In case adventure fans are wondering
about that sound right behind them, it’s the hard charging footsteps of
the first person shooter (FPS) genre catching up as a storytelling
medium. Yes, for those of us that went to the Brog school of puzzle
solving, yet still like an absorbing story to sink our teeth into, our
time has come!
One of the best of this newer breed of
shooters is Monolith‘s No One Lives Forever. Released late in 2000, the
game has since been surpassed graphically by others (including its own
sequel), but as a testament to its excellence, the game holds up just as
strongly today as it did then.
No One Lives Forever (or NOLF) is a
delightfully campy, tongue-in-cheek homage to the 60’s secret agent/spy
theme. Call it a James Bond meets Get Smart offspring with a sprinkling
of Austin Powers, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the game’s tone.
Unlike those three titles, however, NOLF centers around a smart, sexy, and
sassy heroine who’s more than a match for her male competition.
Cate Archer, a young spy for a British
global protection agency called UNITY, is looking for her first big case
and a healthy dose of respect for women. Her break finally comes when the
notorious villain Dmitri Volkov begins assassinating UNITY agents with
such calculated precision that his information is obviously being provided
by an inside traitor. So it is that Cate’s bosses reluctantly agree to
send her into the field as The Operative.
Before you take Cate out, it’s advisable
to run her through her paces at the training courses, which introduce you
to the basic elements of shooting, sneaking, and using the many spy
gadgets she’ll require on her missions. This feature not only makes NOLF
an excellent starter game for newbies, it’s important even for FPS
veterans, since this game is so much more than a run ‘n gun shooter.
NOLF’s gameplay is a wonderful mix of
stealth and force. In addition to the many alert enemies who’d be more
than willing to cut Cate’s spy career short, you’ll also have to contend
with security cameras, spotlights, and guard dogs, all of which will
trigger alarms that land you in a world of hurt.
Fortunately, the various “toys” provided
by “Santa” will assist Cate in staying one step ahead of her adversaries.
In addition to spy essentials like code breakers, grappling hooks, camera
disablers, and photographic glasses, there’s a wide array of gizmos like a
lockpick hair barrette, cigarette lighter with welding torch assembly,
stun gas perfume dispenser, lipstick explosives, fuzzy pink slippers that
cut down noise, and a pheromone poodle for distracting dogs. Prior to
each new mission, you’ll return to the training area for an introduction
to the latest gadgets. Yes, most of them are gimmicks, and I’d have
preferred that the developers incorporated more scenarios in which the
gadgets were necessary, or at least the most logical means of progressing.
However, even as is, they’re all wacky fun that add to the game’s
abundance of personality.
Of course, Cate will also be armed with a
nice variety of weaponry. The standards are all here: semi-automatic
pistols, revolvers, submachine guns and sniper rifles, among others. Cate
begins each mission with a limited arsenal (that you can choose yourself
or use default selections), but she’ll continually collect weapons and
ammo from fallen enemies. Each weapon has a distinctive look, sound, and
feel, so you’ll want to experiment to find the ones that best suit you.
Thankfully, several weapons come with silencers, and you’ll be counting on
those in strategic situations.
Controls involve a relatively standard
FPS setup which will feel immediately comfortable to veterans, and the
interface is clean and simple. Virtually everything can be re-mapped if
desired, which is always a nice option. The only quibble here is the
rather laborious process of cycling though weapons and gadgets. Weapons
are assigned hotkeys, but gadgets are not, which makes accessing them
somewhat bothersome on the fly. In connection with them not really being
necessary very often, I found myself tending to ignore them at crunch
The game’s AI is as rock solid as the
other aspects of the game. Enemies will listen for your footsteps or
notice your footprints in the snow, and they’ll track you relentlessly
until they become convinced you’re gone. If they spot you, they’ll shoot,
shout out or make a beeline for the nearest alarm, all of which will
result in reinforcements. In a firefight, they’ll often charge in too
recklessly, but they’ll also duck for cover, and even overturn obstacles
to hide behind. Smart, but not TOO smart (but hey, henchmen aren’t
renowned as being the brightest bulbs).
Like any good spy thriller, Cate’s
travels will take her to the widest range of locales possible. In between
scuba diving in a sunken ship and infiltrating an orbiting space
station(!), Cate will visit Morocco, the French Alps, and the Caribbean.
She’ll descend into underground tunnels and fly high in airplanes,
gondolas, and … well, I’ll save the last one as a surprise. She’ll travel
by motorcycle and snowmobile (which the player controls), move indoors and
out, in wide expanses and claustrophobic quarters (in one I found myself
literally ducking at my computer), through sun, clouds, rain and snow, day
and night. There’s a little of everything here – all equally enjoyable
and tied in nicely to the story.
