The biggest sin committed by 007 Legends is its rough handling of James Bond as a franchise. The idea that someone might play this game and lose any interest in checking out big screen classics like Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a travesty. The game drives home the fact that Barbara Broccoli and her fellow Bond overseers at EON Productions need to re-think their strategies in the interactive space. There are some cool transmedia ideas here, but also a distinct absence of quality craftsmanship. Beyond anything else, 007 Legends is a flat-out bad game, and a half-functional one at the best of times. It feels like it could have come out in 2004, and it would have been reviewed badly then as well.
I can applaud this much about 007 Legends: it tries to tie together the various pieces of a well-established series into a single continuity. Using a near-death experience for James Bond as a framing device — sort of, since any resolution will have to wait until the Skyfall missions pack arrives in November 2012 — the story looks into the super-spy’s past as players shoot and sneak their way through revised takes on five classics from the Bond catalog: Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Licence To Kill, Die Another Day, and Moonraker.
The revisions are focused around the time period and the identity of MI6’s star agent. All five of the stories are pushed forward into a present-day setting and the Bond driving the action in all cases is the one brought to life most recently by Daniel Craig. As a fan of the series since childhood, I can at least appreciate the intent here. Bond continuity has always been something of a dicey subject, and 007 Legends scores a few points at least for attempting to tie it all together. The older stories all work surprisingly well in a modern setting, though the A-to-B particulars of some have changed for the purposes of the game. Many of the environments and costumes also just feel delightfully dated in a 21st century setting.
I wish I could find more to praise about the game. The main menu is neat, whetting your appetite for a cool Bond adventure as it cycles through a rogue’s gallery of classic villains. The music is also great, but of course it is. James Bond soundtracks are something of a gold standard among people who enjoy original scores, and the familiar themes always contribute to a thrilling ride.
Bond Is Broken
That said, 007 Legends also amounts to the worst use of a franchise license in video games since Superman 64. It’s not quite as fundamentally broken as the infamous Titus Software release, but it’s broken enough to become frequently unplayable. I’m not talking about the schizophrenic enemy AI that sees your foes running in place against an invisible force field or fleeing at odd moments, such as when you’re caught in a reload. I mean, I am — those are issues too — but the bigger issues are things like scripted mission checkpoints not playing out and control tutorials not popping up when they should.
More than once during my campaign playthrough — more than I can count on one hand, even — I was forced to reload the last checkpoint because some scripted event didn’t happen as it was supposed to. Early on, I would waste tens of minutes wandering around, looking for the elusive trigger that would push the story forward a little further. By the fourth or fifth breakdown, however, I stopped searching and immediately went for checkpoint restarts instead. The fact that something this broken made it through the QA process is frankly inexcusable.
Then there was the skiing incident. The On Her Majesty’s Secret Service portion of the campaign begins with a replay of one of the more famous ski chase scenes in Hollywood history. Bond needs to chase and keep pace with a snowmobile as it careens down a mountain while avoiding trees, rocks, and various other obstacles. Let the snowmobile get too far away and it’s mission failure time. The problem is that a very essential control tutorial that tells you how to make your skis move marginally faster never popped up for me. After an hour-plus of multiple restarts, I put the game down in frustration. I only learned of the control tutorial later, after I’d turned my Xbox off and taken a break. The tutorial finally did appear after my console had been switched off and then back on, mocking me with its delayed helpfulness.
This should not be. If a game is going to be released and sold as a finished product, then it should at least be… finished. 007 Legends feels more like a late-stage beta. The worst part about it is there’s no reasonable justification for rushing the game to release. Sure, there’s a link to Skyfall, but that movie isn’t even in theaters yet. Surely someone could have looked at 007 Legends and come to the no-brainer conclusion that it’s not in any way ready for public consumption. Skyfall still has a home video release to look forward to, so it’s not like there wasn’t going to be another cross-promotional opportunity.
It feels a little strange to consider a publisher’s bottom line in the context of a critical analysis. I’m just trying to reason through why this is something that consumers can now walk into a store and purchase. It’s just not finished.
There’s Other Stuff Too
The abundance of glaring, overwhelmingly experience-killing technical issues cast a pall over everything else in 007 Legends. The campaign features an upgrade mechanic that allows you to spend XP earned from various challenges on weapon attachments and character enhancement, a first for the series. It feels completely out of place in a Bond game, but that also highlights another issue: 007 Legends is more of a Call of Duty game. It’s a set piece-driven, action-oriented first-person shooter. There are some optional stealth sequences and more than a few forced ones, but the tools you’re given to work with almost always make out-and-out action the preferred mode of approach. Big screen Bond is not without its action set pieces, but it’s an absolute focus in this game while the spirit of everything else that’s great about the series is inexplicably cast aside.
Then, on top of that, even the action-focused bits are bungled. It’s as if developer Eurocom — which did such a fine job on GoldenEye: 007 Reloaded — went full-bore on delivering a Bond FPS and then pulled back at the last moment. You can unlock all sorts of weapon attachments, but you run into containers allowing you to swap them out only rarely and you’re entirely dependent on ammo drops from enemies. You might love that sniper rifle you’ve been using, but if you run out of ammo and encounter no other enemies carrying the same gun for the rest of the mission, you’re best off exchanging it for something else. It’s a bafflingly counter-intuitive system of dangling carrots that aren’t a very attractive thing to reach for.
All of the game’s technical issues play out further in the MI6 Ops Missions mode, which basically amounts to a series of campaign chunks that you can play through for a score, rated on a scale of one to five stars. There’s an attempt to introduce a neat twist by putting players in the shoes of non-James Bond characters, including villains, but the broken aspects of the game suck any potential fun out of this mode.
Then there’s the multiplayer, which is at least functional due to its lack of dependence on any AI and straightforward presentation. You’ve got multiple modes to choose from, a progression system, unlockable gear, a Prestige-like 00 Specialization for those who invest the time… all the trappings that we’ve come to expect in this post –Call of Duty 4 world. The graphics and overall level of presentation — meaning the feel of the weapons, the quality of the character animations, and so forth — are at the same low standard that seems to define the rest of the game, but at least multiplayer is a thing you can play that doesn’t immediately make you question your reason for buying the game in the first place.
007 Legends is an unmitigated disaster. It’s a game that shouldn’t exist, and one that no amount of patching will really “fix.” It’s broken, sure, but it’s also a mess in other ways. The presentation at this late stage of the current console generation is pathetically behind the curve, looking and playing like a so-so FPS from the mid-2000s. Doom 3: BFG Edition competes with Legends this week, and the HD remake runs circles around the newcomer. If you’re looking for a summarizing message to cap off this review, here it is: avoid 007 Legends at all costs.
(This review was completed on the Xbox 36 using a copy provided to us by the publisher)