“Well, I like to do some things the old-fashioned way.” –James Bond, Skyfall
When operator Zoe Nightshade is captured by Identicon Corporation while investigating allegations of weapons smuggling, James Bond infiltrates their Hong Kong facility to rescue her and recovers a courier case. While eluding Nigel Bloch, head of Identicon, in a vehicle chase, Nightshade is killed and the vials are retrieved. However, Bond manages to catch up to them and recovers the vials, which are found to contain blood samples of world leaders and that of ambassador Reginald Griffin, who is working in the British embassy in Bucharest, Romania. Bond discovers that the vials are related to Malprave Industries in Switzerland and arranges to visit their facility. Upon realising he and CEO Adrian Malprave had previously met in Bucharest, Bond attempts to escape the facility, obtaining photographs of Malprave’s plans. He learns that Dr. Natalya Damescu had left Malprave Industries and is under the protection of the British embassy, as she possesses knowledge of their plans. Returning to the embassy, Bond fends off the terrorist attack, including their leader, and picks up a data chip pointing to Poseidon. Bond next travels to an oil rig in the South China sea in pursuit of Bloch and follows up to an underwater cloning facility. After destroying the lab, Bond escapes and encounters the real Zoe Nightshade: the Nightshade at the Identicon facility had actually been a clone. The two board a British aircraft carrier and discover Malprave’s plan to clone the world leaders and replace their originals in a bid to take over the world. Returning to Malprave’s facilities in the Swiss Alps, Bond rescues the world leaders and defeats Bloch in a showdown before escaping with Nightshade, while Malprave dies when her base self-destructs. This is 007: Agent Under Fire, a 2001 first person shooter that was the first James Bond game for sixth generation consoles that featured an all-new story and return to the style that GoldenEye had pioneered.
Agent Under Fire never quite hit the same heights as GoldenEye did, being criticised for flimsy AI and short missions by period critics. Indeed, the game hasn’t aged as gracefully as its successor, Nightfire: Agent Under Fire holds the players’ hands throughout all of the campaign missions, and there’s very little room for exploration and discovery. Moreover, the storyline is, for the lack of a better word, tacky. The notion of creating clones of world leaders as a proxy by which to rule the world is roundabout and ill-conceived: the same outcome would be better achieved by manipulating the media (Tomorrow Never Dies), controlling fuel transport (The World is Not Enough) or investing in super-weapons to challenge the world’s militaries (Die Another Day). Similarly, use of clones opens the floor to deaths that suddenly lack impact or shock, and brings about storytelling clichés that diminish the weight of Bond’s actions. However, where the story is lacking, Agent Under Fire excels with its gameplay. In particular, the integration of gunplay and using Q Branch’s sophisticated gadgetry to advance was particularly smooth, and one could go from hijacking crane signals to destroy an entire group of guards back to sniping distant foes at the press of a button. GoldenEye had a comparatively unwieldy gadget system, but capitalising on the controller’s D-pad to cycle between weapons and gadgets, as well as mapping different buttons to weapon and gadget use simplified things considerably. Moreover, while Agent Under Fire is a first person shooter, the game also features driving segments that allow players to get behind the wheel of Bond’s gadget-laden super cars. Racing around modestly open maps to complete objectives offers a pleasant change of pace from the on-foot combat, and altogether, while Agent Under Fire‘s story might not win any Newbury awards, the game completely succeeded in demonstrating what was possible from a James Bond game on the most advanced consoles of the time.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Agent Under Fire opens in Hong Kong harbour, on a facility that looks like something straight out of a science fiction novel. Set under a golden sunset, the mission would come to set the expectation of what sort of atmospherics would accompany a James Bond game, and here, I equip the P2K, which I’ve unlocked the golden version of for scoring well on this mission. The P2K is modelled on the Smith and Wesson SW99, but unlike its real-world equivalent, the P2K is limited to a six-round magazine (and the real version accepts 10, 15 and 20 round box magazines).
- As the evening light casts the Identicon facility’s interior in orange-yellows, I fight my way through guards en route to the submarine pen. Along the way, I pick up the infamous Koffler and Stock KS7 (Heckler and Koch MP5), which was a bit of a joke amongst players of the time. In FAQs dating back to 2001 and 2002, the KS7 is described as the worst gun in the game, whose inaccuracy and weak damage meant that it would often take an entire magazine to take out one enemy. Agent Under Fire has a wide range of weapons, and throughout campaign missions, Bond will have access to all of the weapons featured in the game.
