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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 Some of the gameplay elements feel a little outdated, granted, but these were somewhat groundbreaking games for their time, being some of the first first-person shooters to allow and encourage stealth, while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.


The Operative: No One Lives Forever

NOLF1 introduces us to series protagonist Cate Archer as a rookie agent in UNITY, a fictional British anti-terrorism agency akin to MI6. Orphaned as a child, she turned to a life of crime and became a skilled cat burglar known as "the fox," before being recruited to UNITY by seasoned field agent Bruno Lawrie, who quickly became a mentor and close friend to Cate. As the agency's first female agent in a world dominated by 1960s sexism, Cate is relegated to the bottom of the totem pole performing only simple, mundane assignments, and longs for a chance to find excitement on a real field mission. When all of UNITY's top agents are killed in the span of a few days, as the result of a suspected traitor within the agency, Cate finds herself reluctantly called to action by her superiors, who make it abundantly clear that they're only relying on her now because of how short-handed they are.

With a chip on her shoulder, Cate sets out on her first mission to Morocco, under the supervision of Bruno, to uncover intelligence on known assassin Dmitrij Volkov and his connection to the upstart terrorist organization HARM, suspected to be behind the UNITY field agent assassinations. The mission turns out to be a trap setup by Volkov, and Cate is barely able to escape after Volkov kills Bruno in an ambush. Back at headquarters, her superiors, Mr Jones and Mr Smith, theorize that Bruno was the traitor, and that Volkov killed him to tie up loose ends. Cate vehemently disagrees with that theory, and vows to prove Bruno's innocence and avenge his death. The rest of the game sees Cate meeting up with informants in Germany, rescuing a German scientist, escaping from a crashing plane, exploring a sunken freighter, breaking into a high tech laser-protected safe, and riding a rocket up to a space station, among other tasks in other exotic locales, while she tries to figure out what HARM is up to and put a stop to their plans.

Teaser Intro @ 0:00, Intro Credits and Title Theme @ 2:04, 
Introducing Cate Archer @ 3:50

One of the first things you might notice about the game is how close of a resemblance it bears to the James Bond film franchise. The title itself is stylized like a typical Bond movie, with "The Operative" seemingly intended to function like the "007" logo used on posters and in trailers as a brand identifier, while the "No One Lives Forever" subtitle is based on an actual James Bond novel. After the intro teaser is over, it transitions into an opening credits sequence complete with theme music, abstract psychedelic backgrounds, and dancing women (or in this case, Cate Archer), just like the Bond films. Cate gets a bunch of spy gadgets disguised as ordinary items, much like Bond does from Q, and the plot follows a progression typical of a Bond movie, with Cate getting mission briefings from her superiors, being chastised when things don't go according to plan, meeting up with informants, going under cover, tussling with the bad guy's henchmen, and visiting a variety of countries while new information and twists in the story keep popping up.

There are a ton of cutscenes in this game, full of dialogue, action, and plot development, but the game's pacing can suffer at times when you're forced to sit there for long stretches of time barely doing anything. It takes almost 30 minutes at the start of the game watching the opening teaser, opening credits, introductory dialogue between Cate and Bruno, attending your first mission briefing, then going through basic and advanced training before you even get into the first mission. This pattern repeats itself between every mission, often giving you 10-15 minutes of cutscenes and tutorials before you can get back to the actual gameplay. The mission briefings can be particularly boring when you consider that there are no animations during these prolonged conversations, where you basically just watch people standing perfectly still as they open and close their mouths. On the other hand, this whole rhythm of attending mission briefings and being trained with your new gadgets does a good job of putting you in the mindset of being a secret agent, which is certainly good for the atmosphere and immersion.

Even though there's not usually a lot going on in the cutscenes, I still found them holding my attention largely because of how well the characters are written and acted. Cate is an instantly likable protagonist, demonstrating the capable confidence of typical badass heroines without compromising her femininity, and while actually feeling like a real person. She's smart, skilled, and her subtly contemptuous, sarcastic responses to her bosses' chauvinistic remarks give her a daring spirit you just want to root for. Dialogue effectively informs us of characters' histories and personality traits just by how they interact with one another. The conversation between Cate and Bruno at the start of the game not only informs us of the necessary backstory to understand what's going on in the present, but it also shows Cate's feisty stubbornness and Bruno's protectiveness of her. In just a few minutes, we have a firm grasp of each character and their relationship with one another, which makes it easy to care about them.

