Live and Let Die
It's easy to connect the dots as to why this game exists. The license was in a state of limbo. The Brosnan era of 007 films was over, yet Casino Royale was still a few years out. So why not dip into a film from the past, one that never got a video game adaptation? And if you're doing that, why not make it the film that regularly tops "Best Bond Films Of All Time" lists? Why not From Russia With Love?
Well, if you've seen the movie you'd know why not. It may be one of the most beloved 007 films, but it's far from explosive. The most ostentatious gadget is a car-mounted telephone that can be used outdoors(!), the main thrust of the plot is about trying to safely ride a train, and the agent himself doesn't even appear until twenty minutes in. The whole appeal of this movie, the reason why it tops so many lists, is that it keeps the cheesiness to a relatively low level and delivers a decently grounded espionage thriller starring characters who feel like human beings instead of superheroes. How do you adapt that into an action video game?
Well, here's a screenshot of James Bond flying a jetpack in a sewer.
Almost every level is either padding that didn't exist in the film or an extreme elaboration on events vaguely referenced. Events and contexts are rearranged in unfortunate ways that actually undermine the spirit of the original. The second half of the film is completely cut to shreds; the train appears for only 40 seconds. New characters are added, including a damn WWE ring announcer who tries and fails to steal the villain spotlight out from under Robert Shaw. There's also a a tacked-on finale where Bond storms SPECTRE's volcano lair to stop a nuclear missile launch. As a result, the people who LOVE the movie, those who should enjoy the game the most, are likely to be put off and what we end up with is a game based on a movie whose target audience is those with no particular reverence for the movie. Furthermore, that audience probably would have been better served with an adaptation of a more bombastic, pulpier film.
If there's one thing in the game that captures the spirit of the film, it's the soundtrack. The strange "gypsy romance" flavor is present here, as it was in the movie, and is mixed into the game's locations to capture the mood quite well. Also notable is the voice acting. Sean Connery himself voices Bond in this game, which is good salesmanship on the part of the publisher but is obviously about 40 years out of date. Hearing an 80 year old man's voice come out of a 30 year old's face is jarring. You can practically hear Connery's jowels lazily vibrating on the recording as he mushes hish esshesh in that particular way he'sh famoush for nowadaysh, but wasn't so pronounced back then. Other performances, despite using soundalikes, also suffer. Most disappointing is Kerim Bey, who was a very characterful man in the movie, but is a blank sheet of paper here. Tatiana barely gets any screentime, and when she does it's as a whiny escort mission target. In an annoying touch, all cutscenes are unskippable, even after restarting a mission.
The game, on its own merits, plays like an improved version of previous 007 game Everything or Nothing. That means that it's a cover-based third person shooter in the style of WinBack. Fortunately, it's nowhere near as stiff or as ungainly as its previous iteration. The manual lock-on, while not perfect, is much smarter and more responsive than it was before. The ability to use the right thumbstick to fine-aim within the lock-on has been collapsed into a toggle-able "Bond Sense" mode, which zooms in on the targeted enemy and highlights weak points. Utilizing Bond Sense is pretty fun, since it doesn't limit your movement much and allows you to interact with bad guys in some interesting ways such as shooting the grenades on their belts, stripping them of their armor, or snapping the cord they're rappelling in on. Having Bond Sense as something you need to activate also frees up the right thumbstick to quickly swap between targets when normally locked on, which is something Everything or Nothing desperately needed.
Even though it does have a cover system, the game still doesn't develop it nearly enough. This is still an understandably early entry in the genre, but playability suffers all the same. The surfaces which you can and cannot stick your back to are still sometimes questionable. Once in cover your options are limited. You can't transition to other pieces of cover or even throw grenades (you must disengage first, even if grenades are equipped). You're often not given adequate cover during shootouts, or the cover that is there is poorly placed. Enemy positioning sometimes specifically punishes you for being in cover. As a feather in the game's cap, unlike some previous EA Bond games, this one doesn't have many instances of enemies magically appearing behind you or spawning endlessly. It still happens, but it's rare and telegraphed when it does. In a bit of an unfortunate side effect, the improved lock-on functionality and less cheesedick mission design results in a game that is much, much easier than its predecessor. Perhaps it's for the better-- the few moments you're given the use of free aim, such as on turrets or using the rocket launcher, it's an awful, twitchy mess.
It's not all improvements, though. The melee combat system from Everything or Nothing has been jettisoned. It was a clunky failure of a melee system for certain, but they've replaced it with practically nothing. In From Russia, whenever you get close to an enemy it might activate a QTE for a melee takedown. It also might not, depending on how the game feels like playing out. Speaking further on the topic of unreliable mechanics, the game has an entire tutorial level set up to teach you about stealth mechanics, but aside from a few opportunistic takedowns you can make at the beginning of a level it rarely comes up. Enemies almost never go down in one silenced pistol bullet, even from headshots, and there are an abundance of situations where the games forces you out of stealth with scripted events.
"Bond Moments," a staple of EA's games since Agent Under Fire, are scaled back to an intense degree. These used to be little moments of reward set up throughout missions to provide players the opportunity to do cool 'Bond-like' actions, such as using a nearby crane to push a mini-boss into molten lava instead of just shooting them. In From Russia With Love, there's only one Bond Moment per mission and almost every single one is just, "find the secret room with the hidden powerup." Lame!
Bond Moments also feed into the upgrade system. The upgrade system is pretty useless, offering only marginal improvements to weapons and gadgets in exchange for discovering intel pickups throughout each level. To be honest, the only upgrades worth getting are those that improve your armor. Each weapon also has two ammo types: one regular and one that's somehow 'special.' I don't know what makes the special ammo any more special, as I didn't notice any particular damage increase or difference in function. Swapping between ammo types requires pausing the game to go into your inventory, selecting the weapon, and then manually equipping the new ammo through the menu system. It's just a tedious bit of micromanagement, and I can't think of any good reason why there wasn't a button dedicated to doing this mid-action. You also use things like Bond Moments and fast mission completion times to unlock bonus missions. These bonus missions are terrible, repurposing small chunks of the real game into poorly designed ticking clock scenarios. Don't bother!
Driving levels return after a brief absence in GoldenEye: Rogue Agent. Once again, they're little more than some bargain-bin Grand Theft Auto fluff. You're placed in a small map based on the city of Istanbul and made to do drive-from-A-to-B missions while Russian soldiers shoot at and bump into you like the cops in Vice City. The driving controls are poorly mapped, utilizing the face buttons to drive even when triggers are available. Bond's Aston Martin handles poorly and dealing with your pursuers is more annoying than engaging.
In the end, I think this might be one of the better of EA's Bond games, even though I don't think I had a lot of fun playing it.
From Russia With Love is sold as a love letter to a classic film, but it's forced to make so many changes that it's somewhat disrespectful towards the source material. As a game it plays better than its immediate predecessor, Everything or Nothing, but it ultimately doesn't bring enough to the table that makes it worth playing today.