007: Nightfire’s ‘The Exchange’ & Player Induction Through Level Design

I recently finished reading the first James Bond book, Casino Royale. Despite being a 007 fan for as long as I can remember, I had never actually gotten round to reading the classic stories by Ian Fleming.

While I was obviously introduced to the series with the films (every week I would head to Blockbuster and get a new one to watch), I think I truly became a fan when I was introduced to the games.

Picture the scene; it is 2003. I am seven years old. Our household console, the original PlayStation, ups and dies. We upgrade to the PlayStation 2 which is few years into its lifespan. We get three games with the PS2; FIFA, a Dave Mirra game, and James Bond 007: Nightfire.

The latter is the first FPS (first-person shooter) I play, and I become both a lifelong fan of the genre and the character.

There are no nostalgia goggles when I say Nightfire is one of the best games of the sixth generation. I have bought that game several times for different consoles, playing it well into my adult life. And I think that it all comes down to the excellent opening of the game, ‘The Exchange’.

This level features so many variations and little things to help a new player immerse themselves into the world of 007, so I thought I would take a look back and analyse how it creates and inducts the player into the gameplay.

“Provide Conditions In Which Students Learn” (Albert Einstein) – How ‘The Exchange’ Teaches Players Mechanics Through The Level Design

‘The Exchange’ is the second level of 007 Nightfire. The first level, ‘Paris Prelude’, is strictly an on-rails/driving affair with ‘The Exchange’ being the game’s first proper FPS mission.

If a player has not played the game before, ‘Paris Prelude’ starts. Aiming is computer-controlled; the player just has to shoot using the R1 button (the button is helpfully flashed on-screen when it is needed).

Nightfire Paris
‘Paris Prelude’ acts as a tutorial to Nightfire, teaching driving mechanics as well. (Source: superadventuresingaming.blogspot.com).

Even if the player has not got to grips with all the controls (by reading the game manual) then they know at least one button and what it does.

‘The Exchange’ begins with 007 on a mission to infiltrate an enemy castle in Austria. Bond starts a few hundred metres away from the front door on top of a guardhouse. This starting placement is important.

This guardhouse allows the player that has never played a game before to get used to the movement controls. This is a safe space. There are no enemies patrolling, nothing shooting at you, it is nice and calm. The game even allows you to fire your weapon once just to try the controls out. If you fire a second shot then a guard will investigate the sound (a good way to discipline the player for forgetting what the button does).

Bond’s placement on top of the guardhouse also helps player navigation. The end of the opening cutscene and the player starting position draw the eyes forward to the large castle, pointing the way forward. The player can venture backwards on the road, but will find the path blocked by a locked door, forcing them to have to move towards the castle.

Exchange Opening
The opening section of ‘The Exchange’. Notice how we are guided towards the castle. (Source: infinitemirai.wordpress.com).

This is such a small thing, but it helps aid movement. Imagine if the player started inside the guardhouse. It would be a more claustrophobic start instead of the freedom of the open environment. It would be counter-intuitive to player guidance by not showing us the way forward.

Once the player has got the hang of the controls there are three main ways to get into the castle; one aggressive, two stealthy. We will go with aggressive first.

Aggressive

The player makes their way down the stairs of the guardhouse and sees a bad guy stationed just outside the door. This is the first enemy of the game. This set-up allows us to be ushered into combat without being overwhelmed. The guard is facing away, allowing the player to play at their pace.

This is where knowledge of shooting comes back. Guns and bullets are player interaction at its purest. The guard must be dealt with to proceed, but since he is unaware of the player, the player can take their time to line up a shot. If the player has tinkered around on the roof, they may have found Bond can punch or use a stunning gadget. If the player accidentally wanders out of the guardhouse, Bond will make the guard surrender, a safety net for those still struggling with the controls.

And to top it all off, this guard is a singular entity. Unless the player completely messes up and doesn’t deal with him, he cannot alert other guards.

Nightfire First Enemy
The first enemy of the game, allowing the player to get to grips with the game before entering combat. (Source: oocities.org).

Subduing this guard will net us a new weapon, a sniper. The other enemies at the beginning of this level are visible in the distance (white outfits against a black/grey backgrounds), and so the sniper can be used to pick enemies off. Again, the player knows the shoot button and will use it to interact with the world.

The guards further up the road are stationery and will not notice the player until they get close. This allows the player to find an unobstructed viewpoint (the middle of the road) to survey the bad guys. The sniper is also silenced, allowing for players to take down bad guys without alerting others.

