Review by Sonic Singularity

Reviewed: 12/28/03 | Updated: 03/18/05

The double-O means he has a licence to kill when he chooses... where he chooses... whom he chooses!

GoldenEye is the best game I have ever played.

A grand claim, certainly, but my adoration of Rareware's glorious masterpiece is justified by far more than rose-tinted spectacles.

Pretty much everything about the game is of a very high standard, but the heart of its appeal is the wonderful design of the levels. All follow the spirit of GoldenEye the film, even if they don't stick exactly to the events of that story, and the game is all the better for it. The stages forget all the elements that simply wouldn't work in an FPS (gambling and flirting with women while uttering double entendre one-liners), relegating them to the pre-mission briefings so the levels are left free to concentrate on the core gameplay of firing guns and using gadgets.

All the game's environments (which range from claustrophobic underground corridors to vast Siberian wastelands) are extraordinarily convincing and detailed, their muddy Soviet hues managing to be atmospheric rather than dull, and the player gets the feeling that they really are a master spy intruding on a living, breathing world. A major reason for this is Rare's decision to ensure that complete, believable stages based on the movie's sets were fully constructed before a single character model was added, and it was not until later that objectives and enemies were added in such a way as to lead the player along the stage's most interesting route. This is absolutely vital to its appeal, since such design provides a fantastic combination of both having a logical route for the player to follow while also allowing plenty of room for exploration and experimentation.

For example, often the most effective way of playing through a particular level is to be slow and stealthy, sneaking past security cameras and behind unsuspecting guards. GoldenEye wasn't the first videogame to incorporate these tactics and it certainly wasn't the last, but to this day few have done it better. Creeping up on a guard and then killing him without a noise - perhaps from a long distance with the game's most memorable weapon, the classic Sniper Rifle - is gloriously satisfying. But you don't have to do that. At any moment, if you so desire, you can throw silence out the window and just go mental with your trigger finger on the offensively loud DD44 Dostovei or the seemingly unstoppable RC-P90; whatever you choose, it's sure to be fun to fire. The weapons don't have the massive variety or flashy reloading animations of Perfect Dark's arsenal, but while this eliminates a certain amount of strategy and challenge it only adds to the wonderfully gung-ho, one-man-warrior feeling you get from blasting your way through the game (as does the N64 pad itself, whose gun-resembling Z-trigger adds to the thrill of the action despite the fact that its stick isn't as efficient an aimer as a keyboard and mouse). The spark flashes indicating the position of bullet hits are very large and bright, an unrealistic exaggeration which helpfully makes refining your aim very intuitive as well as giving the whole thing a fun, slightly "clunky" sort of feel. The inclusion of the Virtua Cop inspired R-trigger aiming mode (the only time in the game where you're given the standard FPS targeting reticule) which roots you to the spot was another masterstroke by Rare, since, realistically, if you want accurate shots you'll have to stand perfectly still and take your time. But it also means you'll present a far easier target (particularly against real humans in the game's multiplayer mode), thus every time you encounter an enemy you're forced to make an instinctive decision on whether to stop and aim precisely or dodge around but waste bullets shooting wildly from the hip.

Understandably, more reckless tactics aren't as effective on higher difficulties. Most developers would be content to increase the challenge by simply altering the effectiveness of your enemies and health upgrades, and although Rare does this, they also took the trouble to also add objectives specific to each setting. It's a simple but inspired decision because it means that Agent, Secret Agent and 00 Agent all require entirely different strategies to beat, effectively tripling the number of levels you have to beat to fully complete the game.

That alone is a terrific incentive to keep you playing for months, but there's more. In a good game you can often spend as much time having fun just messing around as you can trying to complete the designers' set tasks, and it's possible to come up with some fascinating alternative ways of playing GoldenEye; alternatives which are never suggested directly, but which arise from the fact that the game is so well-designed, with the perfect balance of linearity and openness, that it practically encourages you to set yourself your own rules, targets and limits. Try to shoot the hat off the head of every guard in the level; be really stealthy and kill every man in the game with a single throwing knife without being seen. Go for 100% accuracy - or even 100% headshots. Still too easy? Try using the Enemy Rockets cheat and we'll see how cocky you are!

Ah yes, the cheats. The word is misleading - these are not mere codes that give you an unfair advantage, but a central part of the game's extended appeal. Ranging from the conventional to the bizarre, almost every one provides some fascinating new twist on the gameplay. Whether you want to ignore objectives and just slaughter people to your heart's content with all guns and infinite ammo, or want to fiddle with the speed of your enemies' reactions to mess with the challenge, or even if you just like to laugh at the sight of everyone looking like a gorilla, the cheats will let you do it. Again, it's entirely up to you, and there's an almost endless variety of ways in which these options can be combined to give different effects.

