Describing the greatness of Goldeneye isn't the easiest task in the world. If you were to show it to a gamer who has recently been showered with PC First Person Shooters such as Far Cry, then they'd scoff at the low-polygon landscapes, the poor digitised textures of Robbie Coltrane and the frame rate equivalent to the IQ of a table leg. They'd be missing the point though, as levels such as "Surface" are the forebears to Far Cry's grand vistas.
Which leads us nicely into one of the reasons that Goldeneye was truly ahead of it's time: level design. Goldeneye was possibly the best example of a then-next-gen game giving the player complete control, not only of the character, but in total command of exactly what order you are to complete your tasks. This also manifested itself in the mission description too; all too often you were given an objective to carry out, and the player had to work out exactly what this meant. You weren't shown exactly where to go, or what to do, you just had to do it. For example, in "Surface", you were told to knock out the radar. So you entered the radar building, found the control console and then had a choice to shut it down, or blow it up. You were never given the way to complete this task explicitly: you were forced to make a choice. This was turned on its head the next time you visited the level: attempting to shut the system down would alarm the guards. Similarly in "Bunker", you were instructed to knock out the surveillance cameras, but not given any instructions on how to do it. With a mixture of your own brains, skill and a smidgen of luck, you could complete the levels. The majority of them were non-linear, with the player given a choice to explore and investigate. There were a couple of stinkers, namely the “Cradle” and “Jungle” levels, but on the whole they were fantastic.
Another factor on why Goldeneye was great was the whole atmosphere. Previously, film licenses could be set in any universe they wanted, but were glossed over with "the licence paint". Goldeneye was obviously designed by the ground up to be camp, cheesy, and drenched with the suave sophistication that only the legendary Bond could provide. Remember the "Facility" level, when Bond ran down the stairs, opened the door and three guards turned around in surprise, only for the player to pop a silenced bullet in each of them and they fall to the ground in a variety of over-dramatic leaps and bounds. Goldeneye's death animations come second to only The A-Team in terms of the unbelievable, and yet this immersed the player even more into the film-world.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Goldeneye looks and plays almost like an on-rails shooter, such is its flair. And you'd be half-right, as this is what the designers originally wanted the game to become. The 'fleshiness' each enemy has - that feeling of being an entity rather than an animated bunch of co-joined triangles - can be attributed to this original inspiration. Each opponent reacts as if they were something from The House of the Dead or Virtua Cop, minus the blood and gore, obviously. However, it's a testament to Goldeneye's designers how they managed to turn this linear game into such an open ended game, each level would have had to be redesigned from scratch, and it's easy to see in some places. Look at the Facility level, and you'll easily be able to find a straight path through the level, with the other corridors seemingly serving no purpose. The same also applies to the later levels, such as "Jungle" and "Train", which were evidently originally designed in a linear fashion.
Goldeneye did commit a cardinal sin however, one that if it were committed today would spell certain failure: it featured only a single enemy. However, it's a rather forgivable fault, due to the complete brilliance of the enemies. They ran away and sounded alarms, they attacked you en-masse, patrolled obliviously, and yet constantly provided new and unique challenges. Simply giving the enemies different weapons completely changed the way they acted, such as the Snipers on the "Surface" level. Running around the snow-trenches with minimal life on Double-O Agent mode with snipers catching the snow around you was a terrific adrenaline rush. The sounds and effects of the enemies’ guns as they bounce off the different materials around you, being involved in a gunfight down tight tunnels against hordes of dug-in guards that required time, intellect and quick movement to overcome. They were often found patrolling, hiding behind bunkers or, worst of all, chasing you. Never before (and arguably, since) has such a similar enemy provided such an epic range of scenarios to the player.
Goldeneye had a knack of turning (would-be) videogame genocide into one of its best features. Auto-aiming was the system by which you lived or died, and never in any game since has auto-aiming been mastered to this level. Even though you only had to aim in the enemies' vague direction to score a hit, the shot was usually aimed towards the enemies' midriff, where they cunningly held their gun which bore the force of the bullets. On the harder difficulty levels, it took a good two or three chest shots to knock them down, but Goldeneye implemented some ground-breaking devices to allow for maximum experimentation of the combat system. Clever players used the R-targeting system to manually aim each shot into the neck or head, with utter satisfaction. The quicker a player could do this, then the quicker they could take out masses of enemies in quick succession. However, taking it a level further, it was possible to quite literally torture opponents by shooting them in non-lethal areas, such as the hands, feet and, to much amusement, the gluteus maximus. If you've ever played Unreal Tournament on the Dreamcast in multiplayer, then you'll know how NOT to do auto-aiming. It was also yet another cast-off from the original on-rails shooter design, one that has never felt at home quite so much. Goldeneye was like a good PE teacher: helpful to the novices but praised the masters.
Not many games since have quite captured the satisfaction in Goldeneye's weaponry. Realistic and captivating, Goldeneye's arsenal featured possibly the most realistic guns ever seen, and have yet to be rivalled. Fire off a round with the KF7 Soviet and watch the barrel recoil ever so slightly after the expulsion of the bullet. Squirt off a whole clip in seconds with your Uzi and watch as the horde of guards fall like a sack of spuds to the ground. Each weapon had a purpose (Except the Klobb, of course, which is likened to an automatic pea-shooter), with a variety of different pistols available to the player. The weapons even stretched to levels of penetration, some weapons being able to pierce bullet-proof glass, and others not able to.
Goldeneye was quite easily the high-point of multiplayer console gaming in the mid to late Nineties. A competent player was always (without exception) the winner, and all manner of tactics could be used. Charging players with all guns blazing worked occasionally, and so did holding back and hiding in sneaky corners. Each player had their own style and the ultimate level of skill was to be had with two players, on License to Kill mode, with pistols, on the "Facility" level. That level was a pure stroke of genius on both single player and multiplayer mode, and although modern FPS games give the player new maps downloadable via the Internet, Goldeneye could quite happily have made do with just the one. (Except, it featured a whole slew of others.)
It was inevitable that such a genre-defining title would spawn a sequel. However, looking at the technically superior Perfect Dark compared to the aging Goldeneye simply shows Rare's original work up for the masterpiece it truly was. This isn't to say that Perfect Dark was an inferior title (that discussion is for another article), just that Goldeneye got so many things right first time around. Perfect Dark included so many extra gameplay 'innovations', which arguably detracted from the gameplay. For example, when an enemy dropped a weapon in Goldeneye, it was time to turn to the next opponent and take them down. In Perfect Dark however, it was possible to shoot the gun out of an opponent's hand, leading to the odd bout of confusion as to which targets to aim for next. Not a huge gripe, but it illustrates Goldeneye's more streamlined approach, and is a perfect demonstration that 'less is more'. Also, Goldeneye's drab, grey graphics have aged far better than Perfect Dark's garish, sometimes lucid visuals that have aged incredibly badly.
There's one phrase that just appears so much more applicable to Goldeneye than anything else: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There's so much more to Goldeneye than originally hits the eye, and the various difficulty levels tease the player more and more into the James Bond world with each go. If you have yet to take the plunge, take it now. It's never been more refreshing.
Many thanks to Martin Badowsky for additional information.
Text by Tom Salter