Another example of how good the dialogue is, when Cate meets American
UNITY agent Tom Goodman at a club in Germany.

The story has a strong cinematic feel to it as well, and I don't just mean because of the vast number of lengthy cutscenes. That's certainly part of the reason, but it feels like this game could've been based on a screenplay for an actual movie; the pacing and plot progression is highly cinematic in that sense. It helps that it has you playing out and witnessing all of the calmer moments in the story, doing actual spy work like attending mission briefings and debriefings, visiting Santa to get your new gadgets, meeting up with informants, interrogating henchmen, collecting intelligence, going under cover, sneaking into facilities, interviewing suspects, and so on. In that sense, it's a better James Bond game than actual James Bond games, since all of them focus more on the action side of things -- shooting dudes, getting in car chases, and causing a lot of explosions. NOLF1 does all that stuff too, mind you, but it mixes the pacing up sufficiently so that there's always something new and different to do, and it tries to make you feel more like an actual spy as opposed to generic Action Man Protagonist from any other action shooter.

NOLF1 uses a Thief-like stealth system that allows you to sneak past guards and security cameras by avoiding their line of sight and by minding how much noise you make moving on different types of surfaces. Stealth is required in a few levels, but for the most part it's just an option. If you want to play as a true spy, you can slink around corners and avoid enemies altogether, or administer a silent headshot while they're out of the way (maybe even use some of Santa's body-dissolving solution to clean up the mess before another guard finds out) and proceed without sounding the alarm; if you want to play a Rambo-style action shooter, you can just go in guns blazing and mow down every guard who pops out at you. What's more, you can choose your gadgets and weapons before each mission, so you might deliberately opt to go in with only a silenced pistol and a few gadgets, or perhaps take a shotgun, sniper rifle, and machine gun instead.

It's really in your best interest to try to play stealthily, though, because there are a ton of great conversations between henchmen that you can only eavesdrop on if you approach them without alerting them. It's here where a lot of the humor really comes into play, as henchmen in evil organizations talk about their jobs like it's a normal "nine to five" occupation -- talking about jumping ship for a competing evil organization because they offer dental insurance plans, or venting about how entitled and self-righteous other evil organizations are. One guy talks to his partner about the pros and cons of murdering his mother-in-law, but worries that it would be a little tense with his wife even if she never found out it was him; another guy can be overheard talking romantically to someone about how much he's missed them, and then you open the door and find out he's talking to a goat. A street merchant tries to pawn a monkey off on a henchman, while another henchman goes on a long philosophical tirade about the sociology that leads one to a life of crime.

These are some pretty smart henchmen.

Unfortunately, the stealth system in NOLF1 is kind of broken. Despite taking some of its cues from the highly successful Thief games, NOLF1 doesn't give you enough immersive feedback to monitor how visible you are to guards, who don't have as forgiving of a middle ground state between spotting you and going into full alert. Often times you'll be sneaking your way through a level and a guard will catch a mere glimpse of you and immediately draw his weapon to fire on you, or else immediately start running for the alarm. And once your cover's blown, it's blown for good -- every guard in the area comes pouring into your location, and you have to listen to that obnoxious siren for the entire rest of the level. In the levels where stealth is absolutely mandatory, as in it fails the moment someone spots you, success is entirely a matter of trial-and-error as you figure out a precise series of linear events, one step at a time, so that you can time everything just right. At that point, it's more a matter of manipulating save states than actual stealth.

But man, it's really satisfying when the stealth works and you're able to sneak your way through a level, silently taking out guards, dodging cameras, swiping the intelligence, and making your getaway while that cool, swanky stealth music plays, because you really do feel like a secret agent. These moments, sadly, are rare, as you'll either spend all of your time frustratingly spamming quick-save and quick-load, or else give up on stealth altogether and run around the level shooting everything in sight. It's a shame, really, because the stealth is really, really fun when it works properly. It also speaks to the archaic artificial intelligence in this game, that all enemies in a level have the super human ability to know exactly where you are the moment one of them spots you, like they share a hive mind. This kind of undermines combat as well, because often times the easiest way to clear an area is to set yourself up in a corner and brazenly fire your gun in the air so you can mow down all the enemies as they come streaming towards you.

