Publisher: Sierra Entertainment
Developer: High Moon Studios
Release Date: June 3, 2008
Earlier review for the Xbox 360 version
Mission failed. Get used to seeing those words, because no matter how hard you try, The Bourne Conspiracy will make sure you don't succeed. The number of times you see that message may diminish the more you adapt to the flawed, repetitive gameplay, and it'll do its best to distract you with flashy takedowns and cinematics, but you will still die or get arrested or worse, and the designers made sure there's nothing you can do about it.
It's something of a disappointment in length as well. I thought it was going to span the whole story covered in the movie trilogy thus far, but it only retells the first movie, plus a few flashbacks. All told, you can clear the story on the Trainee difficulty level in a few hours flat. Whether you find the gameplay engaging or enjoyable enough to try the harder difficulties or go back to find all the hidden passports and unlock "accomplishments" depends on how much punishment you're willing to take. And I mean that literally, because the game is more frustrating than fun.
After it spends about 10 minutes or so installing 4.7GB worth of game data to your PS3 hard drive, Conspiracy starts off at about the same place as the first movie, with Jason Bourne adrift in the Mediterranean without a paddle, and quickly segues to flashbacks that make up the first stretch of the game. This part details everything that happened in the two days prior to the failed Wombosi assassination that landed him in the water. From there, you jump back to the present, then to the past again, then to the present, and so on. These backstory segments don't really add any depth to the character or insight into the greater goings-on in the story line. They're just inserted to make an already short game not so short: playable memories, nothing more. An entire game of just this type of content that eschewed the already-told story may have been more interesting. It worked for Agent 47.
The first positives you'll notice about Conspiracy are the shiny Unreal Engine-powered visuals, fluid and natural cut scene animations/acting, the solid soundtrack, and decent voice acting. The production values sure are here. Then you'll start to become aware of the stupid camera that confuses more than it helps, generic fighting, antiquated gunplay, and an overall dated feel to the gameplay. There are also a metric ton of timed-button sequences; every single thing relies on this mechanic that I find cheap and often irritating. The timing for takedowns is forgiving enough to be manageable, but other scripted events give you no warning and no time to pull it off. Like Shenmue with Down syndrome, typically this type of interaction forces a player into failing a section many times while memorizing the right key presses, but Conspiracy even screws that up by randomizing which buttons are prompted in a given situation. It's made more unintuitive by the fact that the button used doesn't correspond to its usual function in the game. For instance, if you're hopping rooftops, you'd think you'd use the X button, the one normally used for jump. You'd be wrong … some of the time, at least. You never know.
The game's other standout feature beyond production values is the takedowns. They're triggered with the Circle button and usually involve some button sequence prompts after that, and can be melee or shooting takedowns. If you look at the entire game as a glossy version of Final Fight — which, let's be honest, it more or less is, as it lacks any proper spy-game trappings — these moves equate to the super move that flattens one or more opponents, depending on how much adrenaline you have stored up. However, what Final Fight got right and this game fails miserably at is allowing you to switch opponents in the middle of a fight.
Sure, it's cool having to randomly fend off attacks from someone behind you, and that could still be implemented in a more free-form combat system, but it's insanely aggravating when you accidentally enter combat in a room full of guys with guns. Unable to exit combat or use your own firearms at that point, you're supposed to try to lure your fellow pugilist into the line of fire. What then generally happens is you stand there helplessly getting shot to death. Why they didn't just let you exit combat or switch opponents at will is beyond me. It's not like it hasn't been done way better elsewhere already (Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed come to mind), nor are the fisticuffs all that fabulous to begin with.
Going toe-to-toe with someone starts with Bourne landing the first few cheap shots, then you take over and play Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots with the other guy. It's no more complicated than that: You get a button for light attack, one for heavy attack, one for block, and one to unleash the takedown. Holding the attack buttons will make him kick, but the delay on it is long enough that you rarely get it off before the enemy has punched you in the head. The PS3 controller's buttons are pressure-sensitive; using something like "press the button lightly for punch and hard for kick" would have worked fine, or mapping kicks or blocking to the trigger buttons or something. There were several better ways this could have been done.
