FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE / Electronic Arts / PS2

From Russia With Love was part of a trend of weird revival of "classic" cinema as games in the mid-00s, along with Scarface, the Seven Samurai and the Godfather. This one is by EA and I suspect it actually uses a re-tooled version of the Godfather's engine, as it's a cover-based shooter and feels very samey. Instead of open-world GTA style, of course, it's a series of linear missions with some multiplayer split-screen deathmatch tossed in.

Aside from the fact that it's 40 years old, From Russia is also a weird choice within the Bond franchise. They've never done a "classic Bond" game before, so why not start with Dr. No, the first chronological Bond film? Not only that, but Dr. No seems to be ready-made for an action game, with the story centered around the technologically marvelous island fortress of the main villain. From Russia is the one we got, though; they take the Goldeneye approach of keeping the same basic overall framework of the story, but rewriting a good number of scenes to accomodate longer and more gun-filled action sequences. Purist fans will not be happy, of course, as some of the stuff done here to extend the action is equally as ridiculous as having Fredo and Michael Corleone hanging out of the windows of your car tommy-gunning pursuers in The Godfather game. Personally, I enjoy the Connery Bond movies, but they really are pretty silly stories to begin with (and gratuitously action-heavy already), so I have no issues with extending the game this way. Worked just fine for Goldeneye, no reason it can't work for another Bond film.

The game actually comes out a very competent cover-based shooter, with even a few impressive moments. It's linear, sometimes corridor-y, but the reputation as "easy" and "casual" is undeserved. I get the feeling a lot of the gaming press only played the first few levels, because THOSE are really easy, but about halfway through the game jags sharply in difficulty even on the default (medium) setting. Unfortunately, a lot of this difficulty jag comes from the game's two biggest flaws - the fact that it's laden with poorly-scripted escort missions, and its bizarre stinginess about ammo in spite of subjecting you to mandatory firefights through the bulk of nearly every level.

The former is the worst of the game's problems. A good number of levels have portions (or even their entirety) where you have to protect either Kerim Bey or Tatiana Romanov. Kerim's fairly competent about staying under cover and has a rifle to protect himself, but alas, you spend a lot less time with him. Not only is Tatiana totally defenseless, she's the dumbest escortee in history. Given the choice between staying safely behind you and running face-first out toward the enemies into the middle of a firefight, she picks the latter without fail every single time. And there's no way to issue commands to her, her movements are totally scripted, she just picks an awful spot to run to and crouches there until she either gets shot up or you somehow manage to wipe out all the enemies in spite of her complete lack of self-preservation instincts. The only thing that keeps these segments at all manageable is that she magically regenerates her health very quickly when she's not being shot at for an extended period. Makes you really pine for being able to order Ashley into a convenient dumpster in Resident Evil 4.

The latter is less of a game-breaking problem, but still annoying, and the level design just seems amateurish and poorly plotted out in a number of ways. I think the game is trying to push you to replay old levels to gain "upgrade points" and hoard ammo from the easier areas, but that's boring as fuck. I'd understand if the game was laid out to emphasize stealth, but 90% of the time enemies are scripted to auto-attack you and it's just not possible or practical to run up and Judo Chop them. It's just iffy, questionable map design all around.

The one thing that's a real triumph here is in capturing the look, sound and atmosphere of the original movie. They shoehorned in two new female characters that do look jarringly "modern" next to the video clips and backdrops of the original film, but other than that it's impressively fidelious to even the small details of the original film, and big fans should at least enjoy that much of it, if nothing else. The model they made of Bond is extremely impressive, all the more so since they don't have a 40-years-younger Sean Connery to motion-capture from. Mr. Connery was even convinced to lend his voice to the affair, though naturally being 80-something, he sounds an awful lot more like Capt. Ramius than his 30-something self (his Scottish brogue also seems a lot thicker now than it did in his Bond salad days.) He's largely just re-reading lines, so while it's nice to see him get work, I wonder how necessary it really was.

From Russia is a mixed bag, but not bad on the whole, certainly better than I was expecting. The PS2 version really chugs on some levels, though - only minor slowdown, but the disc sounds like a Dreamcast game spinning in there a disturbing amount of the time. So if you're interested, the Gamecube or Xbox ports might actually be the direction to look in first.

Videos :

* Gameplay Video