- Unsurprisingly, the most powerful and versatile weapons are found towards the end of the game. As I near the last segments of the first mission, I find an SSR-4000, which is based on the SIG-Sauer SSG 3000. On a per-shot basis, the SSR-4000 is the most powerful and accurate weapon in Agent Under Fire, being a bolt-action rifle with two zoom levels. The weapon’s slow firing rate and small magazine is typical of a bolt-action rifle’s, being balanced to favour long range combat. In the campaign, enemies equipped with the SSR-4000 also have a laser sight, allowing players to quickly work out where they’re aiming and return fire or get to cover as appropriate.
- Agent Under Fire has a disproportionately large number rail-shooter missions, in which the game automatically drives a player around, and the only aim is to fend off enemies. While the concept of rail-shooters have been maligned owing to titles like Call of Duty, back when they were introduced, they did represent a fun way to have a high speed shootout where players could focus purely on shooting. In Agent Under Fire, the rail shooter missions follow the same approach: Bond is equipped with an RPK, modified SPAS-12 and occasionally, an anti-vehicle option.
- While Agent Under Fire fails to account for the fact that Hong Kong has left-hand traffic, the game otherwise does a phenomenal job of capturing the Hong Kong aesthetic. Roads are perhaps a bit wider, and traffic is considerably lighter than things are in real life, but the apartment buildings and neon signs are spot on. As Bond beats an escape, droves of Bloch’s men follow in pursuit, making use of cars and limousines alike in a bid to head off Bond. Rail shooting missions feature an impressive ammunition pool, and unless one were to keep their finger on the trigger for the whole of a mission, it is unlikely that one will run out.
- The CH-6 rocket launcher is named for the fact that it can fire six shots before reloading, and it is immensely effective against vehicles. Owing to its power, it is only available in the second mission, and here, I’ve got the Golden CH-6, which has a bottomless reserve of rockets. With this unlocked, one can pretty much just stick to the CH-6 and decimate all vehicles on the road.
- Bond subsequently picks up his own vehicle, the BMW Z8: this vehicle was first seen in The World is Not Enough, and its presence in Agent Under Fire speaks to the fact that the game was originally meant to be PS2 and PC versions of the Nintendo 64’s The World is Not Enough, but midway through development, the PC version was scrapped, and the PS2 version was changed into Agent Under Fire. In Agent Under Fire, the Z8 is equipped with two forward-facing machine guns, unguided rockets and homing missiles. Thanks to an unlock, I have unlimited missiles, which renders the mission considerably easier.
- Racing through the streets of Hong Kong in a weapon and gadget laden BMW proved quite fun: once Bond re-enters the city, likely Central, the main objective will show up: a special van carrying the stolen vials will appear, and Bond must use an EMP pulse to disable it without destroying the samples. The Q-pulse is instrumental for this, and players must drive up beside the van in order to use the Q-pulse, which has a short range. More points are scored if players can disable the van sooner, although care should be taken not to fire the EMP when one is out of range: the EMPs are in short supply and must be picked up by driving around the level.
- The fourth mission is a strictly non-lethal mission, and the only time where Bond uses a dart gun. Regardless of difficulty, the darts will knock out guards with a single shot, and in the quiet of the British embassy in Bucharest, the aim is to sneak in, figure out what happened to Reginald Griffin, and get out. Stealth missions in swanky locations always remind me of Christmas – back in the day, one of my relatives always hosted the annual Christmas parties, and my cousin, would invite us to spend the evening playing Agent Under Fire‘s multiplayer after dinner wrapped up while the adults conversed. My cousin favoured cooperative play, and we would challenge ourselves by fighting the bots on maximum difficulty and aggression.
- In subsequent years, I would come to own a GameCube of my own and beat Agent Under Fire‘s campaign for myself. I occasionally still partake in the multiplayer with maxed-out bots for old time’s sake, and nothing gives more hilarity than squaring off against the Griffin clone on Town. Back in the campaign, I enter Griffin’s office to find him dead, and confront the Griffin Clone, who requires a full magazine of dart gun rounds to take out. Once Bond collects information from Griffin’s computer, it’s time to leave the embassy by taking the elevator back to the main floor and simply walk out the front door.
