Thursday, February 11, 2016

Great Games You Never Played: The "No One Lives Forever" Series

The Operative: No One Lives Forever and its sequel, No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in HARM's Way, are a series of first-person shooters developed by Monolith Productions in 2000 and 2002, in which players take the role of 1960s secret agent Cate Archer trying to stop a villainous criminal organization from taking over the world. Overshadowed by major releases like GoldenEye, Half-Life, Deus Ex, and Halo, the NOLF series achieved only moderate financial success at the time and was soon abandoned by Monolith in favor of new series like Condemned and FEAR. Fox Interactive since allowed the copyright to fall into no man's land, preventing the games from ever being made available for digital downloads via Steam or GOG, thus cementing the series' cult status in the annals of video game history.

I played these games for the first time in late 2006 and considered them to be some of the best first-person shooters I'd ever played. Playing them again now, 10 years later (and 16 years after the first game's initial release), I can definitely tell how much these games have aged, but the things that made them so novel back in the day -- the story, the characters, the atmosphere, and the humor -- are just as good now as they were then. Some of the gameplay elements feel a little outdated, granted, but these were somewhat groundbreaking games for their time, being some of the first first-person shooters to allow and encourage stealth, while their emphasis on using spy gadgetry to complete your objectives in a story-driven, swinging 60s setting makes these games truly stand out from the crowd.

Perhaps the biggest testament to NOLF's legacy is how well the series compares to other games of its time. When Half-Life came along in 1998, it forever changed the way shooters were made, yet in the years immediately following its release, few shooters adhered as closely to its lessons as NOLF1, which took the immersive gameplay and narrative-driven level progression from Half-Life and applied it to a more cinematic experience. GoldenEye was a defining genesis for console shooters; NOLF1 took its spy gadgetry and thematic objectives and gave them a more robust focus that, arguably, made NOLF1 a better James Bond game than GoldenEye itself. And when Deus Ex turned people's heads with its inclusion of RPG-style leveling and skills, NOLF2 did the same thing and vastly improved its own gameplay. All-the-while, the NOLF games were some of the first FPSs to allow players the freedom to choose how they'd go about completing a level, by allowing you to stealth your way past guards or to go in guns blazing.

In essence, the NOLF series takes the best elements of these iconic, classic games and blends them together with strong writing, interesting characters, a compelling story, an amusing sense of humor, and some of the most memorable level sequences of its time into games that are even better than the sum of their parts. It's even more impressive when you consider that there really are a lot of good parts to these games, with the wide variety of guns, the different types of ammunition, all of Cate's cool spy gadgets, the vehicles, the variety of mission types, and all the different locations. The story offers a solid premise with a lot of good twists and hooks, and the silly, lighthearted Austin Powers-esque atmosphere offers the series a uniquely refreshing flavor that will have you laughing at some of its more absurd moments, or else simply smiling at the realization that these games just want you to have fun, plain and simple.