It took a heavy reenvisioning of how Bond games should be played to get the series back on track, but last year's Everything or Nothing did it. By dropping the first-person-perspective rut the series had gotten itself into, and by shifting things into the third person, EA went and made a damn thrilling original adventure featuring a host of celebrity actors, including the most recent (and now former) James Bond, Pierce Brosnan. For its second third-person Bond game, Electronic Arts has put aside original adventures to go back in time to the time period where it all began. From Russia With Love is based on the 1963 film of the same name, and it brings back many of the familiar characters and scenarios from that film. EA even got the original Bond himself, Sean Connery, to come back to do his lines all over again. Unfortunately, it's what From Russia With Love doesn't do that ultimately defines it. It skips or rewrites several key aspects of the film, killing off a lot of the appeal of the story. It lacks any measure of challenge, playing out more like a shooting gallery in spots than a proper action game. And above all else, it simply lacks that spark--that thrilling feeling that wasn't just one key part of Everything or Nothing, but rather, was the entire essence of what made that game so enjoyable. This isn't to say that From Russia With Love isn't fun. In fact, it's capable of delivering a pretty good experience. At times, though, it feels like a missed opportunity.
In the movie, the plot follows James Bond as he travels to Istanbul to meet with a supposed Russian defector (of course, a beautiful woman) who wants to turn over a Lektor, a Russian cipher machine, to MI6 in exchange for being able to meet the love of her life (Bond, in this case). Of course, nothing is as it seems. Evil crime syndicate SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion) is behind this trap, and what follows is another traditional Bond escapade filled with adventure, clever one-liners, and attractive women.
The game follows the plot in a fairly loose fashion. It has all the basic story details right, but it rewrites a lot of the key scenarios to suit itself. Big climactic sequences, like the confrontation on the train, are completely changed--and not necessarily for the better. The action sequence where Bond is ducking and dodging a low-flying helicopter that's trying to kill him... That's gone from the story altogether. There are also some weird detail changes, like how SPECTRE is renamed "Octopus" (evidently due to legal issues surrounding the name, but disappointing nonetheless). Furthermore, the first and last levels of the game are completely tacked on, with practically no story relevance whatsoever. The film's ending doesn't exactly come across as fodder for a great last game level, mind you, but what the developers pulled together here isn't satisfying or interesting.
Interestingly enough, the best parts of From Russia With Love are the ones that EA managed to successfully translate from the film. The shoot-out with the Russian soldiers in the gypsy camp, the daring heist of the Lektor from the Russian consulate, the big boat chase with the agents of SPECT--er, the agents of Octopus... These are the sequences that are the most memorable and enjoyable by far, not necessarily because of how great the gameplay is, but because they appropriately stretch out a few minute-long film sequences into a 10-to-15-minute level without sacrificing the great bits from the film. Fortunately, there are several of these in the game, and they serve to counterbalance the conversely mediocre story bits that EA added and changed.
From Russia With Love looks and plays a lot like Everything or Nothing, which isn't surprising since it's running on an engine that seems very similar to its predecessor's. Bond is dealt a variety of weapons and gadgets to use, including a few nifty ones like the Q-copter, a miniature helicopter that both provides Bond with surveillance of hard-to-reach areas and acts as a weapon (in that it will explode on command). Bond also has a special belt that lets him rappel up and down steep areas. Rappelling was in Everything or Nothing, but it's not quite the same here. It's more of a quick mechanic used to get around than something you'll ever find yourself using in a big action sequence. There's no rappelling down buildings while stuff's blowing up here.
And therein lies the biggest problem with From Russia With Love. While it gives you lots of cool ideas for stuff to do, in addition to the tools with which to do them, the scenarios the game presents you with rarely require you to ever put them in motion. There are also some setups for stealth attacks, nifty melee attacks, Q-copter sequences, and the extra-cool "Bond moments" from the last game, where James will shoot a red barrel somewhere, which explodes a bunch of guys standing around it or what have you. But again, there really isn't much call to ever bother with any of these things, since all you really ever need to do is run, point, shoot, and move on. The game is just ridiculously easy, even on the hardest difficulty. Why bother to stop and shoot a grenade off a bad guy's belt to kill him when you can just as easily run up in his face and shoot him dead in less time? You end up accidentally melee-attacking guys more often than you will intentionally do so just because it's so easy to get in close to enemies. Again, the game has plenty of great stuff to do, but it rarely pushes you to do any of it.