Combat is fairly standard for a game of NOLF1's age, having been released in 2000, before any more modern gameplay functions started making their way into shooters. There's no regenerating health; any damage you sustain beyond your body armor can never be healed during the mission, and damaged body armor requires you to find spare vests lying around the level. There's no aiming down your sights to line up a shot -- you just run, aim, and shoot with the targeting reticle in the middle of the screen. There's no sprinting -- you either run at normal speed, or you walk to avoid alerting guards. There's no leaning around corners -- you have to step out from behind cover, briefly, to fire shots at enemies. There's no headbob or fully rendered character model for you see as you look down at your feet -- you're just a floating camera with a gun and two arms attached to it. It definitely feels a little primitive, but everything is totally functional, and the animations and sound effects for the various guns make firing them as satisfying as you could ask.

Visiting Santa's Workshop and choosing equipment loadout before a mission.

Where combat gets interesting is with all the different gadgets that Cate has at her disposal, all of which are disguised as various feminine fashion products. She has several tubes of lipstick that double as different types of explosive grenades, and different types of perfume that can be sprayed at enemies to put them to sleep or to kill them in a cloudburst of corrosive acid. The barrette she wears in her hair doubles as a lockpick, and triples as a poison dagger, while her belt buckle doubles as a zip-cord grappling hook. She's even got a briefcase that transforms into a rocket launcher. Other gadgets she can use, which serve less of a combat function but relate to manipulating the environment: her cigarette lighter turns into a welder for cutting open locks and hinges; her makeup compact is a digital decoder; and her sunglasses double as a camera and infrared vision.

All of these gadgets are fairly standard tools that have been featured in a lot of other games, in different ways, but it's NOLF1's unique implementation that makes them so genuinely fun to use. Throwing a grenade around a corner to kill a group of enemies is a fairly mundane task in most other shooters, but it's made special in this game by the mere fact that you're throwing your lipstick at them. Sneaking up to a couple of guards who're busy talking to one another and spraying them with a cloud of acid from a perfume bottle is immensely satisfying. The other tools, like the lockpick, decoder, and welder are fun, too, because they're items that you manually toggle when you need to use them. When you come to a locked door and need to cut it off its hinges, a button prompt doesn't pop up telling you "Press A to weld" as you watch a two second cutscene -- you have to make the mental connection on your own that you can even weld this door, and then you equip your welder, aim it, and take the hinges off yourself. It's a simple thing, really, but it does a tremendous job of connecting you with the environment you're in.

The level design is a mixed bag, on the other hand. For the most part, levels are a matter of "go here, then go here." There's plenty of opportunity to explore side routes and find hidden areas, but there's always only one route through the actual level -- everything else is just an awkward dead end. When you arrive at the space station, for instance, you get in an elevator that can take you to one of four different decks on the station, but when you press the button it automatically takes you to the next deck you're supposed to go to. It seemed like an opportunity for a nifty hub system, but alas, it was just another linear level. The level design excels, however, at putting you in a huge variety of locations with a lot of truly memorable areas and sequences. The Moroccan hotel, the German club, the train, falling out of an airplane and stealing a parachute from a guy in mid fall, riding a snowmobile through the Alps, fighting your way through the jungle, riding a rocket up to the space station, scuba diving into the wrecked freighter and fighting off sharks with a spear gun, breaking into the vault by dodging laser beams -- there're a lot of good, memorable sequences in this game that you just won't find in any other game.

The famous airplane level, complete with skydiving. Skip to 1:19 for gameplay.

The game's final act demonstrates just how much stuff Monolith packed into this game. After you've finally figured out who the mastermind behind HARM's schemes is and what they're ultimately planning, the game starts building towards its finale with a few more missions before finally arriving at its climax, which throws constant twists and extra objectives at you, keeping the action and story moving forward through what feels like five or six different endings. Without spoiling anything, this is how the ending sequences play out: you fight a boss, then you stop the big bad guy, then you find out you've been poisoned and have to rush to find the antidote, then you fight a series of mini-bosses, then you have to escape from the building before it explodes, then you fight another boss, then you fight the real final boss, then you have to rush to rescue civilians, then you're confronted by the UNITY traitor, then you meet another unexpected traitor, and then you finally get to watch the final resolution. Then once the credits finish rolling, you get yet another teaser.

