[7 August 2008]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Is doing the same things over and over again good for the memory? Or, does constant repetition simply render those actions a meaningless blur?
If I recall correctly (pardon me as I think it is close to twenty years since I read the novel), amnesiac Jason Bourne’s first memories emerge in The Bourne Identity as a result of his training kicking in. It is instinctive action, not thinking, that is the first memory providing a clue to who and what he is.
Given that an interest in the notion of memory itself and its relationship to habit and instinct persists throughout Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series of novels, the premise of the video game The Bourne Conspiracy (based on the novels rather than the recent films) seems like a pretty good one. While The Bourne Conspiracy‘s plot line does include familiar incidents in the series, rather than go the route of all too many licensed games, it strays from slavishly following the plot of the novels. Instead, it chooses to also tread some new ground in Jason Bourne’s saga by allowing players to view various new “flashbacks” in Jason’s illustrious career as an assassin. Again, Ludlum’s material is interested in memory, keeping with the series’ spirit while also providing fans of the books or films the incentive to dig a little deeper into the background of their favorite (as the movies refer to him) “thirty million dollar weapon.”
So many other things also seem right about the ideas behind the game. By not connecting it to the film franchise, it allows more freedom for the development team (like the aforementioned straying from a straight adaptation of a Hollywood property) and not having to push an underwhelming product out the door to coincide with a movie release (like a zillion other typical Hollywood properties). Bourne also seems like fertile ground as an interesting character in and of himself and particularly the kind of cool action hero that might well easily transition to the role of the protagonist of a video game.
The fast action, brutal but elegant fisticuffs, and potential for high octane chase sequences are all there in the license. Indeed, loading up The Bourne Conspiracy, the player finds him or herself almost immediately in the thick of things and busting out the wickedly fast close quarter combat that Bourne is known for. Close quarters combat is one of the dominant focuses of the game as well, given that it alludes to Bourne’s typical “non-reliance” on guns. Two buttons allow for quick, light-damaging jabs and slower, stronger blows respectively that can additionally be strung together in combos to varying effect. Additionally, dramatic action opportunities are created by what the game refers to as “takedowns,” which are scripted bits of excess violence that can be triggered by a quick press of the B button when Bourne’s adrenaline meter is sufficiently high. Takedowns allow Bourne to quickly do away with the many thugs that he encounters or deal out heavy damage to boss characters by triggering brief, spectacular combat effects involving objects in the immediate environment.
All of this pugilism is fairly cool initially, all of which seems in the spirit of the character’s elegantly brutish and excessively physical approach to assassination. By the end of the first level, though, given the two button-action (that largely devolved into button mashing for me), I was quickly wondering if a sort of half baked fighting game was all there was to the game.
It isn’t, but the addition of some lengthy sequences of gunplay (standard over-the-shoulder run and gun with some so-so targeting) and the less common car chases also offer a similarly simple gameplay that largely becomes redundant rather quickly.
In a nutshell, my sense of what Conspiracy offers a player is some fairly snazzy looking gameplay with some fairly pedestrian controls.
As I continued to play through various flashbacks—some familiar because of their connectedness to the original Ludlum material, some all new—I began to lose track of the elements of the Bourne mythos that these episodes were intended to flesh out. Certainly, I realized the centrality of the Wombasi assassination episode, for instance (because of its centrality to the plot of The Bourne Identity—as the mission that will leave Bourne adrift and stripped of his memories in the Mediterranean Sea), but fighting waves of similar enemies for extended periods of time either in close quarters combat or with an uzi tends to make one lose track of one’s purpose rather than reinforcing the idea of what the mission is all about. The new plot threads in particular get lost in the mix as they have no moorings in the greater mythos to clearly understand their purpose here.
I guess what I am trying to get at is that it becomes ironic in a game based on a character who rediscovers who he is and what he has become because of the instinctive behavior that kicks in due to conditioning that habitual punching and shooting, does more to cause forgetfulness about what the point of the game is than to help in unfolding a deeper sense of the character. Rather than more fully understand the kind of man that Bourne is, I left the game experience feeling that I find it harder to believe in a man’s memory being awakened through instinctive and near twitchy reactivity to brutality.