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Why James Bond: Nightfire Is The Best Computer Game Ever - As It Turns 15 Years Old

04/10/2017 14:29

I found out recently that the amount of time I spend thinking about James Bond 007: Nightfire is much greater than the average person. Memories of sneaking into Rafael Drake's private castle in Austria, having parachuted down into the snow, or driving underwater into the villain's island base, dodging the laser grids and floating mines, or driving a snowmobile through a helicopter to avoid plummeting down a mountain regularly come flooding back. I can still hum the bassline to the soundtrack from the opening mission.

I'm not even ashamed to say that I occasionally hum that bassline when walking alone, back from the pub or down to the shops, because for those few hundred yards I am James Bond and I am creeping through the snow, ready to point my silenced gun into the back of the strategically-placed guards to make them surrender or hop into the back of an open-top lorry to sneak past the patrols on the gate.

I turn 30 this year, would you believe?

I still remember Christmas 2002 as clear as day. We'd done presents in the morning - I'd opened This Is Football 2003, because I always knew which football games would be the ones that would go on to dominate the market, and James Bond 007: Nightfire. The latter had been eagerly anticipated after I'd enjoyed the previous title in the series, James Bond 007: Agent Under Fire. I'd been desperately waiting to add those two titles to my collection. I was like a kid at Christmas. Literally.

For the record, I stuck with This Is Football until the series ended in 2005, before I was forced to defect to FIFA, with its better graphics, gameplay, style, design, and performance.

To this day, it baffles me why Nightfire has never been idolised as one of the great games of the era. I'm only half joking when I say that, too - because in terms of a story, variety of missions, and amount of time spent guiding remote-controlled rockets from the bungalow at the bottom of the snowy hill to the castle at the top with my mate Neil in the Skyrail level of the offline multiplayer, the game is iconic.

It was the first Bond game to feel like one of the films. From the menu, it opened with its own theme song - the first in the series to do that - and it was catchy as hell. "Don't love me quietly, do it with intensity..." Those are words that anybody who has played Nightfire can instantly relate to and recognise, from the Canadian trip-hop vocalist Esthero's original song Nearly Civilised. The song was created especially for the game.

The plot wasn't the most complex of Bond storylines - madman wants to take over the world, Bond needs to stop him - but that didn't make it any less enjoyable. Skyfall is a fantastic movie in the series, and that's just a story of a man wanting revenge and a simple chase sequence. Only Nightfire's includes rescuing geisha girls from hostiles in Japan, fighting a ninja, a dogfight in the skies over a mysterious island base, driving a car under the sea to disarm nuclear missiles, and a laser battle on the International Space Station.

What's not to like?

What made the game special as a first person shooter is that the player felt like Bond. The 007 that we saw on screen throughout the Pierce Brosnan era was so well replicated in the game that it didn't feel unnatural to be moving, speaking, reacting like Bond.

The stealth missions weren't too difficult, but they were challenging - in the way that Bond made them look on screen. Breaking into Drake's castle may seem overwhelming on the first attempt with the number of guards that are on the ground, but with some thought and careful execution each of them can be taken out quietly.

Contrast that now with stealth missions in similar, more modern games and for me it's a two-hour battle of hiding behind cover trying to work out which of the 100 enemies I can take out without any of the others sensing that I'm there by hearing me breathing from a mile away.

By the time Brosnan returned as Bond in Die Another Day, the film series was being damned for its ridiculousness, peaking at that incarnation of 007 managing to drive an invisible car. There was nothing that daft in Nightfire, a game that gave the player an array of cannily disguised gadgets to use - or not use - if they saw fit.

An electric stunner built into Bond's car keys, a flashbang grenade shaped like an electric shaver, thermal vision sunglasses, a camera disguised as a cigarette lighter, a laser in Bond's watch, and a grapple hook in his mobile phone aerial for swinging around the map. For you kids reading this, mobile phones used to have aerials that poked out of the top to give them signal.

Later games, in this franchise or otherwise, have lost something by pinpointing every place to go on a map via GPS and giving the protagonist all the answers on their smartphone with an app. This was real spying. Bond didn't use his phone for anything other than swinging from hooks to grids in hard-to-reach places - and he certainly didn't have arrows on the floor pointing him where to go.

Each of the missions had a separate feel, yet each felt so tightly knitted to the story that the game flowed from moment to moment. After breaking into the castle on the long, open stealth operation, Bond is seamlessly forced into an escape on a snowmobile - a level on a track where the player simply aims and shoots at enemies. A driving mission is up third to complete the escape, before we are plunged into a search and rescue in Japan. It's flawless; each mission increases in difficulty, but doesn't become suddenly too hard.

By the time we reach the space battle at the end, we forget just how much variety we've had in a 12-mission game. So many similar attempts in the genre in years to come made every level feel like an exact copy of the last, simply on a different map. Nightfire was enthralling. That was its charm.

Being 14 or 15 when this game was at its peak meant that I was at the perfect age to engage with it. Sure, the AI could have been better - in both the single and multiplayer campaigns - but that's the allure of being a computer game player over being a real spy.

I can safely concentrate on navigating past the laser security grid with my thermovision glasses on, ignoring the guard at the end of the corridor in a 2002 computer game. In real life, I'd have been captured on my first mission and I'm rubbish at keeping secrets, so I'd have spilled all before the villain could even have said "knuckledusters".

This is where modern games have lost it. I have so many things to think about and with the AI of patrols regularly outfoxing me, is it any wonder why those of us who enjoy games but can be a bit cackhanded when it comes to playing them can feel a little alienated?

Nightfire managed to grab those of us who were generally useless, and those players who can complete speed runs of current games on crushingly insane difficulty while wearing a blindfold, scoop us together and give us an enjoyable, entertaining few hours of gameplay.

And when done with the story, we could always missile friends from opposite ends of the Skyrail map in the multiplayer, while the bots continuously ran face-first into the wall.

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