There are so many levels and cutscenes in this game that the campaign will last you 15-20 hours, which is a tremendous value for a shooter, considering that most modern shooters only last half that amount of time. And while it's a fairly long game, it never feels like it because it's always mixing the formula up by introducing you to new things, whether that be new gameplay mechanics in the form of your new spy gadgets that progressively unlock over the course of the game, or whether it's the sheer variety of locations you visit and types of missions you're assigned. Missions vary from undercover operations where you're talking to people and trying not to blow your cover, to stealth infiltrations where you're trying not to get caught, to vehicle levels where you're riding a motorcycle through the jungle or a snowmobile through the Alps, to more standard shooter gameplay where you fight your way through HARM's henchmen with a full arsenal of guns.

The trailer for the PS2 version of the game.

Since the game isn't available for digital download, your only options for playing NOLF1 are to track down a physical copy of the PC version, or track down a physical copy of the PS2 port. I still had my PC disks lying around, but unfortunately couldn't get the game to work properly on my 64-bit Windows 7 operating system, even while running third-party compatibility patches. Fortunately, I had bought a PS2 copy of the game back in the day, which I was able to pop right into my PS2 and start playing immediately. Unfortunately, the PS2 version is a notably inferior version of the game, being locked at a lower resolution and frame rate, with worse textures and tons of missing graphical assets. Worse yet is the game's checkpoint-only save system that forces you to replay entire scenes of a level any time you die, or get caught in a mandatory stealth section. This was such a tedious process that I turned the difficulty down to easy and enabled auto-aim just to minimize the chance of me getting killed, but sadly that doesn't help any in the clunky, trial-and-error stealth levels, or platforming sections where you miss a jump or mistime a step and die instantly. In the PS2 version's favor, however, is the fact that it has a few bonus missions not featured in the PC version, which give you playable flashbacks of Cate's previous life as a cat burglar.

One notable difference between the PC and PS2 versions is that they use completely different soundtracks. The PC version uses music by Guy Whitmore, which aims to capture the musical style of 50s/60s spy movies, and it does a pretty good job of that with its groovy rhythms and swinging melodies being a strong factor in giving the game its unique period feeling. Listen to tracks like The Assignment, Hotel Morocco, and Cable Car for a sampling of his work in NOLF1. The PS2 version, on the other hand, uses music by Rebecca Kneubuhl, who I feel actually did a better job. As a bass player and brass musician, I have greater appreciation for her arrangements' more prevalent bass and horn lines, but I also feel like her music sets the mood better for specific locations. Consider that Kneubuhl's track for Morocco uses wooden flutes and hand drums, which I feel matches the setting better than Whitmore's electric guitar and brass horns. Berlin by Night (Scene 2) is a great track for somber moments and calmer exploration, and Nine Years Ago is such an awesome, kick-ass track that I was listening it to long after finishing the game. Kneubuhl also wrote the bonus soundtrack CD that came with the PC version, called "In the Lounge," which is great, phenomenal listening as well, but sadly doesn't appear in the game. Seriously, cue up "In the Lounge" and listen to it while you read the rest of this article.


No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in HARM's Way

Picking up where NOLF1 left off, Cate Archer is now a full-fledged and respected agent of UNITY. Now that the agency knows the identity of HARM's true Director, Cate is sent to Japan to eavesdrop on a meeting between the Director and an unknown accomplice. After meeting with an informant and getting pictures of the Director's meeting, Cate is ambushed by the Director's right hand, Isako -- member of an all-female clan of ninjas. Cate is left for dead after sustaining a stab wound through her chest, near her shoulder, but is recovered by UNITY agents and nursed back to health in a few weeks. In the meantime, UNITY has been informed by American military intelligence agents that tensions are rising between them and the Soviet Union over the island of Khios, which Cate heard mentioned in passing during the meeting with the Director. The rest of the game sees Cate traveling to Siberia, Ohio, India, and Antarctica, trying to stop HARM from causing World War 3 with their new super soldiers, over the island of Khios.