- The mission at Malprave’s Swiss headquarters sees Bond pose as a journalist, but his cover is blown shortly after, and he is sealed in the reception area. The mission’s title, “Cold Reception”, is a play on words: the reception is unfriendly, and the setting is chilly, so this becomes a bit of a double entendre of sorts, which the James Bond franchise is known for. Once Bond is sealed in, hitting a switch on the desks will open a side passage that allows the mission to progress. The key here is to hit the switch on the desk to the right of Malprave’s portrait: the others will sound an alarm. Time is limited, so players should keep an eye on the clock.
- After the classic espionage manoeuvre of photographing classified blueprints, Bond sneaks into a server room and downloads Malprave’s data for analysis before escaping. Agent Under Fire‘s game mechanics haven’t really changed: twenty years later, games like The Division still have similar objectives, and while the modes have changed (ISAC replaces the Q-decryptor and Q-remote), the end results are the same. Here, I’ve picked up the SPAS-12, the Frenesi in-game. It’s a pump-action shotgun that excels in close quarters, although it is limited by a low firing rate. The multiplayer incarnation has an alternate fire mode that allows it to fire in a semi-automatic fashion, sacrificing damage for the ability to make quick follow-up shots.
- At Agent Under Fire‘s halfway point, Bond fends off terrorists attacking the British Embassy in Bucharest. This mission was provided in the demo version of Agent Under Fire back at the local toy stores back in the day, and I vividly remember dying after walking into the path of a sniper’s laser sights every time a controller freed up. This mission has the same aesthetic as that of Nightfire‘s second mission, requiring that players fight their way through a relatively classy setting. With the P2K, I ended up using manual fire to carefully place my shots and aim for the head: headshots are a one-hit-kill, and allow one to pick off enemies with relative ease. Body shots are highly ineffectual even on low difficulties, and although the manual aim (the precursor to today’s ADS mechanics) was tricky, when things connect, it allows one to save on ammunition.
- I’ve never been much of a marksman on the console, and so, when the opportunity presented itself, I immediately picked a KS-57 off a terrorist. The KS-57 (AK-47) is an iconic assault rifle, but in Agent Under Fire, it’s a relatively weak weapon with improved accuracy and stopping power compared to the submachine guns, but is otherwise eclipsed by other assault rifles. Here, I enter a bathroom with a suggestive hologram, concealing a secret entrance that opens into the next area. Fanservice has never really been a thing in the games that I prefer playing, and having seen what contemporary graphics are capable of now, moments such as these are absolutely tame compared to what’s possible nowadays.
- After reaching the rooftops, Bond rappels over into the next building with the Q-claw, rescues the embassy’s staff from the terrorists and enters the building’s basement, where he confronts the Jackal. The first time I fought the Jackal, I was unaware of how the game’s mechanics worked and died instantly. Later, I realised that the Jackal doesn’t actually take damage, but instead, retreats on the catwalk to a different position after taking enough fire, and eventually will fall after trying to fire on Bond from above a ventilation fan. The Jackal is armed with the Windsor FSU-4 (basically the Colt M16A2 with the M203 under-barrel grenade launcher), and in the mission, the Windsor Viper (Colt Anaconda) can be used, as well.
- With the Jackal defeated, the last step of the mission is to destroy an AH-64 attack helicopter. Agent Under Fire makes it easy for Bond to do so: there’s four mounted machine guns on the roof, and while their ammunition is limited, empty the boxes on two of those guns will do significant damage to the attack helicopter, to the point where a few magazines’ worth of fire from the FSU-4 will destroy it. For folks looking for a shoulder-fired solution, there’s also an MRL-22 rocket launcher and extra rockets lying around. It goes without saying that one should give plenty of space between themselves and the attack helicopter if opting for the MRL-22 approach: the splash damage is very much lethal to Bond.
- While the Jackal had been carrying a data chip, the terrorists manage to extract it, and Bond heads off in hot pursuit in his iconic DB5. The DB5 is equipped with the same capabilities and equipment as the Z8, so operating it is no problem. Like Hong Kong, Bucharest’s streets offer players with a degree of freedom in how they wish to go about reaching their target, and these segments of the game handled very smoothly. With my unlimited missiles, I had no trouble recovering the data chip, but after the DB5 is totalled following a daring jump over a canal, Bond switches over to a tank in a manner reminiscent of GoldenEye.
