007: Agent Under Fire Retrospective
What would you do if you had to make a sequel to one of the most beloved games of all time? Seriously, what would you do? Yea, I’m a little flustered by the poignancy of the question as well. When it comes to the James Bond brand the answer is never easy. No matter how many years pass, or how many changes in ownership the licensing goes through, any release will always be overshadowed and compared to the same golden-laced precursor. It’s an uphill struggle from the start. GoldenEye doesn’t just represent a benchmark; it typifies a whole generation. It’s the N64 fraternity that’s seen a windfall of first-person shooters coming and going but seldom warming their hearts in the same way that their favourite secret agent did back in the mid-90’s. Of course, that doesn’t stop developers from trying. Back in 2001 EA attempted to rejuvenate the franchise with a little something called 007: Agent Under Fire. The results weren’t great…but they weren’t too bad either.
Let’s set the scene: It’s 1999. You’re a young, up-and-coming designer/programmer for EA Games and you stroll into work on a crisp, Monday morning, naturally happy from the fact that you worked hard enough in your formative years to bag a job in the industry you’ve loved since the age of five (we should all be so lucky). About to nuzzle in at your desk your boss suddenly calls an impromptu department-wide meeting and exclaims something along the lines of ‘Ladies and gentleman…we have the ‘007’ license!’
‘Holy c**p!’ is immediately what I would think, followed by ‘Well, maybe this is an opportunity to try something new’.
Since the release of GoldenEye the James Bond franchise has not been well embodied in the gaming world. It felt like just as Rare were at their peak with it and about to develop the Tomorrow Never Dies we were hoping for, Electronic Arts swooped in an attempt to capitalize on their success and proceeded to burn 007’s legacy to the ground until there was nothing left but ash (strong, but true). The film version of TND is the secret agent at his most chic; a designer-Bond overloaded with gadgets and one-liners and Pierce Brosnan confirming in no uncertain terms that he is the man for the job. Tomorrow Never Dies the game is a colossal mess. An ugly, nonsensical third-person adventure that looked more at home in the bargain bin than it did on the top shelf of your local GAME/Electronics Boutique. The World Is Not Enough didn’t fair that much better (although I do have some fond memories of multiplayer); and so we come to the proverbial ‘trying something different.’
By the early 00’s EA must have been feeling pretty dejected. SSX was doing well sure, but FIFA was terrible and as previously stated the Bond license had been bleed dry. But then us PS2 owners began to rejoice; screenshots started to emerge in the latest Official Playstation Magazine of a new 007 adventure, one free from the rigidity of the usual film plotlines. First impressions were promising. The game looked sharp and poised, and the lack of Brosnan’s likeness didn’t seem to dampen expectations. The months rolled on as did the countdown (there was literally a countdown in OPM of the top 10 games they were most excited about- AUF was number 1). We come to the release date and…expectations were ever so slightly high.
007: Agent Under Fire was not criminally bad…just misguided. The single player played out like deleted scenes from Die Another Day or a collection of incidents from the most outlandish of the films. You’re whisked along from location to location, set piece to set piece all the while being spoon fed as much Bond-age (is that the right word?) as the developers could muster up. It was glossy and frivolous, colourful yet shallow. You can’t blame them for trying something like they did. There are flashes of potential (the embassy level and driving the DB5 are particular standouts) but that potential was all too short-lived. The worst was that the game held your hand, never allowing you the satisfaction of discovering something for yourself, constantly insulting your intelligence.
It’s easy to rip on a single player that isn’t quite up to scratch though (there so many areas in which a game designer can full short). But the multiplayer…that’s where EA decided to turn out frowns upside down.
In true GoldenEye fashion AUF’s multiplayer was where the most memories were created; varied levels (the area in the harbor is a joy) weapons that had a physical presence (you could actually see the trajectory of the bullets) and a plethora of game modes (Top Agent!) all shook (not stirred) together to make a cocktail that 007 would have been proud of. It didn’t quite evoke the halcyon days of the N64, but it was close enough.
007: Agent Under Fire was never going the be the groundbreaking title we all wanted. Electronic Arts do sports games brilliantly but first-person shooters…not so much (unless you count the games that they publish, like Crysis…which we don’t). We all know that there’s only one way that the perfect (pun intended) follow up to GoldenEye is going to happen; it’s when Activision let go of the current rights, Microsoft let go of Rare Ltd and Nintendo finally jump back on the bandwagon. Until that day, we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed…