In 1997, British developer Rare went to obsessive lengths to re-create GoldenEye’s locations and sets for its pioneering first-person James Bond shooter…
Arguably one of the greatest moments in 1990s video gaming involved peering down at a soldier in a toilet cubicle. From your hiding space in a vent, you could just see your unsuspecting victim’s green beret peeking above the partition. If you wanted, you could aim your silenced Walther PPK and take out the soldier with a single, clean headshot, leaving the hat suspended in the air for a second like a leaf on the breeze.
So began GoldenEye 007’s now legendary Facility level, which began in the taut confines of a bathroom but soon took the player through a busy network of corridors and labs crammed with enemies and quaking scientists. In terms of design, flow and execution, it summed up everything that was brilliant about Rare’s first-person shooter. The crisp movement and shooting mechanics. The freedom to approach each level how you wanted: stealthily, with barrages of machinegun fire, or perhaps somewhere in between.
GoldenEye 007 was a huge hit on its release in 1997 – one of the biggest games on its host platform, the Nintendo 64 – and widely regarded as one of the most important first-person shooters ever made. More recently, the release of the remake on Nintendo Switch and Xbox Game Pass has introduced the game to an audience that probably weren’t even born when the game first came out. And while there are aspects of the game that haven’t aged well – as several YouTubers have already pointed out, it’s janky in places, and the controls are quite weird by modern standards – it still deserves its place in history as a true pioneer.
One of the game’s true masterstrokes was its dedication to recreating locations from director Martin Campbell’s original movie. Although the game didn’t emerge until two years after the film had vanished from cinemas, its developers were given extensive behind-the-scenes access to the script and sets while the movie was still in production. When an action sequence was being shot at a former Rolls Royce factory in Leavesden – which was later redeveloped and dubbed Warner Bros Studios, Leavesden – background artist Karl Hilton recalls being allowed to visit, camera in hand. “We had really good access,” Hilton said in an interview with Now Gamer. “We could walk anywhere and photograph what we needed. After the first few visits, I realised we needed textures. I started taking photos of walls!”
Like the film, the game begins at the top of a dam in Cold War-era Russia (actually the Contra Dam in Switzerland), with Bond using it as an entry point to a top-secret weapons facility. But where the sequence is relatively brief in the film – we see Bond run along the top of the dam, before doing a gonzo bungee jump off the side – the developers at Rare expand and embellish the environment with lookout posts, security gates and bunkers. There’s even an entire warren of tunnels located inside the dam that isn’t so much as mentioned in the movie.
It’s an example of how the game’s designers were unafraid to pick out the film’s most noteworthy moments, embellish them, or depart from them entirely where necessary. Compare the game’s Facility level to the Arkangel Chemical Weapons Facility in the film, and the accuracy in places is quite striking: Pierce Brosnan’s Bond really does peer down from a vent and stealthily take out a soldier in a toilet cubicle. The glimpses we get of the rest of the location, with its acres of grey concrete and scientists in lab coats, is all faithfully echoed in the game. (Admittedly, Rare omits the walk-in fridge full of meat and refectory packed with hungry soldiers we see in the movie, but this was probably due to technical limitations.)
Later levels in the game artfully depart from the film’s script, but cherry pick from its locations to create new set-pieces. The Surface and Bunker levels are based on the film’s scenes in and around a radar outpost in Siberia, where we’re introduced to programmer Natalya (Izabella Scorupco) and her infuriating work colleague, Boris (a fresh-faced Alan Cumming). Interestingly, Bond didn’t get to visit the location himself in the movie, but the game’s designers artfully expanded those brief scenes into levels the player could explore.
Levels like these help to explain why GoldenEye 007 was so warmly received, especially compared to most licenced games of its type. More than any other Bond game before it, Rare’s shooter let players truly inhabit the role of a near-invincible superspy. The wealth of satisfyingly effective weapons and gadgets from the movie – including a watch that doubles as a laser cutter – all add to the power fantasy.
The brilliance, though, lies in Rare’s ability to take scenes from the film, make them interactive, yet retain their suspense. For this writer, this is tidily summed up in the Archives stage – behind the Facility, arguably the best-designed map in the game. It’s based on a sequence in the film where Bond and Natalya escape from a St Petersburg interrogation room and then shoot their way through a building swarming with armed guards.
In the game, the level starts with the player unarmed and stuck in the room with a pair of soldiers holding machine guns. Bond’s Walther PPK lies tantalisingly out of reach on a table. The can therefore decide whether to take out at least one guard with a well-timed karate chop or lunge for the table and grab the gun. In either case, making too much noise will cause a small army of other soldiers to come piling through the door at you, which means engaging in a lengthy firefight in a tiny room with nowhere to take cover.
Get out of the interrogation room, and you’ll find a maze of corridors (and some hidden shortcuts) that lead to the library – all based on the look of the sets in the movie. If you’re a Bond fan, it’s pleasing to note the attention to detail: the walls even have the metre-high band of green paint you can see in the big-screen version. Even if you’d never seen GoldenEye (the movie) in the late nineties, the game’s sense of the cinematic made it a true stand-out.
Rare also looked at films beyond the Bond franchise for inspiration: for the game’s meaty muzzle flashes and explosion, director Martin Hollis recalls studying the movies of John Woo, in particularly his magnum opus, Hard Boiled.
Put it all together, and you have one of the first licenced games that truly attempted to immerse players in a film’s locations and action set-pieces. Admittedly, advances in hardware helped – a 3D shooter with complex AI simply wouldn’t have been possible on the N64’s predecessor, the SNES. But overwhelmingly, it was Rare’s creativity and dedication to re-creating the film’s details, from studying blueprints of sets to photographing textures on walls, that made it such a classic.
In 2011, Karl Hilton described the moment when the team realised that it had something special on its hands. “I remember the first time we got Bond’s hand in with the watch,” he told Now Gamer. “We scanned it in and modelled it up and it had the cuff of the white tuxedo. I thought, hey, I’m James Bond! And then we put that thing in where the camera flies into the back of Bond’s head at the start of a level. It tied you in.”
GoldenEye 007 was, in short, the first true James Bond simulator. Licenced games would never be quite the same again…
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