The James Bond 007 Gaming Franchise Deserves to Live Another Day

James Bond has been absent from the shooter scene of late. Isn't it time that the video game franchise lived another day?

James Bond is set to return in 2015 in his latest film adventure, Spectre. Undoubtedly, Spectre will re-introduce ideas and concepts from the original Sean Connery era to new audiences such as the evil crime organization SPECTRE and its twister leader Blofeld. Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to re-introduce us to a classic 007 video game experience, as well?

I can’t seem to wrap my head around the absence of James Bond from the video game world. 007 hasn’t made much of an impact in the last five years or so due to a series of mediocre outings, which amounted to little more than failed experiments and Call of Duty clones (the last few games ran on the COD engine) that turned the international spy into a mass murderer. Not exactly the character we adore in the movies or books. 

The greatest inspiration for a new era of Bond games could, ironically enough, come from the same movies that led to some of the Bond game’s most uninspired projects. Though no games were ever made under the name Casino Royale, it is no doubt the movie that influenced the more recent Bond games the most. Should we be thankful that we never got a Skyfall video game tie-in? Honestly, I think anything would’ve been better than 2010’s Blood Stone...

The good news is that Activision recently announced that they are backing away from the James Bond 007 license. Now, there’s a good chance that MI6’s star agent could get rebooted, which, if exciting, wouldn’t be particularly surprising, since series are all the rage these days.

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Video games as a whole are undergoing a great transformation. More and more games allow you to opt out of violence. The indie scene is blowing up. More attention is being paid to narrative than ever before. Now that the license is back out in the wild, James Bond 007 is ripe for transformation.

Of course, gone are the days of GoldenEye 007, a game that arguably changed the FPS genre on consoles forever, with its fast-paced shooting and focus on splitscreen multiplayer. Can a James Bond game truly be innovative anymore in a genre that seems to have reached its peak? Whether you like it or not, the Call of Duty shooter formula seems to be here to stay. Perhaps you’ll call the genre “perfected,” especially after Advanced Warfare garnered high acclaim, or maybe you’re more likely to say that the genre has gotten stale with age. Whatever you feel, it’s become obvious that a Bond game can’t make it on its shooter merits alone anymore. 

Instead, a new series of games should focus on the conceits that made the films and earlier games such as success. Bond’s signature brand of gadgets, espionage, and dazzling narrative has yet to be emulated in today’s shooters, which have mostly dropped the single player experience for a more multiplayer-friendly model. While Bond shouldn’t ditch the multiplayer — there is still so much fun to be had in a 007 free-for-all deathmatch — new Bond games should focus on telling a damn good and inventive story. 

The problem isn’t the source material. Bond changed on the big screen, and that’s a good thing. Some of the same changes would apply to the video game franchises. SkyfallQuantum of Solace, and Casino Royale focused more on Bond’s character and psyche than previous films. The brutal violence in these movies forced the act of killing into the cold light of day as a very ugly thing, something I have argued needs to be injected into shooters. Finally, the consequences of Bond’s actions were almost always at the forefront.

What happened when Bond fell in love? He let his guard down. When he abandoned MI6? Well, the bad guys blew up MI6. Today’s Bond is a man with flaws.

I envision a Bond game that aspires to tell a story – with a focus on character, a decent dose of femme fatales, and particular attention to the consequences of committing acts of violence. What happens when 007 massacres a bunch of people and blows up half a country? He is put on rogue status, forcing him to flee from both his enemies and MI6 agents. THAT’s a game I’d pay to play.

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Telltale Games’ Kevin Bruner recently commented that he would be interested in making a Bond game that focuses more on intrigue and espionage rather than balls-to-the-wall action, and I couldn’t agree more. While I can’t say that I want to see a Bond game that plays anything like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, seeing these ideas put back into a first or third-person perspective action/espionage game would be great.

Gadgets would be a good place to start in terms of gameplay. These quirky tools set earlier Bond games, such as Everything or NothingAgent Under Fire, and Nightfire, apart from other first-person shooters. Seriously, you could use a shaver to take down enemies as a remote-detonated grenade…Out of bullets? Here’s a shave!

How many times have you had to use motion control to lockpick a door in the past few years? Way too many, I bet. Bring back Bond’s cell phone that moonlighted as a Q-Decryptor, opening the most resistent electronic locks in all of gaming. Or maybe the Watch Laser to open up a gate for a fast getaway. And let’s not forget the Stunner that Bond could use to take down enemies without killing them. The gadget looked like his car key, by the way. The original COD EXO-suit? The Bond Jet Pack.

