"There's a certain appeal to the thought of jumping into the shoes of a rogue assassin like Bourne. Explosions are cool. Sniping is a hoot. Fast car chases through the streets of Paris are all sorts of exciting. Hand-to-hand combat with military professionals also has its merits. When it comes right down to it, there's actually almost nothing about the whole concept that doesn't scream “make me a video game.”"
We may share the same first name, but Jason Bourne and I are otherwise about as different from one another as you can imagine. For one thing, he's fictional and I'm not. For another, he's a $30 million dollar weapon and pretty much lives to kill individuals that the US government has deemed inconvenient. I follow no such mandate. Aside from our names and handsome features, we're like night and day.
That's what makes Jason Bourne so exciting, though, and it's what makes playing Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Conspiracy such a treat. While I'm sure most people wouldn't leap at the opportunity to live out my life in interactive form, there's a certain appeal to the thought of jumping into the shoes of a rogue assassin like Bourne. Explosions are cool. Sniping is a hoot. Fast car chases through the streets of Paris are all sorts of exciting. Hand-to-hand combat with military professionals also has its merits. When it comes right down to it, there's actually almost nothing about the whole concept that doesn't scream “make me a video game.”
Of course, other concepts of a similar nature have demanded similar treatment and the end result was a whimper, not a triumphant roar. It's not difficult to imagine how The Bourne Conspiracy could have wound up a total failure. Clunky controls, stupid AI, uninspired locations and even monotony could have killed the project before it even got off the ground. Fortunately, those potential deal breakers are nowhere in sight. High Moon Studios avoided those pitfalls and more, with the result being one of the finest action games to date.
Early in the game, there's a mission typical of the ones to follow. In it, you head down through a parking garage as thugs jump out from behind cars or concrete support pillars. You'll watch glass shatter as windshields are expelled by way of machine gun fire, see vehicles burst into flame when their fuel tanks lose an argument with shrapnel. Pushing onward, you'll pass through rubble-cluttered streets, to the entrance of an airport. Security personnel there seem to think you a menace, so you'll have to shoot your way through as you head through the lobby and along balconies. The firefights here can be quite demanding--though never unfairly so--and if you survive then you'll be heading down through a tram tunnel where still more enemies will be gunning for you, even as the tram itself rumbles down the tracks. Fail to avoid it and you'll be splattered. Shoot your adversaries in the right place and you'll watch their rag doll corpses get caught up in the rush as you duck out of the way to safety in a concrete recess. Punctuating the event, your controller will vibrate as the public transport speeds past.
That's just part of a single mission. The game has eleven of them in all. Some are shorter than others, some more memorable. However, it's hard to point to a single stinker from beginning to end. The whole experience is an adrenaline rush and in that role it performs beautifully. Whether you're running and gunning, slowing down for a few rounds of fisticuffs, sniping enemies from a rooftop or even driving at breakneck speeds while police cars and traffic pile up on all sides, there's never really a dull moment. Each set piece is gorgeous and you never have time to tire of any of them because you're always moving onto the next brilliant challenge.
The obvious down side to this is that the game isn't going to last nearly as long as you would hope. Though there's definitely a lot of content here, you move through it too quickly for the whole adventure to last more than five or six hours on a single play through. The developers tried to counter this by sprinkling collectible passports throughout, if you're the sort who likes to treasure hunt. There's also a robust selection of achievements to keep you busy. They'll force you to play differently than you might otherwise, just in the interests of boosting your gamerscore. Finally, you can also select the difficulty level that you feel is best, and can increase or decrease it whenever you resume play (just in case things have grown too simple or too hairy).
Difficulty level tweaks have a variety of effects. For one thing, you can't use your radar skill on the higher settings without losing some adrenaline. This matters because adrenaline is one of the coolest aspects in the game. Basically, it determines when you can use spectacular moves that down your adversaries with one press of the button (unless they're bosses) and showcase some truly cinematic maneuvers.
For example, you might be running through the airport I mentioned and suddenly find yourself flanked by three gunmen. Taking them out one at a time is certainly an option, since this game employs a near-flawless system for taking cover behind the organic landscapes (one that your adversaries use with surprising efficiency, by the way), but why do that when you can instead trigger a slow-motion series of kills that tends to everyone all at once? Since such abilities depend on that all-important adrenaline meter, that was a meaningful way for the developers to tweak things. Other changes include your foes' proficiency at blocking your punches when engaged in close combat, as well as the amount of damage they can take from sloppy gunfire. Head shots remain gloriously fatal (and fun), of course.
Even at the game's lowest setting, there can be some challenging sequences. Though in most cases the checkpoints are plentiful, there are occasional instances where action goes on at rather imposing length before you see the welcome auto-save kick in on your behalf. Retrying the same area a bunch of times can get old, especially since you'll have to wait around 15 seconds between each attempt for the expansive environments to load. Still, the developers mostly avoided this pitfall, especially where it counts: timed action scenes.
You've seen those in other games, surely. Something awesome happens on-screen and without warning, you have to press a certain face button to avoid death. That happens here, too, but the timing required is fair and such moments always follow checkpoints so that you don't have to slog through lengthy cinema sequences if you happen to fail. That's good, and indicative of the level of polish and common sense that the developers applied to the project as a whole.
When playing The Bourne Conspiracy, it's easy to get lost in the experience. Too many games pad their length with tiresome gimmicks that don't belong. Aside from a questionable final boss encounter that I could have done without (and hey, at least it looks good), there's not a single moment in this game that I would cut or skip. It's a beautiful achievement and a great example of license-based excellence. High Moon Studios really took the story of Jason Bourne and ran with it, resulting in an experience that in many ways rivals even the spectacular movie trilogy. The whole thing doesn't last long enough to warrant an unconditional recommendation, but it comes within spitting distance. Don't miss it!
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 12, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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