Let's face it—no one goes to a James Bond movie expecting to be fooled. The movies have been redoing the identical formula over twenty movies and forty years. And that's exactly why the 007 films are so popular—we all know that Bond is going to seduce the women, escape certain death and defeat the guy who's trying to take over the world, but we marvel at watching how spectacularly he pulls it off. The formula is predictable, but it is also refined, exciting, and comfortingly familiar. So if the movies are wrought with predictability, why not cram the same formulatic process into the 007 videogames? Like the movies, James Bond 007: Nightfire lends few surprises. It's still just a beefed-up version of Rare's GoldenEye 007. But also like the movies, it's still exciting and still worth experiencing. The structure may not be fresh, but the gameplay isn't showing many signs of age.
Nightfire can best be summed up as a far superior version of EA's prior Bond shooter, the mediocre Agent Under Fire. It is primarily a first-person shooter that mixes deliberately paced action with stealth elements, but adds a few driving and on-rails levels to the mix.
The first-person levels comprise the bulk of the game, and I was genuinely surprised at how well done they are (after Agent Under Fire, my expectations were pretty low). You are given an impressive array of nifty Bond gadgets, the obligatory PP7 (with optional silencer), and told to infiltrate a compound of some sort, send some villains to their maker, steal top-secret information, and escape with your life. (What else would you be expecting?) The action is drastically improved over Agent Under Fire. This time, your enemies are prepared for your arrival and are quite well trained. They attack in groups, take cover quickly (they'll occasionally stick their gun out from behind cover and shoot blindly—a nice touch), advance and retreat, strike you at close range, and alert each other of your presence. It's not the most advanced artificial intelligence around, as you'll still encounter the occasional bad guy who stands out in the middle of the open like a deer in headlights, but it's quite enjoyable and very challenging on the highest difficulty setting.
The levels generally allow some degree of non-linearity in approach and blend the stealth and shooting elements smoothly. The early levels are less impressive, heavy on action and dimwitted opponents. Later though, the gameplay fleshes out and you are required to use some genuinely enjoyable sneaking skills and thwart some crafty mercenaries. One level has you sneaking through a high-security office building, hacking computers and averting laser tripwires; another has you infiltrating a high-security underground base through ventilation shafts and camera-guarded corridors. These levels work so seamlessly because they allow some creativity in their approach. In the office level for example, you can either try sneaking past laser tripwires (using your cool Bond sunglasses to see the lasers) or try to find a way to disarm the system. Often, you can avoid confrontations almost entirely with a little resourcefulness.
Mechanically, the game plays very much the same as all the other Bond games. There is a manual aim, which is getting a bit outdated, and a generous but disadvantageous auto-aim that target's an enemy's torso. Aiming is a quite slow and unfortunately the analog sensitivity can't be adjusted. Without the auto-aim, making accurate shots seems a little too easy in the early levels with slow-moving opponents and the slow speed of the analog stick. Enemies react unpredictably to gunfire—sometimes a shot will cause them to flinch in pain, while other times a direct hit to the chest, shoulders, or legs will seem to have no effect at all. The aiming is very precise—a little too precise in my view; a little more give in the aiming (i.e., a larger area within the targeting reticule) would negate the need for the manual aim and allow for faster action.
Making a return from Agent Under Fire are the driving levels, but again they are done noticeably better. They are fast and fairly short, generally requiring you to make use of the small army of weapons and gadgets under the hood of your car to thwart evildoers and avert civilians. The driving physics are convincingly executed and easy to learn. My only disappointment is that of the three driving levels, only one features Bond's trademark BMW taking to the road. The others, an underwater and an offroad level, are well done but don't quite live up to the first, a fast land-and-ice pursuit through a snowy town.
The on-rails levels are essentially short, cinematic-driven levels that simply require you to point and shoot as scenery blazes by. They are enjoyable the first time through, but the simplistic gameplay gets old fast. More driving or shooting levels would have undoubtably been more effective.
Which brings me to the game's greatest fault: its length. Fourteen levels, five of which are driving or on-rails, makes the game disappointingly short. Considering that the original GoldenEye 007 had twenty levels of shooting, Nightfire seems a little lacking, particularly because the later shooting levels are so much more engaging than the early ones. It's not a particularly challenging game either, so experienced Bond fans will have little trouble blazing through the game over a long afternoon. Most frustrating, though, is the lack of a mid-level save. Each shooting level is divided into two or three large sequences. Although you can retry from each new sequence, you must restart the entire level if you quit. Since the sequences are sometimes quite long and challenging, having to retry them repeatedly is unnecessarily frustrating.
Nightfire is exactly what I expected it would be. Full of Bond clichés and all of the predictability one would expect from the franchise, it's an unsurprising yet satisfying revisiting of the GoldenEye 007 gamplay formula. A little more challenge, depth, and length with the trimming of the lame on-rails levels would have made this one a near classic. As it is, though, it's an above-average shooter with just enough variety and charm to make the familiar trip worth your time.