- The tank segment of the mission is a rail shooter, which makes no sense considering that Bond is also the one operating the tank: this tank resembles the Russian T-90, and in-game, is equipped with a MGF-34 main cannon, as well as a minigun. I imagine the weapons were named and chosen purely for cool factor: the real T-90 is armed with the 2A46 120mm smoothbore cannon and a 12.7 mm Kord HMG, whereas here, it looks like it’s got an M134, which is an American weapon and therefore would not be equipped on a Russian tank. While the mission itself isn’t logical, it’s also a fun ride through Bucharest as Bond tears apart hordes of Malprave’s forces.
- In 2001 and 2002 FAQs, writers wondered why the splash damage from the tank’s main cannon was so minimal despite the weapon working well against vehicles. Per my remarks in Rogue Agent, since it’s been two decades since then, I doubt that reaching out to the FAQ writers would be effectual, but the answer is simple: the MGF-34 is firing kinetic penetrators rather than HE rounds. I understand that at the time, gamers assumed that tanks would always fire high explosive shells owing to how developers intended tanks to really be used in single-player campaigns and therefore, didn’t need balance. In today’s games, things have become rather more sophisticated, and different rounds are implemented to have different functions.
- The data chip that Bond finds takes him to an oil drilling platform in the South China Sea as he pursues Bloch. Agent Under Fire marks the first time I’ve fought on an oil rig, and I admit that this mission was masterfully designed: Bond has the option of charging in loud, using a side passage to stealthily reach a mounted 50 calibre gun, or sneak closer to the side railing and take out the sniper, then seize the sniper for himself. I went the route of the mounted gun, and after decimating everything, including an attack helicopter, I proceeded across the now-quiet deck with the Calypso submachine gun in hand. The Calypso P750 is based off the Calico M960, whose unique helical magazine allows for a very high ammunition capacity. In-game, its high RPM makes it an excellent close quarters weapon.
- The second half of the mission entails climbing progressively higher in the oil rig. Bond begins in the pump room and must use the Q-jet, as well as a pumpjack, to escape. Enemies begin dropping the FSU-4, and while it’s been fun to use the Calypso, the FSU-4 is better suited for long range combat. A few snipers can also be found, and they’ll whittle players down very quickly if not dealt with. Climbing the ladders to higher platforms, Bond can use the Q-remote to drop enemy snipers without trouble, and an MRL-22 rocket launcher can be found, allowing one to drive off the attack helicopter that shows up, if need be.
- Forbidden Depths is the last of the rail shooting missions, and Bond is equipped with both the pump action shotgun and RPK. Beginning with an absurd amount of RPK ammunition means that players shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with the enemy forces. The mission is one lengthy tram ride through the tunnels to Malprave’s underwater cloning lab: Agent Under Fire really took the idea of an elaborate lair to new heights, and the cloning lab is an example where the designers were really free to build levels as they appeared in their imaginations.
- The only other Bond game with such imaginative environments was 2004’s GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, which took things even further. While racing through the underwater tunnels, Bloch eventually joins Bond and drops mines that must be shot at to avoid damage. The trams will eventually reach a terminal that begins sinking into the lava below, necessitating use of a camera-guided rocket launcher to stop. With this rollercoaster-like mission over, Bond’s finally reached the underwater base. This is the only mission where players will have a chance to use the PS100 and the UGW.
- The exotic components in Malprave’s cloning lab has a distinctly sci-fi feel to it: simpler graphics back in the day meant that increasingly creative means were used to convey a high-tech asthetic, and games have come a very long way since then. Today, games like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and even Division 2 do a more realistic presentation of what ultra-sophisticated labs would look like. Here, as I fight through the research labs, I wield the PS100, a personal defense weapon modelled on the P90. The PS100 is the best weapon in the submachine gun category: while sporting a smaller magazine than the Calypso, it is more accurate and makes short work of enemies.
- Once Bond’s through sabotaging Malprave’s cloning facility, it’s time to beat a hasty exit: Bond’s deactivate pressure stablisation and tempreature regulators, causing the base to go critical. I’ve picked up the UGW here: this assault rifle is the second best in the game, dealing reasonable damage and mounting zoom optics that allow for medium range combat. The UGW is based on the Steyr AUG A1 with the Swarovski optic, and here, I fight my way through the submarine pen en route to my exfil. Blowing up enemy lairs has long been a staple of James Bond movies and games alike, and in this area, Agent Under Fire delivers.
