

Some other info I learned:

  • Amidst all the chasing in the embassy, I got to a stopping point to rest for a minute behind some file cabinets. Hitting the “A” button let me hug the cabinets — it’s similar to the cover system in “Gears of War,” although no real stealth is needed in the game (great for impatient run-and-gunners, like myself). Later, when I’m outside, I use the all-purpose “A” button to jump over some obstacles in my way, also a la “Gears.”
  • Using a “real-time cinematography engine,” the game takes visual cues from “Bourne Supremacy” and “Bourne Ultimatum” film director Paul Greengrass, meaning there’s lots of angling, bobbing and quick cuts. This is especially evidenced in the “takedown” cinematics.

  • While I didn’t get my hands on the gunplay level, I did see the seamless transition from gunplay to hand-to-hand combat. The combat here is based on proximity; if you’re far away, you’ll be able to use your gun, but if you come close to an enemy, after a quick cinematic of you throwing a punch, you’re back to hand-to-hand combat like back at the embassy. Once your enemy’s down, you’ll go back to wielding your gun.
  • Next, a short demo of the driving level, which of course, had Bourne driving the red Mini Cooper through the streets of Paris with partner-in-crime, Marie Kreutz, as seen in “Bourne Identity.” It’s arcade-style racing, and you’ve got a “threat meter” on your HUD that shows how close you are to being caught by the cops.
  • There’s also a hidden gem in the driving scenes: the voice screaming “Jason! What are you doing?!?!” and other frenetic cries were actually the voice of Franka Potente, the actress who played Kreutz in the first two films. However, no one else in the movie provided their voices, and it’s clear the likenesses were not based on the actors.
  • In total, O’Connor said the game lasts about 8-10 hours.

So far the title looks solid. We haven’t had a Bond game in several years (and arguably, a “good” one since 1997’s “GoldenEye007“).

Overall, “The Bourne Conspiracy” looks to set itself apart with fun-to-play (and watch) hand-to-hand combat and arcade-style racing. And for those who still like to shoot their guns, there’s plenty of gunplay to be had in the standard third-person shooter tradition. Which has me wondering… could “The Bourne Conspiracy” actually be a licensed game that doesn’t totally suck? Find out when it hits stores this summer for the Xbox 360 and PS3.