As the player moves up and dispatches the bad guys, they may acquire another new gun, a machine gun. This brings Nightfire’s weapon matrix into play. Now we have three distinct weapons. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses in regards to damage and range. After the player takes the machine gun, there are two more enemies in this starting area that it can be used against, allowing the player to familiarise themselves with the new weapon.

From there, the player heads to the main door and once they have found the action button, they continue to the next section.

Stealth 1: The Wine Truck

If the player waits on the roof, they can use the wine truck method. When the truck passes through the guardhouse, it will stall for a period of time. This allows the player to hop into the back from the roof and get inside the castle without killing any guards.

Nightfire Truck
It is such a classic Bond moment, one that isn’t signposted and just requires the player to mess around to find. (Source: superadventuresingaming.blogspot.com).

This is one of those moments that reward the player’s imagination. If the player thinks they can do it, then they quite possibly can in Nightfire. It is such a long way from the funneled systems of many big budget games of this generation where a mission will fail if you step an inch outside of the creator’s vision.

Stealth 2: The Castle Wall

Continuing the jumping aspect, if the player jumps from the roof to the rocky cliff face (the same way if they were to head backwards) they will find a footpath that leads to a ravine.

Nigthfire ravine
The ravine is another stealthy way into the castle and gets the player closer to the next objective. (Source: cheatcodesgalore.com).

If they continue, a pop-up in the corner of the screen indicates there is a grappling station nearby. If the player looks around with their grapple equipped they can see a white target reticle. Focussing in on the reticle with the grapple turns it green (the universal colour of ‘go’). Once the player has used the grapple they have to make their way around the outside of the castle, sneaking past other guards.

Nightfire Stealth
You have to monitor enemy movement to sneak past the windows. If you don’t, several bad guys will spawn in. (Source: cheatcodesgalore.com).

This path introduces the (optional) contextual movement aspect where the player can traverse a wall or zipline by shimmying along. These are some serious stealth strategies though and failure will lead to heavily armed goons coming to take you down. This is for a player that has mastered the controls and locates the opportunity.

However…

There is another contextual movement section before the one previously mentioned.

After the player has got through the first wave of bad guys but before the main door, there is a little path leading off to the left.

Nightfire Pathway
Notice the pathway to the left, highlighted by the wooden handrail. (Source: xTimelessGaming, YouTube).

Heading down there allows the player to scale around the wall. During the cutscene Bond moves through some crunchy snow (5:28). The guards at the door (if they are alive) will come and investigate, but soon head back to their post. This introduces sound into a larger gameplay loop.

If the player has gunned their way to this section, they already know about sound and its role in alerting guards. This gameplay section highlights that quick movements can give you away and that slow movements (such as when the player is crouching) can make you silent and less easy to detect.

Each one of these variations on infiltrating the castle starts you in a different place during the next section. If you came in with the wine truck you start near the wine cellars. If you walked through the main door you are a few corridors away. And if you took the ‘Stealth 2’ route you start in a guard tower.

Nightfire Castle
The different play styles net different rewards and new locations, making each style feel unique. (Source: infinitemirai.wordpress.com).

Even better, all these other places are available to visit. If you came in via the castle wall you can find the truck and where it ends up. It’s almost like reverse engineering, seeing where certain gameplay decisions spawn you.

Conclusion

I am going to finish this piece here because I don’t want this article to run long, but I will give a few bullet points as to what the next gameplay sections deliver.