- Once the underwater cloning lab is destroyed, Bond returns to a British carrier on the Mediterranean Sea and clears it of Malprave’s forces: it is here that Bond learns what Malprave’s plans were. While it’s fun to fight on an aircraft carrier (I would not do so again until 2010’s Crysis), the story in Agent Under Fire definitely left something to be desired, resembling a hastily-written Bond fanfiction whose goal was to incorporate as many iconic Bond experiences as possible at the expense of coherence. Malprave’s plot is implausible as it is ludicrous. Nightfire completely improves on things, sporting a superior, cohesive and engaging (if still familiar) story that made every mission’s contribution to the campaign more obvious.
- After reaching the deck and reluctantly freeing a member of the crew, Bond heads off to rescue Nightshade again. This final segment requires caution, since she’s surrounded by depth charges that will explode should anything hit them, sending players back to the last checkpoint. Agent Under Fire utilises a lives system: players have only have two attempts to clear a mission before running out of lives, after which they would need to start over from the beginning. In the end, Bond is able to save Nightshade and stop the clones of the world leader from getting out by shooting down a helicoper they’re in. The British carrier has 50-calibre machine guns on deck, and unlike the 7.62 mm mounted guns, the 50-calibre guns do not run out of ammunition.
- As evening sets over the Swiss Alps, I begin the final mission, dubbed “Evil Summit”. The biggest challenge about the first area are the snipers, and fortunately, off in a storage room, players can grab their own SSR-4000 for some counter-sniping. After acquiring the program to unlock the access way, hordes of Malprave’s soldiers will flood the platform. They’re armed with the Koffler and Stock D17, which is based on the Heckler and Koch G11 caseless rifle. The D17 is the single best weapon in the game, with a high RPM, accuracy and magazine capacity.
- Upon picking up the D17, there’s no real reason to use any other weapon. Having the D17 makes this last segment mangeable: the goal is to rescue all of the captured world leaders. After clearing the central control room, Bond must enter four missile silos and rescue the remaining leaders, who will see themselves out. Once this is done, all that’s left is to fight Nigel Bloch. While Bond appeared to have killed him in an earlier mission, it turns out this was his clone. The fight against Bloch plays out similarly to the fight against the Jackal: Bloch is technically invincible and upon taknig enough fire, will simply move to a next area.
- After pursuing Bloch through a ventilation system, Bond picks up a spare MRL-22 and uses this to defeat Bloch in a scripted sequence, bringing the game to an end. Because of how boss fights are written in Agent Under Fire, I found them to be quite unsatisfying. However, for the most part, Agent Under Fire is a solid game that demonstrated what was possible on a sixth generation console, and the sequel, Nightfire, would return as a refined, polished version of Agent Under Fire.
Indeed, Agent Under Fire would receive a sequel not a year later in Nightfire: using polished concepts from Agent Under Fire, Nightfire proved to be an improvement over its predecessor in every way. The balance of gadget usage and sure aim was further polished, and the game retained a balance of on-foot missions and vehicular segments. However, the story was superbly-written, this time around, and the Nightfire even had James Bond with Pierce Brosnan’s likeness. The learnings of Agent Under Fire were evidently applied to Nightfire, and in this way, Agent Under Fire might be seen as a proof-of-concept, using the Id Tech 3 engine to explore different mechanics. The mish-mash of concepts, while feeling distinctly disjointed in Agent Under Fire, still worked very smoothly. The gunplay remains impressive, and alternate fire modes allow some weapons to be more versatile. Vehicular segments handled well. With gameplay concepts proven to be viable, Nightfire was therefore able to incorporate a better written story, superior visuals, stronger voice acting and a more iconic soundtrack into its experience. Consequently, while perhaps not the most imaginative or memorable James Bond title, Agent Under Fire nonetheless remains an enjoyable experience for its gameplay and aesthetics: the story doesn’t really make much sense, but it does give players a chance to visit a wide range of locales, from Hong Kong and Bucharest, to a classic underwater lair and the Swiss Alps, all the while doing classic James Bond stuff. Furthermore, while the campaign is quite short, Agent Under Fire features one of the best multiplayers ever to grace a James Bond game, and replaying the campaign missions for high scores will allow players to unlock improved gear, as well as more multiplayer options. Agent Under Fire‘s multiplayer is a work of art, worthy of a separate discussion, and even now, provided one has a few extra controllers available, one can still invite some mates over for some classic, 2001-style TDM hailing back to a time where games didn’t need an internet connection or lootboxes for fun to be had.