NOLF’s graphics are harder to describe in
retrospect. Using the LithTech 2.5 engine (for those who are into that
kind of detail), the graphics were top notch at the time the game was
released. Environments and character modeling are each well done, and
movement looks fluid and realistic. As in all facets of the game, little
visual touches abound in the game that give NOLF a flourish and style. Be
it the mink stole worn by a snobby baroness, to the walls of a sinking
ship being crushed by pressure, to a giant view of Earth from a
transparent space station walkway, the visuals are yet another contributor
to the game’s creativity and immersion factor. Even if you’re going back
to play NOLF after a newer cutting-edge game, you’ll quickly adjust to the
graphics, and for anyone who’s still nursing an older mid-range computer,
you couldn’t ask for better.
Since I’m starting to sound like a broken
record anyway, I’ll touch on the high quality of sound effects. In
keeping with the game’s theme, the music is all retro 60’s. At times it
seemed a little misplaced in relation the action, but for the most part it
was completely appropriate, and it was never overdone. Sound effects were
stellar, which is important, as being a sneak requires listening intently
for such things as footsteps and the soft whirring of security cameras.
The voice acting was among the best I’ve ever heard in a game. NOLF
features a huge cast of characters, and everyone from Cate to the many
unnamed thugs deliver their lines with total credibility.
So gameplay, controls, AI, visuals, and
sound are all skillfully done. The game does have some flaws, although
none are particularly damaging. Some of the cutscenes at UNITY
headquarters, while adding to the narrative, were far too long to see
nothing but the same shots of Cate talking to her bosses. Several times
when I chose my equipment for my upcoming tasks, I began the mission only
to find that I hadn’t been equipped with everything I’d selected. These
are trivial points, however. The only notable complaint I have is that
several of the stealth missions were harder than they needed to be, and
the designers seemed to arbitrarily choose when even silent force was
allowed and when it wasn’t. On the Normal difficulty setting, I had no
other problems getting through the game, but these few missions gave my
reload key a frustrating workout.
A few annoyances aside, were I to stop
here, I could already recommend the game to any fan of the genre. Yet
that would be doing the game an injustice, because its greatest strength
is its writing. No One Lives Forever has an incredibly cinematic feel
from beginning to end. The plot, characters, dialogue, and humour are
truly what make a great game excellent.
There’s simply no reason for me to spoil
any aspect of the plot for you, as that’s part of the joy of playing the
game. As I mentioned earlier, it’s entirely hokey and clichéd, but
guiding Cate through it all is great fun. Suffice to say that there’s
more at stake than Volkov’s killings, and when an evil organization called
H.A.R.M. threatens the fate of the world, it’s up to Cate to stop them.
It’s a crazy romp, and by the time you witness a ransom demand being
issued by a hand puppet, you’re not at all surprised!
Character interaction is incredibly
detailed, and it’s impossible not to feel attached to several of the
characters by game’s end – particularly Cate, of course, but not limited
to her. The writers took great care to present them as fully human, each
with their own unique personalities, backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses. The
central handful of villains include wildly entertaining, over-the-top
personalities like Magnus, a hard drinking, kilt-clad Scot, and Inge, a
rotund tone deaf opera singer. In a masterstroke, you’ll even become
acquainted with many of H.A.R.M.’s thugs, as a common occurrence in the
game is eavesdropping on their conversations. Each and every dialogue you
overhear is worth waiting out, as they’re often very funny and remarkably
personal. Whether you’re listening to a debate about the correlation
between beer drinking and criminal activity, complaints about a
mother-in-law coming to visit, or wishes that a despised co-worker was
fricasseed in an explosion, you’ll find yourself hoping that each corner
brings a new such surprise.
Scattered throughout the game will be
numerous “intelligence items” which you’ll collect. In the form of film
rolls, dossiers, and handcuffed briefcases that represent internal H.A.R.M.
documents, rarely do these provide much useful information for proceeding,
but instead are throw-away gags designed solely to entertain. Not only do
these parody the notion of an evil corporation, but any employee who has
worked in a large company will be laughing and nodding their heads at the
idiocy of bureaucracy.
With all these elements in place, the
only other issue to master was the pacing, and Monolith did it superbly.
Although I like shooters, I tend not to play them for long periods, as I
need a break from the tension. With NOLF, the writers built in the
tension breaks with the lengthy cutscenes, stealth-only missions,
intelligence gathering (even an adventure type-interview!) and exploring,
timed sequences, comedic touches, and so on. There never seemed a reason
to stop playing, and because NOLF drew me in so fully, I wanted to
keep playing, and that’s pretty much as high a tribute as I can pay
If you have any interest in FPS games and
have yet to try No One Lives Forever, hustle yourself out and snatch it up
immediately. If you’ve been toying with the idea of trying a shooter for
a change of pace, this would be a perfect place to start. If, on the
other hand, you’re someone who scoffs at shooters as mindless and
repetitive (usually without ever having tried one), I dare you to
challenge your own perceptions with this game. Don’t worry – when you
admit how wrong you are, you’ll have enjoyed NOLF so much that you won’t
mind eating crow.
Onwards and upwards – No One Lives
Final score: 88%
Pentium 4, 2 Ghz
512 Mb RAM
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