  • A non-violent social stealth element where the player must work their way through the environment (useful in later levels like ‘Night Shift’).
  • Bond uses his micro-camera in two cutscenes. Its appearance shows it can be used for surveillance and to complete objectives (like in ‘Chain Reaction’).
  • We are barred from following the bad guys, so we go another way to rendezvous with another agent. On the way back, the barred section is open. As it is now unlocked, we can follow it. This is a perfect way to guide players in a non-linear fashion.
Nightfire Interior
The player is familiarised through non-violent gameplay sections before the level opens up. This allows for the game to guide the player without needing waypoints. (Source: infinitemirai.wordpress.com).
  • After some shooting we get another weapon (an unsilenced machine pistol, another element added to the weapon matrix).
  • We head back outside and encounter a contextual zipline. Like the guardhouse there are no enemies shooting at us, so we can find the button that makes the zipline work without the worry that we will die.
  • Alternatively, the player can stay inside and get to the next objective quicker.
  • Alternatively, if we did go outside we would be awarded with another weapon (a machine gun with a silencer) and a stun grenade. These weapons make quick work of the guards at the objective, as they use cover and have machine pistols.
  • When the player completes the objective by retrieving a suitcase, they also pick up a rocket launcher. It is impossible to pick up the suitcase without also getting the launcher.
  • Once the player has got to the cable car station (which they would have visited if they went outside, but is also in a straight line if they stayed inside), a helicopter shows up. What do we have that can take down a helicopter? The rocket launcher.
Nightfire Helicopter
Bond in combat against the helicopter. (Source: superadventuresingaming.blogspot.com).
  • The cable car has several windows. These can be shot out with regular ammo, allowing an almost perfect 360 degrees view.
  • The rocket is automatically on guided rockets, so when a player first shoots one they control its destination. While this may seem confusing on the first shot, the player’s previous movement controls come back into play and they can deliver several follow up shots on the helicopter.
  • The rocket launcher has full ammo capacity so even if the player misses a few shots, they will have enough to finish the mission.

Each following level takes one of the aspects from the ‘The Exchange’ and expands it, whether that is close quarters combat (‘Double Cross’), stealth (‘Night Shift’) sniping (‘Chain Reaction’) or all-out action (‘Phoenix Fire’).

While there might be some stealth in ‘Phoenix Fire’ or action at the end of ‘Night Shift’, these are only very small elements. This allows the levels to have their own distinct tones and themes. But that is why ‘The Exchange’ is a perfect opening. It allows for that difference in playstyle but also player freedom, educating them on how to play the game.

Newer 007 games like Blood Stone and Goldeneye Reloaded also have this balance of stealth and action in their opening levels, but none of them give the freedom of Nightfire, instead they railroad you through a directed experience.

That is not to say that strict linear games are bad. On the contrary, I love Blood Stone. But I think that freedom gives ‘The Exchange’ and Nightfire an excellent sense of character and gameplay. And that is why it is so fondly remembered.

And it doesn’t hurt that they absolutely killed it with the multiplayer. ‘Skyrail’ anyone?

Banner Photo Source: techraptor.net.

Tomb Raider’s St Francis’ Folly & Intention In Level Design

Level design is one of the fundamental building blocks of creating a game; it is the world that we inhabit. We can all think of great games with some excellent level design and all in different ways.

Some games use their design to aid you with traversal through a single path; Faith’s “Runner’s Vision” in Mirror’s Edge guiding the way through colour, or scratched/worn down walls in Prince Of Persia showing you can wall run are two that come to mind.

In a similar vein, other games allow a wide range of possibilities from a single starting point. Metroid and Castlevania have an almost exclusive hold over this type of design (so much that “Metroidvania” is a portmanteau in gaming culture). Newer titles such as Hitman and Ratchet And Clank also deliver this type of world. You may not be able to reach all the nooks and crannies until you have gone away and learnt new skills.

Other games use their level design to bring their worlds to life. Bioshock’s flooded and rusting hallways, blossoming gardens and…everything about Fort Frolic perfectly paints the dying embers of a Galtian wonderland. Remember Me’s narrative snakes around its levels, with the Bastille Lake and St. Michel Rotunda amplifying the narrative beats that occur in those levels. The hidden tombstones in Modern Warfare 2’s “Contingency” highlight a possible cultural heritage of the area.

Today I wanted to write about a level that encompasses all three types of design, to varying degrees. That level is “St Francis’ Folly” from the Tomb Raider series. “St Francis’ Folly” is a level in the first TR game, meaning that it was remade in Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider Anniversary. So I wanted to talk about the two in tandem, because even though they are the same level, the way they differ gives a different tone to each level.

How “St Francis’ Folly”’s Meaning Changes Through Different Level Design

“St Francis’ Folly” is probably one of the most recognisable and memorable of the original Tomb Raider levels. Jason Botta, creative director for Tomb Raider Anniversary ranked the level second only to the “Lost Valley”, (mainly because the latter had a T-Rex) (2:14).

“St Francis’ Folly” is a really good example of a jump in a difficulty spike. The first four levels of TR1 are spent getting you used to the controls. You’ve done a bit of swimming, a bit of climbing, running, jumping, and most of it is forgiving. If you miss a jump, you just climb back to the spot and try again. “St Francis’ Folly” does not give you that privilege. If you mess up, you will most likely die. It’s really easy to die because the whole point of the level is being REALLY HIGH UP. The structure is so tall in the original game you can’t see the bottom; the draw distance fades to black.