The same goes for the different vehicle sequences in the game. Often you'll find yourself driving a car, manning a gun turret on a speedboat, or floating around in a jetpack. And again, all these sequences are just plain simple. In a car, all you need to do is hold down the shoot button to blow up anything that gets in your path. Same with the jetpack sequences. Once or twice you might have to do a little obstacle dodging, but mostly you just move ever forward, blasting nearby enemies and periodically shifting your altitude up or down. These sequences do have some value, mind you. The controls are tight, and the explosions and destruction you can cause as you speed through city streets in the car or as you fly around launching missiles from the jetpack are quite satisfying. But after a few hours, that does wear somewhat thin, as good explosions will only take a game so far.
To its credit, From Russia With Love doesn't overstay its welcome. The story can be breezed through in about seven hours on the default difficulty, which is about as long as the relatively simplistic gameplay remains interesting for. There are some bonus missions to unlock, as well as several hidden costumes. There are also upgrade points you can collect to give boosts to your arsenal of weapons and gadgets. You probably won't feel a pressing need to try to find everything, provided you aren't the meticulous type that has to both unlock every single thing and find every hidden item.
From Russia With Love also has a multiplayer component, but it's about as tacked on and meaningless as multiplayer components go these days. There are a few different play types, including standard deathmatch and capture-the-flag variants, as well as a dogfight mode, where everybody's got a jetpack. There are two ways to play: either in single events in or survival royale, where you play several events in succession. There are some bonuses you can get in the survival royale mode to make it more interesting, and some of the different traps and "Bond moments" you can enact in the assorted, available maps are neat ideas too. But all of this is negated by one cold, hard fact: The action is simply not conducive to a fun multiplayer experience. In the end, it boils down to you and up to three friends duking it out split-screen style while constantly auto-targeting one another and hammering on the shoot button. That's it. You just shoot dudes, and they die. Or in some cases, you'll punch dudes, and they'll die. Even in dogfight mode, all you have to do is lock on to a target and then shoot. The best your opponents can do is dodge, and that only works half the time. On top of all that, the maps aren't all that great, and the shooting simply lacks punch in the multiplayer arena.
Graphically, From Russia With Love earns style points for re-creating the '60s era of Bond with flare. James Bond looks like Sean Connery circa 1963, and all his mannerisms are in place, including that classic method for holding his gun down by his waist. The models are quite realistic and animate equally realistically during in-engine cutscenes. The environments emulate those of the film well, although there's rarely much detail in the set pieces and buildings. Those environments do destruct quite nicely, though, so the lack of detail is forgivable. Fantastic explosion effects are offset somewhat by a fairly unstable frame rate, especially on the PlayStation 2 version. Other than that, the two versions look comparable.
The audio category is perhaps the most interesting one of the bunch. As mentioned, Sean Connery returns to play Bond once again, but that fact is something of a mixed blessing. For sure, it's of great nostalgic value to have the original Bond back in the tux, delivering those classic lines. But the truth is that Connery is not a young man anymore, nor does he sound like one. His thick Scottish accent permeates every line far more than it ever did during his days as Bond on film, and at times it actually feels like he hasn't fully committed to the role. He delivers the most renowned lines with plenty of flair, but the basic dialogue comes across a bit rushed and halfhearted. We don't want to say he was just doing this for a paycheck, but sometimes it definitely feels that way. Fortunately, the rest of the voice cast does an excellent job with what dialogue its members are given, and the rest of the audio--namely the soundtrack and effects--are equally great. You might notice some audio balancing issues here and there, but there isn't much to complain about otherwise.
The end result is a game that tries too hard to stay out of your way. Everything or Nothing was a game that didn't try to trip you up too much, mostly for the sake of keeping its exciting ride moving at a brisk and enjoyable pace. From Russia With Love lacks much of that excitement, thus making its simplicity stick out like a sore thumb. It certainly has its periodic thrills, but they're interspersed over a lot of shooting-gallery-like combat that doesn't require an ounce of skill on your behalf. Bond fans should find a pretty solid rental in From Russia With Love--provided they're not too sensitive to the rewrites EA made to the storyline--but it's probably not worth taking the plunge as a purchase.
Editor's note 11/02/05: The review originally stated that From Russia With Love used the same graphics engine as James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing, which is incorrect. GameSpot regrets the error.