Publisher: Sierra Entertainment
Developer: High Moon Studios
Release Date: June 3, 2008
When Matt Damon became amnesiac action hero Jason Bourne in 2002's film adaptation of Robert Ludlum's "The Bourne Identity," audiences were treated to a spy action thriller filled with dazzling martial arts, slick chases, and plenty of bullets. Although a tie-in game wasn't released at the time, High Moon Studios is better late than never in putting together its own dedicated take on the film with The Bourne Conspiracy. The developers of Darkwatch have traded in vampires and the Wild West for a fast-paced beat-'em-up that puts players in the agile shoes of a $30-million-dollar weapon.
If you haven't seen "The Bourne Identity," the game does a decent job of retelling it while letting the player experience Bourne's life before he had lost his memory. Much like how GoldenEye allowed its gameplay to fill in the details behind Bond's exploits with missions that expanded the story, Conspiracy fills in the blanks with plenty of the wetwork that Bourne would rather forget, and it gets some help from "Identity" scriptwriter, Tony Gilroy. If you're a fan of the movie, the missions provide an adrenaline-packed treat by letting you do what Bourne does best. If you haven't seen the film, the story can seem a little cursory with certain details, such as the relationship between Bourne and Marie and why she's helping him evade police in a high-speed chase. The game also skimps on the ending, which is as brief as most of the action, but in this case, the journey makes up for it.
The first thing that players will notice is that Bourne looks nothing like Matt Damon, most of the characters don't look anything like their cinematic personas, and the title doesn't even match the movie's. High Moon Studios has followed the film but developed its own take on the story. French cafes, back alleys, rooftops, and a museum look like they were lifted from the movie, and most of the locations can be pitted with damage, just like the characters. Faces will grimace and wince, Bourne will furrow his eyebrows while fighting, and eyes will blacken beneath bloodied brows as blows are traded. The music also pulls in pieces from the film alongside spy tracks that easily flow with the action, and the voice acting delivers spot-on performances right down to the uncanny Chris Cooper soundalike.
The early missions will acclimate you to the beat-'em-up gameplay by showing you how to ventilate your foes with lead or pummel them senseless with pugilistic badassery. Simple controls make being Jason Bourne a breeze while looking good at the same time, thanks to a creative mix of cinematic angles and sharp animation work that can make simple button-mashing look fantastic. It's not as deep as Godhand's beat 'em up carnival and far from being as difficult, but Conspiracy's focused controls succeed in making you feel like you're a force of nature.
The Bourne Conspiracy is played from the third-person perspective, and clicking on the right analog stick switches your perspective to make it easier to aim your weapons, although you're limited in what you can do with it, which isn't as bad as it might sound. The third-person camera falls back to show you and your opponent when a hand-to-hand fight begins; this gives you a ringside seat, although it has a tendency to move around on its own, which can be disorienting. Bourne also has a regenerating health system to give him a fighting chance, and keeping out of danger can bring him back up to full speed, unless he's in a fistfight. Getting a fist to his face or a kick to the gut will wear away at health that doesn't recover until afterwards, but he has other options that can help him out.
Bourne's attacks fall into two major categories: strong and weak attacks. Strong attacks take a little longer to wind up but do the most damage, while weak attacks are fast jabs that won't hurt as much but can keep the enemy unbalanced. Mixing up these two attacks into combos will keep the somewhat-competent AI from outguessing you, and holding down the X or Y will allow Bourne to throw a light or heavy kick, respectively, that can give you a slight edge, although I found that it worked better to switch between strings of moves rather than create combos that a game like Godhand or Ninja Gaiden thrives on. The enemy's fighting combos usually fall into several preset approaches that players will be able to observe and counter accordingly, but most of the time, it comes down to simply being a careful fighter and mixing up weak and strong attacks.
Bourne can pretty much handle anything that has a trigger and will be able to carry a one-handed and two-handed weapon (i.e., he can carry a pistol and a shotgun at the same time). There are also mini-Uzis and assault rifles for the taking, and gunning for your enemies is as easy as pointing the white dot at them and firing away. The third-person cam does a pretty good job of keeping the enemy in sight, although most will take a gratuitous amount of bullets to take down unless you aim for the head.