As you'd expect a developer to do any time they work on a sequel, Monolith took into consideration all the praise and criticism of NOLF1 and tweaked things for NOLF2, some for the better, and unfortunately, some for the worse. The gameplay is much improved, but that sadly comes at the expense of the plot and atmosphere, which were arguably the main selling points of NOLF1. NOLF1's story was much more personal and engaging, with Cate struggling to prove herself in a world dominated by men and trying to avenge the death of her mentor and close friend, Bruno, while dealing with the internal threat of a mole within the agency going around assassinating other field agents. It had exciting twists as main characters died and as the mystery built towards dramatic reveals. NOLF2's story, in contrast, is much less interesting because everything is already established from the beginning -- Cate's already a respected field agent at the start, and we already know who HARM is, who their Director is, and what their general plans are -- leaving little room for compelling discoveries. It's really quite straightforward.

The introduction cutscenes and Cate's first mission in Japan.

Probably the best thing about NOLF2's story is how much it references the previous game. Besides major things like Magnus Armstrong coming back (and becoming an ally, which is a pretty fun twist) and visiting Tom Goodman's old house in Cincinnati, there are a lot of smaller nods and references if you pay enough attention. In the Moroccan hotel of NOLF1, you find a letter from a man named Clark, in which he writes to his wife that he was actually a secret agent using her for cover, and that he was going to leave her; in NOLF2, you find a letter from Clark in which he regrets his decision to leave her and wants her back. In NOLF1, you overhear soviet guards talk about the US having plans to equip sharks with nukes that they'd send up the river to attack; in NOLF2, you get on board the underwater base by piloting a submarine disguised as a shark. In NOLF1, you find a lot of notes from HARM tracking down pieces of some type of high-tech gizmo known as the CT-180, as well as a few UNITY researchers talking about designs for other CT models; in NOLF2, you get to use the CT-180 as an actual gadget. It's mostly all minor stuff, but they're fun things to discover and really help tie the series together.

Apparently enough people complained about the long downtime between missions, watching cutscenes and going through gadget training, that Monolith cut the tutorials out completely and scaled way back on the cutscenes. Mission briefings now happen at the beginning of levels via radio communication with UNITY headquarters, and gadget training now happens mid-mission via robotic birds sent ahead by Santa that let him break the fourth wall by explaining game mechanics to you ("Try to complete optional objectives; you wouldn't want to miss out on the skill point bonus!"). That's all fine for speeding up the pace of the game, but I do miss the rhythmic pattern of returning to base between missions to discuss what went wrong and to prepare for the next one, especially since the effort to streamline the cutscene transitions is often so abrupt and jarring. Just watch how the game transitions from chapter six to chapter seven -- the cuts are so quick that it feels awkward, as if you're skipping past stuff you should be seeing, like establishing shots, film wipes or fade transitions, expositional dialogue, and other stuff that helps you mentally move from one point to another in a linear story.

NOLF1 had its moments of campiness and absurdity, but they were tastefully balanced against the game's generally quite serious premise, which made the oddball moments of parody and humor stand out positively. In NOLF2, it feels like they're deliberately going overboard on the absurd humor until it almost becomes a cartoonish farce. Magnus Armstrong and Inge Wagner were comically absurd Scottish and German stereotypes in NOLF1, but they each had their own personality and role within the story, with their own motivations and subplots. In NOLF2, their roles as the villainous henchmen are replaced by a French unicycle-riding midget mime, because that's amusing, right? He and his army of mime goons show up at various points throughout the game, but he's really not involved in the story -- he was put into the game just so that you can shoot at mimes who reflexively mime inbetween being shot, because that's so ridiculous it's funny, right? Right? I mean, it kind of is, but it's so over the top that it feels like a cheap gimmick. Meanwhile, the Director is portrayed almost like a Dr Evil character with his absurd gameshow-style torture device that mangles his own henchmen into living cubes and his ridiculous "artificial volcano" lair and underwater base.

HARM's "Man-Handler" torture device.

There's a lot less variety in the game as well, partly because NOLF2 is much shorter than its predecessor, with a campaign clocking in at roughly 10 hours. Some locations feel too similar and repetitive; the Siberia mission is easily the longest one in the game, and later on you're sent to Antarctica, which feels like a rehash of Siberia with its snowy exteriors and bland facilities. The India mission is the next-longest one in the game, and after finishing that one you're sent on a brief detour, only to get sent right back into India. You spend almost half of the game in these two locations, with short side trips to Japan, Cincinnati, Antarctica, the UNITY headquarters, HARM's underwater base, the Director's "artificial volcano" lair, and Khios. The aesthetic variety is definitely there, but there's not as much mechanical variety because most of the missions involve the same type of gameplay. There are a lot fewer missions about blending in with civilians and talking to people, only one mission with a vehicle, and nothing nearly as unique or memorable as parachuting out of an airplane or scuba diving through a sunken freighter.