You can’t really get this kind of extravagance in today’s games, which mostly focus on unclever gear that explodes. Bond offered something more: the feeling that you were a unique operative on the field with plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Once these were gone, there wasn’t much left to make Bond…well…Bond where the games were concerned. Instead, we got Bond on rails, carrying an assault rifle into a crowded room full of enemies, and red explosive barrels.

Although you could call these eyeroll-inducing plot devices sometimes, the gadgets in the Batman Arkham games pretty much make use of every kind of gadget for every function there is. Batman can disable, disarm, unlock, and reach anything he wants with his intense repertoire of Bat-shaped things. The next company that handles the Bond games should focus on 007’s needs in the field, predict his every set piece within the twisting narrative, and provide creative ways for him to accomplish his objectives. Bond doesn’t pick locks. He pulls out his laser and breaks locks, not a sweat. 

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Games such as Titanfall and Killzone: Shadowfall have shown us that gadgets need not be strictly contextual. Titanfall‘s Titans are incredibly flexible and Shadowfall‘s intriguing OWL gadget let players shoot a zipline just about anywhere they please. If gadgets make a return, they should not be applied in a rigid fashion. I want my exploding shaver back.

One area where GoldenEye still stands as a perfect example of a great spy game is in its balance of action and stealth. The psychotic mass murderer from the most recent Bond games seems to have forgotten the days when he couldn’t just run in the room and kill everything with guns and explosives because it would trigger the alarms. Or attract tons of reinforcements. One man can’t take down an entire enemy base without being at least a little cunning and tricky. The on-rails shooter approach isn’t right for Bond. 

Sit down and watch how The Last of Us does stealth. There’s no better example of one man vs. an overwhelming force of enemies. Joel has to sneak past enemies, take them down with chokeholds, or slit their throats, always sneaking up behind him because the full-frontal assault would most definitely be suicide. You’d think henchmen wearing bulletproof armor and carrying the latest in today’s weaponry would be a little harder to kill. Instead, we’ve received enemies who love to jump in front of Bond’s bullets. Cover-based shooting should not be the prerogative in a Bond game, but instead a last ditch effort to complete an objective or escape enemy territory. But the odds should be stacked against the agent in this situation. After all, he was the dope that triggered the alarms by running past a surveillance camera.

Gamers have undoubtedly grown more reckless in the Call of Duty age due to the lack of consequences. GoldenEye, and many of the games following it during the EA years, featured no health-recovery items. That meant that health wasn’t renewable. So if you went in guns blazing and got shot up to hell, you’d have to play the rest of the mission with one bar of health, scavenging for an armor vest that would help you cling to whatever life you had left. But even these armor vests depleted very quickly when the bullets went flying again. So you were forced to really use your stealth skills to get through the maze of rooms that made up most of GoldenEye‘s world. The game was fast-paced, but strategic.

Again, take Batman Arkham as an example of stealth done right. (Actually, if Telltale doesn’t get the license, wouldn’t it be neat if Warner Bros. Interactive took a stab? I know, never gonna happen…) Batman is the all-time, super powerful dude in tights that can drop into any scene and punch your lights out. He has the advantage of shadows and high-tech gadgets, but he’s still not worth a damn when faced with an AK-47. Get shot too many times, you’re dead. End of story. No one can take all those bullets and live except Superman. The same should go for Bond. He should stick to corners, the shadows, and his tricks to avoid direct confrontation with an assault rifle.

Luckily, stealth is a much more integral part of first-person shooters than it used to be. Far Cry 3DishonoredWolfenstein: The New Order, and BioShock, for example, allow you to observe before shooting, and you can opt not to shoot, stab, skewer, or otherwise maim at all. Shouldn’t secret agents, you know, keep things as clean as possible? 

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It almost goes without saying that players should be offered non-violent, stealthier ways to play, which has always been Bond’s default setting whenever possible. DishonoredDeus Ex, and The Last of Us all allowed players to slink through areas without killing anyone. While Bond has often been allowed to slink through areas without killing anyone in the movies, this really hasn’t been an option in his recent games. Anyone familiar with Bond only as a movie character would likely find it strange that they are doing far less spying and far more shooting with the controller.

The lessons to be learned here: 1) the next Bond game should tell a captivating story penned by a writer capable of creating a twisting and surprising narrative while keeping it grounded in some sort of realism, 2) A player should be allowed to feel like Bond. Bring back the luxury, nostalgia, and extravagance of the secret agent, 3) Bond isn’t just an action hero. He’s a smart and cunning gentleman who can outsmart his enemies without blowing them all to hell on a whim. 

While more recent James Bond games haven’t necessarily shown it, this character embodies some of the industry’s recent and appealing innovations. Early adopters of the console shooter might even say he cocked the first gun. With the right developer, all of the best parts of Bond could represented in one perfect package. And finally, 007 games could live another day.

A version of this article appeared on 8/13/14.

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