Experimenting with the cheats is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game, perhaps second only to obtaining them in the first place. They are earned by beating the target times associated with certain stages, which range from the ridiculously easy to the seemingly impossible, but are always fun and challenging. But even when you've got them all, you'll still want to play the missions again as quickly as possible, and that's where things get really serious. GoldenEye the time attack game is practically a whole new game in itself, since when aiming for records you'll be using techniques you'd never consider on a "normal" play-through. It's such a simple thing, but it extends the lifespan of the title immeasurably - like all the best score and time attack games, once GoldenEye has you it won't let you go. It's so addictive that even after the umpteenth frustrated attempt at a level the urge to have just one more go at beating your personal best by one second remains just as strong as ever. But staying up until the early hours of the morning is all worth it for that one, brief, infinitely satisfying instant when you see that new personal best flash up on the screen. In my experience, there's not much in videogaming that compares.

But as great as time attacking is, it's the multiplayer mode more than anything else that won GoldenEye a place in the hearts of gamers the world over. Admittedly it's dated compared to the deathmatch modes of today's titles. There are no statistics, or bots, or map customisers, or online connections. But that's not to say it isn't worth playing anymore. The arenas - both those designed specifically for multiplayer and those transferred from the solo missions - are magnificently balanced and endlessly entertaining. The guns themselves are just as good at killing your friends as they are for taking out enemy soldiers, and here you'll notice many of the subtle quirks that aren't so obvious in the single-player mode. The weapon choices are not fully customisable, but the presets which are there are varied enough to provide most of the combinations you'll require, and they're generally quite balanced, so you won't find too many dominating or redundant guns. The whole thing just has some kind of marvellously polished feel that made it stand far above the rest at the time of its release, and while other titles have since adopted its ideas and elaborated upon its teachings, it retains the ability to entertain.

There are so many other things I love about this masterpiece - the little extra touches, tuned to perfection, that make it a more complete experience. Like the mock-British Board of Film Classification certificate which opens the game. Then there's the recognisable but diverse variations on the Bond theme that make up the soundtrack, the excellent control schemes, the noise the security cameras make when they're blown up, the perfectly judged arc of the throwing knives, the relief when you complete a level with barely a sliver of health left, the ridiculous but oh-so-much fun idea of holding two rocket launchers at once, the basic but clear presentation, the tank, the unique feeling of setting a new fastest time through a level, and the short, silent cut-scenes before and after levels which enhance the feeling that in this game, you get to be Bond. James Bond.

But for some people that's not enough. Why would you still want to play GoldenEye today when there are more recent and sophisticated FPS games around? The enemy AI is predictable and primitive (guards make no attempt to attack from the side and have little concern for their own survival), so logically there'd be no reason you'd want to fight GoldenEye's enemies with the likes of the Combine and the Covenant around. But I say this predictability has its up-side: it results in hours of fun manipulating and luring enemies into elaborate situations before slaughtering them! It also means that the more experienced a player you become, the more instinct takes over the way you fight, and the more efficient and speedy you become: you automatically know without thinking that the guard you crept past in the previous room has since been alerted by your loud shots and has you in his line of sight right about now, so it'd be a good idea to either seek some cover or turn round and kill him. And as has been explained by one member of the development team, your foes' inability to see through windows was not a flaw but an intentional method of giving you the advantage of, you know, actually being able to spy on people. So really, despite what unrealistic qualities the AI system has, in the end it still adds to the fun of the game and just makes you feel even more like an expert secret agent.

But many criticisms of GoldenEye's more dated and limited aspects are perfectly valid, and I can understand why someone playing it today for the first time is unlikely to see what all the fuss is about. It's obvious that other titles have definitely improved on individual aspects, and there are hundreds that are technically superior. But overall, nothing has matched the brilliance of this one. Not even Perfect Dark, frequently cited as being better in every way, equals it, though some of its features mean it comes very close indeed. Yet other changes merely resulted in a different feel that wasn't necessarily an improvement, and sometimes they actually made it worse. But it's pretty close; they're both outstanding and neither would be out of place heading any "greatest games ever" list.

Everything about GoldenEye is of the highest standard, from the core gameplay elements to the tiniest cosmetic details, and to date I haven't found anything else which has combined so many high-quality features with such proficiency and to such magnificent effect. Varied, balanced, addictive and highly replayable, the whole game appeals perfectly to my own tastes, making every second of the experience fun.

So, my favourite videogame? Oh, yes. Even without those rose-tinted specs!

Rating: 10

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