Most of the levels are still pretty good, though. Siberia has a lot of cool things going on, what with you being able to ride a snowmobile through the level and doing some of the preliminary objectives, like disabling the tower and visiting the cabin, in whatever order you want. As the first full mission in the game, you can tell they put a lot of effort into making it the most grand and complex one. Cincinnati is a fairly memorable level, too, because it has a lot of scripted events with a tornado plowing through the residential area and eventually destroying the trailer park, knocking trailers over and sucking entire trailers up into the sky. Antarctica features no combat whatsoever, and offers a fairly interesting atmosphere as you explore an abandoned research facility solving simple environmental puzzles. It's fun to be able to explore more of the UNITY headquarters, like you could in limited areas of NOLF1, and the underwater base has a lot of neat environments.

While there's not as much variety between levels, the actual level design feels much tighter in NOLF2. In NOLF1, it was sometimes a little too easy to wander down the wrong path and find yourself at a dead end, wondering where the heck you're actually supposed to go in the level. The levels in NOLF2 flow a lot better, so that it's generally easier to tell where you're supposed to be going at any one time. In that sense, the levels are actually a little more linear than in NOLF1, but at least you don't spend as much time back-tracking and wandering around feeling completely lost. What I feel is indisputably better about the level design in NOLF2, however, is that levels often give you the chance to initiate combat under your own terms; they let you see the situation up ahead (what guards are positioned where, what your angles of approach are), and they let you choose how you'll tackle the situation. You might go straight up the middle, or try to flank them from the right, or find a secret route on the left that will let you get them all from behind.

Like NOLF1, these henchmen are pretty smart, too.

As with NOLF1, NOLF2 is primarily a first-person shooter, but it also has adventure game-style elements to it, like going to a certain location to do non-combat things. At the start of mission two, in Siberia, for instance, you have to break into a cabin, restart the generator, radio headquarters, then you've got to enter the combination to the padlock for the shed, then get gasoline for the snowmobile from a nearby soviet cabin, then you're crawling on the support beams under a bridge setting explosive charges, all while only fighting about six or nine guys in total, two or three at time. As such, NOLF2 is a FPS that's as much about exploration and interacting with the environment as it is about shooting dudes, if not more. This is one area where Monolith improved the gameplay, with a new emphasis on searching bodies for loot and extra intelligence, and searching through filing cabinets and stacks of paper for intelligence, in addition to levels like Cincinnati and Antarctica that are more about exploring and solving simple environmental puzzles than they are about combat.

The biggest change to NOLF2's gameplay is the inclusion of an experience points-based skill system, that has you earning skill points for completing objectives and gathering intelligence. It's a great thing, because it gives you psychological and practical rewards for doing things in the game, which you can apply to make your character better at various tasks. It also adds to the overall strategy of the game, because you have to choose how to invest your skill points between the different skills, which can help shape your playstyle. If you want to be a guns-blazing maniac, you can put your points exclusively into marksmanship and/or weapons, which will improve your damage, accuracy, recoil reduction, and reload speed with firearms. But then, how do you want to balance offense with defense? Perhaps you should put some points into stamina and/or armor so you can survive hits better, or maybe you should put points into carrying so that you can load up on more ammunition. If you want to be more of a traditional spy, you might put points into gadgets, search, and stealth instead.

The stealth system is another major improvement in NOLF2, since it actually works this time around. One of the skills is stealth, which determines how quickly you can go into hiding by remaining still in certain out-of-the-way spots like dark corners. Most importantly, the stealth system is much more forgiving than in NOLF1: when you're spotted, guards go into a type of "investigate mode" which gives you a chance to run away and hide before they start attacking you, or else take them out before they can alert their buddies. If an alarm is sounded, it only goes for a few minutes before everyone eventually resets to their normal patrols, if you stay out of sight long enough. Missions where stealth is mandatory only end if you're actually apprehended, as opposed to the moment you're spotted. With the inclusion of the CT-180 Utility Launcher, a type of pistol that shoots special ammunition, you can disable cameras or mark guards on your radar so you can keep track of them more easily. You can lean around corners to see where you're going better before stepping out of cover, you can turn off lights and close doors to stay hidden better, and you can pick up and move dead or unconscious bodies.