You get a basic three-hit combo with both light and heavy punches, and you're repeatedly encouraged by the game to mix and match to keep your opponent off guard. Honestly, I didn't notice it making much difference what I did, and I got through the entire game just alternating light, heavy, light, heavy, block. It ends up feeling really generic, aside from the groovy sound effects of punches landing, faces getting slammed into concrete, and guys being thrown though glass shelving. You just keep button-mashing away until you have enough adrenaline to put the opposition down for good. The sad thing is, though the good guy gets in the first couple of shots, getting the drop on someone like this isn't determined by anything you do, nor is the rest of what happens in the game.
Conspiracy is about as linear as a game can get. You're strung from one objective to the next, sometimes with mid-level freezes for loading times, and when the voice at HQ isn't barking in your ear about what a screw-up you are or issuing objectives, you'll be using "Bourne Instinct" to resolve the rest of the game's design problems. Rather than build a shooting model that's fast and fluid, or implementing a standard lock-on function, using Instinct highlights targets and sometimes aims you straight at one of them. The manual says it will always point your reticle at a target's chest, but doesn't always happen. Furthermore, what it chooses to target is laughably inconsistent. More often than not, it ignores the biggest/closest threat to target someone far off in the distance. Fail. What's worse, sometimes even if you have a guy in your sights and trigger Instinct for just a little help in aiming, it'll flail off wildly and target someone entirely different, sometimes even a guy who's totally behind cover. Extra fail.
Instinct is also highlights useful objects in the environment, typically weapons and ammo or things you simply must find or interact with in order to move on. Again, making things more complicated than they need to be, you'll be staring at your radar screen to see where they pop up, tapping the Instinct button more often than actually exploring the environment to figure out what you need to do on your own. And that's if you aren't under a time limit or already locked into some completely scripted, timed-button sequence to accomplish something that would have been more fun to do manually. Instinct basically is the much-maligned noob navigational arrows on the floor in Perfect Dark Zero, in a game that plays more like the original Dragon's Lair than a modern spy thriller.
Enemies are revealed from sometimes several rooms away by using Instinct, displayed in a color on radar to reveal their awareness. If they're red, they've spotted you, but orange means they don't know where you are but are looking. This would imply that you could somehow get the drop on them and maybe even pull off a stealth kill. Well, if it's not part of some scripted event, it's likely not happening. Besides, enemies spotted me through cover and around corners with disturbing regularity. A stealth game this is most certainly not.
When you do grab some cover, the much-ballyhooed "destructible environments" take over. In one or two places in the entire game, it's sort of impressive, with railings and statues crumbling apart, but everywhere else, it amounts to nothing more than watching the crate behind which you're hiding break into its supporting planks. This puts much of the game's destructibility on par with that of Space Invaders.
As Conspiracy continues to highlight the more action-packed portions of the first film, the Paris car chase just had to make an appearance. Again, linearity is the rule, putting up big flashing arrow barriers guiding you on your very limited path to victory. Instinct is used here to slow down time and improve maneuverability, much like the Speedbreakers in Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Your mission is to lose the cops, also similar to Most Wanted. However, that's where the commonality ends. The Mini Cooper handles more like a ride from Ridge Racer than Most Wanted. It's not particularly bad, it's just very basic, and there's absolutely no creativity in losing the cops. You simply race from checkpoint to checkpoint, and eventually you come out on top. Of course, there are those timed-button pressing portions to contend with, even here. One missed press, and you get to start all over.
Rather than delve deeper into the Ludlum's Bourne universe, with all the intrigue and conspiring, The Bourne Conspiracy gives us a standard third-person action romp with a clunky interface, brain-dead enemies, and a story we've already seen in a framework that isn't nearly as good as any of the games it aspires to emulate. Dead to Rights, Max Payne and Stranglehold already did the gunplay better. Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid and Syphon Filter have covered the spying and intrigue angle to great effect. The more recent Rainbow Six games did the camera, cover and blind-fire systems a heck of a lot better, and in the same graphics engine to boot. With no online functionality and a smattering of "Accomplishments" (i.e., Achievements) to gather, replayability can only be determined by how much you're willing to put up with. Top that off with the fact that it only covers the first part of the trilogy and can be finished in less than a day, and you've got a surefire rental at best. The production values are there, and it captures the feel of the movie pretty well some of the time; it's just too bad that it's all hamstrung by shoddy playability. It might have cashed in if released amidst the hype surrounding any Bourne movie's release (particularly the one it mirrors), but at $60 and offering only few hours of frustrating, uncompelling gameplay, forget it. Mission failed indeed.
More articles about The Bourne Conspiracy