What happened if you made a game from a licensed movie years after the film was released? Would fans of the film swing by and give it a shot for nostalgia’s sake, hoping to relive their past enjoyment? Could the game be better than other movie-based properties due to the freedom granted by not having to release day-and-date with its silver-screen counterpart? Does having the folks who helped make the movies work on the game make it any more believable? These are all questions High Moon set to answer when it created The Bourne Conspiracy.
Conspiracy is based on the films, which are in turn based on the books written by Robert Ludlum. You play as Jason Bourne, an amnesiac who quickly discovers he is fluent in a dozen languages and knows how to fight in a manner befitting a Shaolin warrior. Conspiracy picks up at roughly the same point as the first movie, The Bourne Identity, though it fills in a little of the backstory of the events leading up to the opening of the film. Bourne takes part in an aborted assassination mission, and ends up shot and floating in the ocean, left for dead. Luckily for him, a fishing boat happens by and scoops him out of the water, patches him up, and sends him on his way to try and figure out who he is and why someone wants him dead.
It would have been sufficient for the game to simply follow the arc of the first film, but the development team wanted more, so a good chunk of the levels are flashbacks of Jason back when he was still a perfectly functional $30 million weapon. These flashback missions are placed expertly, and give even diehard fans of the films a nice break from the storyline to relive some of Jason’s more badass moments.
Since the Bourne movies are action flicks, the game really has to keep the same pace, forcing you into constant action and keeping you on your toes throughout. In that sense, there is a lot of fighting and a lot of gunplay thrown your way throughout the adventure. The fighting is shallow yet impressive, while the shooting mechanics are nearly broken.
You’ll find at several moments throughout Conspiracy that you are matched up against one or more enemies for a bit of hand-to-hand action. It’s worth noting here that all the fisticuffs look quite impressive, as they were all choreographed by the same individual who staged the fights in the films. Using the square and triangle buttons to punch and kick, and the X button to block, Bourne must beat his foe into submission before he himself is drained of his energy. Enemies are fairly smart, and after you land a couple combos they’ll likely start blocking more regularly and generally making it harder for you to connect with a blow. Unfortunately, due to the heavily restricted combo system, it’s hard to find ways to break past their defenses. Due to the fact that you can only throw three-punch combos, and that there are only two buttons used for attacking, you are limited to nine total combinations of attacks. A game that is going for more of a smart fighting system rather than a button-mashing brawler needs a deeper combo system to keep things from becoming stale and boring.
One area where the fighting really shines though is the Takedown moves. As Bourne connects with his punches and kicks, he’ll begin to fill a second meter that shadows his health bar. When this meter reaches a certain point, you can press circle, and Jason will unleash an unblockable Takedown move that puts a big hurt on his foes. One of the coolest things about this particular technique is that it is constantly aware of your surroundings: if you are near an air conditioning unit during a Takedown, Bourne will likely throw a few punches, then grab his foe and plow his head right into the machine. In addition, if you find yourself surrounded by foes you can build up your Takedown meter to the point where you can take out up to three enemies with a single timed button press sequence. Furthermore, there are particular boss fights which reflect scenes from the first film, and they come complete with their own movie-inspired props. Remember the time in Bourne’s apartment when the assassin showed up and Bourne stabbed him with a fountain pen? The pen is back, and you can re-enact that moment if you manage to get your foe over to the desk.
You have to be careful, though, as all the bosses and even some of the tougher regular enemies have their own Takedown moves, and getting caught by one is a sure ticket to pain. However, all is not lost, as a button prompt will pop up on-screen when an enemy is about to launch a Takedown, and if you are quick enough, you can parry the move and build up your own meter a bit in the process. So even though the hand-to-hand combat can become a bit dull, the Takedowns really make it an experience you’ll ultimately enjoy and it’s vastly superior to fighting enemies using your gun.
