Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Electronic Arts
Release Date: April 4, 2006
Fans of 007 in 2006 are made of extraordinarily loyal stuff, though we've all had to look hard for silver linings in each installment of the super spy's long, tragic, post-A View to a Kill descent. Poised for a reinvention on the film front, the Bond world was set ablaze with indignation over the anointing of a blond Bond, but for gamers, the PSP version of From Russia with Love shreds the Bond mystique more painfully than any guy's golden locks. He can dye his hair, but there's little to be done about the stunted gameplay, sputtering camera and sketchy visuals in this faulty reanimation of the Connery-era adventure.
Coming some 30 years after the movie on which it's based, From Russia with Love may be new to gamers for whom Timothy Dalton is the "old" James Bond. That's probably OK, though, as determining this game's target audience is a tough assignment. It's an especially bitter pill if you're among those who remember From Russia with Love as the best of the Bonds. The map-hopping intrigue of the story serves mostly as a cruel tease, hinting at the possibility of diverse gameplay that amounts to little more than third-person running and gunning punctuated here and there by some gadget usage. In any case, the single-player campaign gets underway at a London diplomatic soiree where Octopus (not SPECTRE, but Octopus) operatives kidnap the prime minister's daughter. This demands a rescue, which you undertake as Commander Bond. From there, M orders 007 to pursue a Russian Lektor code device through gypsy camps, two trains and other cloak-and-dagger locations to uncover what's really going on.
For Bond stalwarts determined to give 007 a chance on their portables, much of the standard Bond feature list is here. M hands out the orders, Q dispenses the gadgets – including the Q-Copter, a remote-controlled, flying spy-bot that doubles as a floating bomb – and leads James through a training session that teaches little you haven't figured out already by the time you get there. Moneypenny makes a lovelorn appearance, too, as does an arsenal of decent size, ranging from the basic silenced PP7 pistol to an SMG to bazookas and grenades. An obvious sum-of-its-parts lesson waits here, though, as amassing usable items of Bond trivia reveals itself once again as a disappointing substitute for entertaining action.
One of the biggest frustrations shows up almost immediately upon stepping into the action and stays consistent throughout the short campaign. The system of cues that guides you through each mission is tuned to hold your hand when you'd like to discover solutions on your own, yet it leaves you almost blind to something as basic as the acquisition of new weapons. Purplish-blue dots litter the levels, telling you outright where to go, what to pick up and what to shoot. This means plenty of running around looking for a blue dot and hitting X to rappel or jump from one balcony to another. That approach ruins any sense of using Bond's superior spy wits to escape tough situations, leading you instead along a harshly linear trail marked by distracting pieces of functional decoration. On the other hand, it's quite easy to be surprised that a bazooka has shown up among the weapons at your disposal. Static load screens are inconsequential in comparison, but they're just one more factor in the unfinished old-fashionedness that drags this 007 down.
Segments of shooting, jumping and Q-Coptering rarely solidify into unified-feeling missions. Levels that promise diversity – an infiltration mission, say, that suggests a bout of stealth creeping and silent takedowns – deliver no such novelty. The work of the Queen's suavest agent has sunk to a mundane level indeed, filler-stricken as it is with blueprint collecting, key-finding and tension-free escorting of Tatiana Romanova through a gas-filled Russian consulate. One stretch of awkward cutscene storytelling teases you with the hope of some driving action but fails to pony up. Even piloting the jetpack – clearly one of the best inventions ever – feels like just another unrewarding task in a string of many. Don't expect enemy AI to apply the heat, either, as you can charge full-speed at an Octopus stooge with his back to you, and he remains oblivious until you're almost on top of him. A handful of tougher opponents at first seem to take longer to kill, but fall easily when you realize their superhuman toughness protects them from bazooka blasts but not a single armor-piercing bullet.
The camera and controls add some visceral frustration to tiredness of the gameplay. Targeting lock-on works well enough if enemies are grouped in your direct line of sight, but the slow swing of the camera gives enemies waiting just off-screen or around the corner enough of a head start to chew through a decent chunk your body armor at higher difficulties. Bond focus mode and snipe aiming lack precision at any sensitivity level, but the melee takedown controls do have a modestly positive impact on gameplay. Approach a baddie and attack close up, and an indicator appears telling you to quickly hit one of the face buttons to perform a more flamboyant disabling move. The moves – from a simple pistol-whipping to acrobatic flip kills – are satisfying to pull off and inject a bit of spontaneity into a frequently aggravating control experience.
From Russia with Love's visuals largely skimp on the richness of the story's setting. A few levels stand out with some more engaging atmosphere – especially the nighttime hedge maze and the ornate train dining car – but the old-school computer workstations, sofas and shattering glass that fill the scenes all carry the same featureless chunkiness. The red beam of the laser watch has a certain low-fi charm, but where you expect a flashier visual payoff, you get turrets that die with a measly wisp of smoke. 007's animations plod across the ground and leave him dangling lifelessly from his jetpack harness. NPCs suffer an even more severe stiffness, with Moneypenny getting a particularly comical treatment as she sits behind her desk. The weapons sound effects enjoy a greater variation than you might expect, from the puffy silenced PP7 to the more shrill and means-business-sounding armor-piercing rifle. The Bond theme music and the score also manage to help the overall presentation emerge with some classic feeling intact.
For truly rabid groups of PSP-owning From Russia with Love fans, ad hoc multiplayer modes offer a handful of variations on basic deathmatching, including jetpack-bound matches. The multiplayer Venice map actually sports some of the game's more visually satisfying level design, letting you run across canals on stone bridges with a hazy skyline as a backdrop for the action in the narrow alleys. If your rabidness also leads you to play the single-player campaign for score as well as advancing the story, you can open challenge levels in the form of timed segments of campaign scenarios, Bond focus challenges and other tests of skill and patience.
Not Quite a Franchise Killer
Despite taking a fondly remembered classic Bond film as its subject matter, the PSP version of From Russia with Love leaves out many of the genuinely thrilling elements of the Bond universe. With few moments of exciting action and no real choices to make as you storm through the short campaign, the game fills the void with an uninspired use of gadgets and loads of cut scenes to gloss over the essential un-Bond quality of the shooting experience. It's yet another installment of the long-suffering franchise that at best leaves fans hoping for, but not necessarily expecting, something better next time around.