Toby Gard, designer for the original Tomb Raider and Anniversary, stated the goal for the area;

“…It’s quite common that game designers even when they have a 3D vertical space that they can play with, they tend to sort of end up making long, flat things anyway. So that particular area from the original game was just sort of let’s go as vertical as we possibly can…” (2:55).

The level is virtually unchanged from game to game, only with a few trickier challenge rooms for TRA’s more nimble Lara and appropriately named rooms (TR1 had “Neptune” and “Thor” in a tomb in Greece).

The major change to the level is the opening just before the vertical room, so let’s jump back a bit and discuss that section.

Let’s Rewind To The Beginning

The openings of the level are again, very similar. All the designers really had to do was update the climbing and traversal mechanics and it was pretty much set.

But the main difference is GETTING to the vertical room and where in relation it is to the rest of the level. Lets start with TR1.

The start of the level introduces the vertical aspect, in a safe-ish way. You jump from pillar to pillar, working your way around the room. You have some fun with pressure plates and open the big door at the other end of the room. However, this does not lead to the next stage. It is another room with a switch.

The door is in fact above the entrance where you came in. You have to use the previously mentioned pillars to jump up into the rafters, before sliding down into a flooded tunnel and eventually finding the way out, into the vertical room.

Now onto TRA. 

The level starts off pretty much the same. You have a pressure plate that needs to be weighted down, which opens the big door at the far side of the room. You jump between the pillars to get into the rafters to secure the weight for the pressure plate, move it to the ground floor and proceed through the big door.

Then you proceed down a long, long corridor and into the vertical room.

So What?

This is such as small change, but for me it changes the meaning behind the whole set of Greek levels.

All levels in both Tomb Raider and Anniversary are built on top of each other. It is historically accurate; invaders have built on top of previous religious sites and settlements as an attempt to exert their dominance. It’s also thematically relevant, as the “origin” tombs are supposed to be hidden away, kept secret from the world.

But the opening for the first section of the Greek levels in Tomb Raider changes this meaning. In TR1, the vertical room (and by extension, the rest of the subterranean settlements) is hidden back the way you came. It takes a little more thought to figure out where you have to go. And even if you get that far you then have to survive an underwater current and a very hungry crocodile. It feels like a secret entrance to an underground network, somewhere hidden away so that grave robbers can’t just waltz in.

Tomb Raider Anniversary by comparison doesn’t feel like the entrance to a secret tomb, hidden away beneath 4000 years of history. It’s a straight line from the start of the level, the big door beckoning you forward. It feels more like the door to a vault (which is a rather good way of keeping people out). However, a vault-type opening indicates there is something precious behind it, giving grave robbers the incentive to break through rather than giving up because the entrance is hidden away.

Conclusion

It was only recently after playing the two games in comparison that I saw this minute difference. And it only really makes much of an impact if you are interested in the lore or the narrative of the world of Tomb Raider, but that distinction was big enough for me.

In terms of the original and Anniversary, there are more changes that are made for thematic reasons. “Sanctuary Of The Scion”, the final level of the Egyptian section of the game is one that springs to mind. In the original game you come out of the side of the temple, with your prize unceremoniously placed to your left.

In Anniversary, the sanctuary is at the end of a long corridor with a large gate blocking your entrance. You have to use the other two pieces of the Scion (the artifact Lara is searching for) to open up the gate. Thematically this makes much more sense that finding it on a pedestal, as it is the final piece of the artifact that has been locked away for safety.

Another one is the very first level, “Mountain Caves”. The finale of the level is once again, a large door, but to get to it you have to “run the gauntlet” of darts being shot at you. In TR1, you appear on in the corner of the room, an unglamorous (and not death defying) entrance to a hidden civilization.

The point I’m trying to make is the subtle differences between the two games. It’s almost like a translation error; giving us the same work but just off somehow. Don’t get me wrong, I love both version of “St Francis’ Folly”, but their thematic difference makes the original feel more “believable”, even in a game about mutants from Atlantis.

It’s a small change, but it manages to change the tone of the level for me. That’s how important level design is in creating the feel of a world.

That’s not a new observation, but it was very interesting to see it in action.

 

Banner Photo Source: gametripper.co.uk.