You can also take cover behind objects, which works most of the time. Running up to an obstacle isn't enough to put you behind it unless you hit the A button, which can feel awkward to work with during the heat of battle. This becomes more aggravating to work with when the "sweet spot" for hitting A doesn't come up right away, even though you're behind something that can act as cover, until you move around a bit to get it to show up. Bourne also can't jump on his own or climb over toppled objects as high as his knee, but he can jump from rooftop to rooftop. While not as obvious as invisible walls, it's still bizarre to deal with another hero who can't get over the hood of a car or find his way over a guardrail.
Bourne's adrenaline will also start to charge whenever he manages to land a successful blow or fill foes with lead. A three-tiered gauge will slowly begin to charge, each tier allowing Bourne to pull off a Takedown, which is the game's way of making you look even more like a deadly weapon. During a fight, activating a Takedown when you have enough adrenaline will cause Bourne to perform a flurry of fantastic moves as a shaky cam follows, just as it might in the movie. Players can even use the environment to their advantage by maneuvering Bourne to a seemingly innocuous bench and activating a Takedown, only to watch as he splits the bench in half with the enemy's face. Takedowns during a hand-to-hand fight can also buy Bourne valuable time during which to regenerate some of his precious health.
With even more tiers filled up for a maximum of three adrenaline-charged Takedowns, players can floor multiple foes. Enemies will gather around Bourne while he focuses on fighting one of them, but players can wipe out entire groups with a well-executed Takedown. Players can even use Takedowns with weapons and watch as Bourne snaps off shots that nail foes to the floor, or if they're running at someone, use his momentum to send them to the ground in one fluid move. This never gets old.
There are also "quick-time events" that players will need to look out for, special moments where the action slows down as an on-screen button flashes to let you know which button to hit to survive what's coming next. These quick-time events are scattered throughout the game, and a small sound cue will let you know when one is coming up with a higher difficulty, which gives players less time to react. During group attacks, one of your nearby foes may not want to play fair and get in a sucker punch, but Bourne will instinctively know where it's coming from as long as you can help him out with the right button. These also look just as good as if you were doing a Takedown, but they don't really do any damage to your enemies. Even if you react to every quick-time event prompt that a foe might throw at you, don't expect him to go down, especially the bosses.
Occasionally, the enemy will throw particularly tough versions of themselves in Bourne's way to make things a little more interesting, but foes who are tied to the story are a lot more important and come with their own life meters. Against these toughened opponents, punches and kicks take only tiny slivers of health, thus forcing Bourne to rely on Takedowns to do major damage. You can even fight the bosses in a separate mode from the main menu if you want to relive some of these special moments.
Bourne will also get to drive around Paris to escape the local authorities with Marie as a backseat driver in an arcade racing mini-game. The life meter is replaced by an arrest gauge that will fill up if the cops start to "close in" on Bourne if the player slows down or crashes too often. The good news is that the simple controls and physics can make anyone look like a stunt driver, and the car can take plenty of damage. Giant arrows and glowing spots will also guide players to the destination, and it provides an interesting break from the fighting, although racing veterans might not consider the arcade action on wheels to be particularly challenging.
With so many foes to kick aside, the actual game doesn't last very long, especially if you're the kind of gamer who eats up action titles like this. Conspiracy can be finished over the weekend as a rental with time to spare. Perhaps the worst parts of the game are its short length, relatively easy difficulty level, and dearth of extras. There are plenty of Achievements, and with the fighting engine as fun as it is, additional difficulty levels make things more interesting, so players may not mind replaying certain missions or even the entire campaign to unlock everything they can. There's also no multiplayer component to speak of, even if it were only a leaderboard to compare statistics, so The Bourne Conspiracy is a strictly solo operation.
The Bourne Conspiracy is a surprising gem of a beat-'em-up with plenty of riveting, arcade-styled action to entertain fans of the film or action junkies who are looking for a little wetwork. Whether it's enough to justify the price of admission is up to what players expect to get out of it, but top-notch production values and the fast-paced thrill ride that it brings can still add up to hours of black ops excitement.
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