It’s easy to pick on licensed games and movie tie-ins, because with the exception of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, those products generally stink. So it’s important to realize two things about The Bourne Conspiracy, which Sierra is shipping to retail today for PS3 and Xbox 360. First, there’s no Jason Bourne movie scheduled for at least a year, so The Bourne Conspiracy isn’t a rushed-out movie tie-in, but a “companion piece” to the entire franchise. Second, and just as important, High Moon Studios has treated the gameplay with as much care as a stand-alone IP, not a series with five books and three movies to its credit, resulting in a game that’s part shooter, part fighting game, and all edge-of-your-seat action.
The Bourne Conspiracy is a companion piece in the truest sense, as it covers key scenes from The Bourne Identity while filling in key parts of Bourne’s back story via playable missions from Jason Bourne’s past. This combination of familiar and new situations means players fill Bourne’s shoes during the escape from the U.S. Embassy and the Mini Cooper race through Paris, yet also tackle in missions from a time when Bourne remembered who he was — and before he became the agent-turned-conscientious man we now know from the films.
This mix of missions leads to a wide range of locations and scenarios, resulting in diverse level designs. Whether avoiding a helicopter that’s hovering above some docks, locating a target on a yacht, battling through a library or taking out an armored personnel carrier in a downtown courtyard, players find themselves shooting and fighting through levels where the action is so intense that their linearity is easy to overlook. In some respects, The Bourne Conspiracy feels like a mix of Splinter Cell and Gears of War, a comparison that makes some sense considering the game’s built on Unreal Engine 3.
However, The Bourne Conspiracy is different from those titles in that High Moon Studios isn’t content to make “just another action game.” Instead, the developer has remained loyal to the Jason Bourne stylebook and universe, sometimes frustratingly so.
In the books and movies, Jason Bourne always has a target, a principle High Moon Studios has upheld with clear/linear objectives for each level and no useless side missions or open-world meandering. Bourne also isn’t a ruthless killer, a key aspect revealed in The Bourne Identity, so you won’t see him unloading clips willy nilly or shooting unarmed enemies. That’s not to say the game doesn’t involve shooting; quite the contrary, The Bourne Conspiracy can at times feel as intense as Gears of War, with flanking enemies and destructible cover. But when enemies get close to Jason Bourne, the game drops its gunplay in favor of a hand-to-hand combat system that feels and plays like a fighting game.
The use of light and heavy punches, kicks and blocks is nothing new to PS3 and Xbox 360 owners, but it’s not common to find fighting mechanics this refined in a game that could easily be mistaken for an action-shooter. Low-level enemies don’t put up much of a fight, as they seldom block or use weapons, so Jason Bourne can punch through them pretty quickly. Later enemies, however, including mini-bosses and level bosses, often block and whip out batons or knives, which do extra damage if players overlook Bourne’s own block button. It’s also important to mix up attack combinations against the later enemies, as enemies often “learn” the patterns and anticipate/block accordingly.
Yet as refined as this fighting feels from a control standpoint, the structure of these hand-to-hand scenarios feels constrained. As players get close to the enemy, the camera swings cinematically from the behind-the-back view to a side view familiar to anyone who’s played Street Fighter, Dead or Alive or Soulcaliber. Once in this hand-to-hand viewpoint, Jason Bourne is “locked” into the fight and has no option to pull out his gun, even when — yes, when — off-screen enemies begin to shoot at the now-defenseless Bourne. In later levels this can be frustrating, because maneuvering in the hand-to-hand mode can be slow, which in turn means avoiding gunfire is slow, which means players are often left praying to the game-development gods that Bourne will finish off the mano-a-mano enemy before his health reaches zero.
One of the tools to make this wish come true is the Takedown, which acts like a finishing move from Mortal Kombat, but with “live” enemies. Jason Bourne’s takedowns can be activated once players fill a three-tiered meter with adrenaline. As players dish out the pain, the meter gradually fills. Reach the first tier, and Bourne can perform a one-hit-kill takedown on a single enemy. Fill up two tiers, and he can take out two. Three tiers, and he’ll do a takedown on three. These takedowns involve everything from environmental kills to Jeff-Imada-motion-captured martial arts moves. If Bourne is at a distance and has adrenaline accumulated, he can also unleash a takedown with a weapon, a useful tool when players are surrounded in a room without much cover.
The cover presents its own problems, though, as it can be difficult to tell whether Bourne is “attached” to the right piece of cover, whether he’s behind cover at all, or whether he can even be covered by a certain element in the environment. On several occasions Bourne ended up stuck on a wall at an inopportune time, and there were several other times when we literally cursed out loud because Bourne wouldn’t attach to something that seemed like it could have provided good shelter.
Another factor that can be frustrating is the inclusion of Quick Action scenes. Much like God of War or Heavenly Sword, these hand-to-hand scenarios require players to correctly press a face button or pull a trigger within a second or two to block an incoming punch or kick. Failure can result in massive damage or even death. Generally speaking, The Bourne Conspiracy is generous with the time allowed to press the correct button, but we’ve never been big fans of these sequences in any game. If the purpose of The Bourne Conspiracy is to immerse players in the world of Jason Bourne, why yank them back out with a reminder that “hey, dude, you’re playing a game. Hit X, now!”?
These Quick Action sequences are particularly abrasive considering just how cinematic the rest of the game is. The backgrounds and environments in each level have a lot of activity to help immerse players, almost to the point that certain scenes are reminiscent of Call of Duty 4. In addition, the camera not only switches angles to present cinematic views, but High Moon Studios has actually gone in and removed frames from each fight sequence to speed the action up, much like post-production houses do with Hollywood blockbusters. Because there are no loading times between levels, and with the action seeming non-stop (again, the camera angles help) The Bourne Conspiracy truly feels like a Jason Bourne movie, probably moreso than any game we’ve played to date.
However, in their drive to stay faithful to the Bourne universe, High Moon Studios has developed a plot that’s not nearly as clear-cut as we would have liked. As fans of the Bourne films, we found it easy to get excited about learning more about Jason Bourne’s back story, but we were saddened to realize that the back story levels are just that: levels. Triggered almost like flashbacks, these levels generally take place in “present day” locations, but they’re seldom tied to the modern-day levels in any way other than location. This left us wanting more from a narrative perspective: What was the purpose of that mission? Why was that person/item the target of Bourne’s mission? What exactly set off that flashback? These questions are seldom answered, and although it makes total sense in light of the game’s purpose (let players feel like Jason Bourne, confusion and all), the fans in us would’ve liked to have a bit more hand-holding in this companion piece to the books and films.
It’s a testament to the finished product, though, that The Bourne Conspiracy really does feel like a companion piece, even though it has its own unique shortcomings. Game Director Emmanuel Valdez told us that “the biggest challenge was to have people become Jason Bourne, to really feel like him,” and in that respect, High Moon Studios delivers. Sure, there were times we wondered why the $30 million weapon couldn’t figure out how to jump over a velvet rope or pull out his gun when he was about to die in hand-to-hand combat, but for all those singular moments, there were at least two more that made us want to keep playing. And really, what more can you ask for from a video game, licensed or not?