Speaking of the gunplay, you’ll quickly grow to loathe it in this game. Bourne is wildly inaccurate with nearly every weapon he finds, and the only real way to ensure a kill is to blast an enemy point blank with a shotgun. I can’t count how many times I carefully lined up headshots on bad guys only for the bullet to register in the shoulder or arm, leaving me to pump in several more rounds before I could finish the job. I can understand a little bullet spray with an automatic weapon as the recoil kicks it around, but simple guns like pistols should really be more accurate and effective in the hands of a trained killer.
One other squandered gameplay element is the Bourne Instinct, a technique which allows you to see the location of enemies or special items on your radar, as well as making objects you can interact with glow for a short time. The technique is basically a waste, doing little more than letting you know which hall to run down to find the next checkpoint, or pointing out from what exact spot a bag guy is peppering you with bullets. The only time the device is useful is during the game’s one driving mission, where activating it will heighten your reactions by slowing time and allowing you to finagle your way out of a nasty crash. The Bourne Instinct is supposed to be helpful in gunfights as well, locking onto a nearby enemy, but the whole shooting mechanic is so busted that not even Jason’s special powers can help it.
I mentioned in the beginning that an important element of the Bourne series is constant tension and breakneck pacing, and the game never lets up on that, not even during the cutscenes. Most of the time, just because your control over Bourne stops doesn’t mean that you’re done, and many scenes feature timed button pressing mini-games which you must complete in order to progress to the next part of the level. There’s really no warning for these aside from a very brief sound effect, so you really shouldn’t put down your controller to grab a drink unless you have paused the game or shut it down entirely. A lot of gamers are likely to be caught off guard by this system, and some may suffer many a cheap death at its hands. However, you have to hand it to High Moon for implementing a mechanic that will make sure you are constantly at the ready while playing; no letting your mind wander here, you’ve got to focus.
While the gameplay may be a bit of a mixed bag, the presentation is very well done with just a few minor shortcomings. The game is powered by the Unreal Engine (what isn’t these days?), allowing the developers to create realistic characters and fluid animation. The engine shines most during the hand-to-hand sequences, as the crisp attacks and masterful dodges really draw you in while the fights unfold.
Sadly, these moments are also where the game’s greatest weakness show through, as the camera has a bad habit of getting caught out of position or at a weird angle. It’s obvious the team wanted to go for a visual style that was very reminiscent of the films, so the close-quarters combat is done with a very tight, very claustrophobic camera. Of course, this means that if a character makes a quick move or gets backed into the corner, the camera can have a hard time keeping up and framing the shot, so sometimes you end up with a missing combatant.
Aside from this minor flaw, the graphics are generally superb, especially during firefights. I remember one scene in particular that took place in a library, and as my foes and I traded fire, books went flying from their shelves, pages flapped wildly in the air, and entire racks were blown into splinters before my very eyes. The whole package really does a lot to amp up the sense of danger, and you may find yourself ducking on the couch as a particularly nasty explosion rocks Jason’s position.
The sound work is just as well done, with licensed movie music as well as new tunes for the game coming together to make the perfect soundtrack. It is unfortunate that Matt Damon was not tapped to reprise his role as Jason for the games, but his replacement does a fine job. While the character on-screen doesn’t look or sound anything like Matt Damon’s version of Jason Bourne, he still seems just as fitted for the role.
As I came to the end of my time with The Bourne Conspiracy, I had to ask myself the question of whether this is a game worth buying. And as I mulled that question in my head, I had to really ask myself if there’s enough there to justify the $60 price tag. The game looks and sounds great, and the Takedown aspect of the hand-to-hand fighting system is so cool that I do believe everyone should take the opportunity to experience it. However, the strength of the fighting is offset by the weakness of the shooting, so it all sort of comes out as a wash in the end. There’s no multiplayer in the game at all, and there’s very little replay value once you’ve finished the story once. When all is said and done, Conspiracy shakes out to be a slightly above-average action title, with just enough name recognition and early promise to pique interest. If you’ve got an empty slot in your GameFly queue or happen to notice the game at Blockbuster, it might not be a bad idea to pick it up for a short rental, but not even the allure of Jason Bourne is enough to pull this game across the finish line into the “must-have” category.