The tricycle chase scene is one of NOLF2's most memorable moments.

The only problem with stealth is that actually finding those pre-coded hiding spots is a little finicky. You might break line of sight from your pursuers and position yourself in a corner behind some obstacles, only to find that spot wasn't actually intended to be a hiding spot, and so they keep coming directly for you and quickly find you. I also feel like the guards are a little too perceptive; while walking through the snow in Siberia, you leave footprints behind, and if a guard sees them, he immediately goes to investigate for intruders. Seems to me like, in an area where other guards are frequently patrolling, seeing footprints in the snow wouldn't be all that suspicious. In other situations where guards are sleeping (either in beds or while sitting in chairs), if you turn out the lights they immediately take notice and wake up to go search for the intruder. That's yet another case where I have to wonder "how do they even realize the lights are off, and why would that be so suspicious to them?"

A lot of levels feature infinite respawn, constantly trickling extra guards into the level through transitions to other areas, to replace guards that you kill. This feature garnered a lot of harsh criticism at the time, and it was annoying the crap out of me at first once I realized it was happening, because it felt like the game was deliberately undoing my progress by making me repeat myself, constantly taking out more guards, searching their corpses, and relocating them to an obscure corner of the map. And then I realized something: most of the skills are meant to make you perform actions more quickly -- searching bodies or stacks of paper for intelligence, picking locks or decoding keypads, going into hiding, moving bodies, etc -- and so the game requires you to be constantly under pressure in order for these skill upgrades to be practical. Otherwise, you could just kill every guard in the level and take all the time you want to hack terminals and search for intelligence, which would render most of the skills utterly pointless. Once I realized this, I finally started using all the skill points I'd been hoarding, and the game became so much more interesting with me trying not to kill guards, if I could avoid it, because I'd just be dealing with their replacements later, anyway, and trying to move from area to area grabbing all of the intelligence without getting caught. It was tense and exciting.

Finally, I should mention the obvious upgrades to the Lithtech engine, which renders the game with far, far better detail than NOLF1. At this point in time, NOLF1 looks really old with its blocky character models and awkward, stiff animations. The faces in NOLF1, in particular, were a little weird, with Cate's angled eyes and accented cheekbones making her look a bit like an alien, and the shading of Bruno's wrinkles making him look like he was spliced with pug DNA, or Mr Smith's permanently cocked eyebrow or Tom Goodman's permanently beaming smile. Everyone in NOLF2 looks much more realistic, with much less noticeable polygons and way smoother animations. If NOLF1 looks almost too old to be any good, just judging by its graphics, then NOLF2 still looks like a fine, playable game. Meanwhile, I'm also not a huge fan of the music in NOLF2. It's all fine and good, especially since it all culturally reflects the different locations (music in Japan has a definite Japanese vibe to it, music in India definitely feels Indian, etc), but only a few of the tracks really capture that groovy 60s spy music feeling, which was a large part of NOLF1's aesthetic appeal. It can get awfully repetitive, too, with you listening to that one 90-second Siberia track on repeat for a couple hours.


Contract JACK

"The official prequel to GameSpy's 2002 PC Game of the Year No One Lives Forever 2," is essentially a stand-alone expansion for NOLF2 in which you play as some dude named Jack, hired by HARM's Dmitrij Volkov to kill some dude named Il Pazzo from some rival criminal orginization named Danger Danger. None of the story really matters because it's not connected to the NOLF series in any way, apart from the presence of Volkov and one minor side character from the streets of India, and the general premise of working for HARM. You see a few wanted posters bearing Cate's image, and you even catch a glimpse of her during one of the missions, but otherwise it's a completely separate storyline. The "amazing cliff-hanger that sets the stage for NOLF2," as the back of the box advertises, is an utterly tiny, insignificant detail that implies how Volkov got hurt during his skiing trip.

