By Gary Eng Walk
Updated November 22, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

When XXX rumbled into theaters this past summer, it was supposed to herald a new breed of secret agent that would knock the living daylights out of the James Bond movies. XXX’s box office fortunes notwithstanding, only a pimply-faced philistine could believe that hype. Yet a similar challenge faces Bond in the videogame medium. Instead of Vin Diesel breathing down Bond’s tuxedoed neck, such splendid spy fare as Metal Gear Solid and the upcoming Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell have put the series on life support.

Despite its ultraslick presentation, beginning with a signature Bond prelude and overtly phallic intro, Nightfire underwhelms. Although it features an original story line, it’s actually just a rehash of elements from past Bond movies. During one level, for example, you pilot an Aston Martin-turned-sub around the villain’s underwater lair — just as in The Spy Who Loved Me. The same goes for the game’s final stage, a zero-G mission that could double as Moonraker lite.

Most of Nightfire plays like a first-person shooter, so you end up performing tasks common to this genre: flipping switches, scurrying down halls (that all look the same after a short while), and blowing away opponents with an assortment of weapons. Throughout, you are given graphical and text-based hints — even Q and M chime in with advice on how to meet your objectives. But due to poor design, even these assists can’t prevent you from sometimes wandering around like a bumbling Austin Powers.

More annoying still is the game’s reliance on noninteractive ”cinematic” scenes to advance the plot. It’s bad enough that you have to sit there and watch as Bond does his thing, but what’s really frustrating is that these sequences (parachuting off a skyscraper, somersaulting to avoid gunfire) illustrate precisely the kind of actions that you should be able to control.

Nightfire does have some redeeming qualities: The driving levels, which were designed by a different team than the rest of the game, are gripping, as is the vigorous Bond-riffed soundtrack. And the multiplayer death matches offer some thrills, especially because you can play as a Bond villain: Scaramanga, equipped with golden gun; Odd Job, attired in his Ginsu-sharp bowler; among others. (Missing, we’re sad to say, are Diamonds Are Forever’s dapper Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint.)

Yet there are far better spy adventures than Nightfire currently available to gamers. The next Bond effort needs a radical makeover to compete. (Our advice: Make it exclusively third-person perspective, a la Metal Gear Solid, in order to give players more visual control over Bond’s movements.) Otherwise, future 007 games are destined to, well, die another day.