I won't bother going into too much detail on this one, because Contract JACK is rubbish -- it's a complete departure from everything that made the NOLF games so great. The skills system from NOLF2 is gone, there's no more hunting for amusing bits of intelligence, way fewer guard dialogues, no more gadgets, no more stealth, no more infiltration, no more mingling with civilians, no more humor, no more exploration, and no more Cate. No more having an interesting protagonist we care about, either -- Jack's completely silent and emotionless throughout virtually the entire game, and we learn nothing about his backstory whatosever. It's basically a mindless action shooter in the NOLF setting so that Monolith could recycle a bunch of assets and cash in on the relative success and popularity of NOLF2 for a quick and easy dollar. You use mostly all of the same weapons from NOLF2, and you see a lot of the same environments, models, and textures from NOLF2, with even the same music. After hearing that Siberia music on endless repeat during NOLF2, I died a little inside when I had to listen to it all over again in Czechoslovakia, and it was a little hard to feel excited about being on the moon base when I immediately recognized the underwater base music playing.

The trailer for Contract JACK.

So it's no NOLF game, but even when treating it as a straightforward action game, it's dull. Levels consist entirely of linear maps in tight quarters where literally dozens of guards bust out of doors from every direction and hurl themselves at you. Their AI is completely moronic, as they all just come streaming towards you like lemmings in a conga line with no concept of self-preservation, blindly charging around corners even after seeing a dozen of their comrades mowed down. This is the type of game where you fire literally thousands of bullets and kill hundreds of dudes in a single level, all in straightforward maps with standard FPS weaponry (no gadgets, no special ammo types). You can't even treat it like a fun run-and-gun shooter a la Painkiller or Serious Sam because you'll just get decimated by the dozens and dozens of dudes that practically come out of the woodwork from every single angle, with every single step you take through the level, and you can't treat it like a fun tactical shooter because the enemy AI and level design is so thoroughly mediocre.

On the bright side, Monolith finally put some damn weapons on the vehicles, a feature that was sorely lacking in both NOLF1 and NOLF2 -- it was really clunky and awkward having to stop the vehicles and get off just to fire your gun for a few seconds, and then get back on -- and the moon base level is actually pretty cool. It's basically the only level where you do anything besides shoot hundreds of dudes, since it has you moving platforms into position, moving the arms of a turbine out of the way, getting an oxygen tank for the airlock, and recharging the batteries for the mining laser, with a little bit of clever backtracking and remembering where things are, in addition to killing hundreds of dudes with cool laser rifles. The visuals of walking around the surface of the moon, seeing the earth in the sky above you is awesome, and the sequence where you're floating through space bouncing off the debris from the exploded moon base is cool, too. Perhaps fortunately, there are only 10 levels spread across seven chapters, so at least it's a quick play, though perhaps not much value for the money people spent on it when it was new.


In Conclusion

The NOLF games are some of my favorite shooters of all time, and probably rank among my top 20 favorite games in general. That 1960s Austin Powers-style spy shooter theme, with its blend of stealth and action with a solid story and an amusing sense of humor, gives the series its own unique flair that you just can't find anywhere else. Cate Archer is one of the best heroines of any video game, ever. They were pretty smart games for their time, too, capturing a lot of the best qualities of some of the best shooters at the time and sewing them together in one complete, wonderfully stylish package. If you liked Half-Life, Deus Ex, or GoldenEye (or any of the Bond games, really), or even the original Thief games, then it's a safe bet you'll probably enjoy No One Lives Forever.

Sadly, since the games aren't available for digital downloads and are mostly incompatible with modern operating systems, you might be out of luck if you'd like to actually play them. If you want to run either of the games legally, you'll have to track down physical copies and hope you have an old desktop that'll run them. Fortunately, I can confirm that NOLF2 runs on Windows 7 using a third-party installer, and if you still have a PS2, you can acquire the PS2 version of NOLF1 for just a few bucks online. Of course, with the copyright being in no man's land and there being no easy way to play these games legally, this is a rare situation where I might also suggest pirating them. You'll probably still run into troubles getting NOLF1 to work on a modern computer, in which case you might resort to emulating the PS2 version on your computer.

2 comments:

  1. Man, I thank you for this logn writing, I used to love this game, it helps defy the age and style. I will surely read whole page, because this is one of game I trying to write memories about and it`s really helpful cause I really enjoy the game but to play it again, I have not so much time. I can say, that I played this game and it`s best of kind.

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