Thursday, 4 February 2010

NOLF- A retrospective

“I have to go home now and wash myself with soap.”

Of all the girls in all the games in all the world Cate Archer was the one I remember with the most ardour. Thief cum new agent of UNITY ( a top secret agency eternally at odds with the evil H.A.R.M.) she was a goddess of tight leather cat suits, bizarre gadgetry and dry , laconic observation. Two parts Emma Peel, one part Vanessa Kensington and one part Pussy Galore she was the ultimate strong female protagonist set against a backdrop of sixties spy intrigue redolent of The man from UNCLE, The Avengers and of course, James Bond.

No-one Lives Forever (affectionately abbreviated to NOLF) appeared in 2000 to a genre crammed with shooters still defining themselves against two year old Half-life. NOLF didn’t bother, and was all the better for it. Interestingly what made it different then still marks it out ten years later: it doesn’t take itself seriously.

“Excuse me, do you mind if I borrow that parachute?

NOLF was a game that wanted you to have fun. Big extreme mad fun. With frickin’ sharks. Through the course of the 60 level (yes, 60!) game you travelled through almost every conceivable environment, moving from queuing at a nightclub to skydiving in hostile skies , then underwater shark-infested wrecks to zero-gravity space stations. These exotic locations encapsulated perfectly the grandiose flavour of the best Bond films and with Cate’s armoury of special spy gadgets you really felt the part of the globe-trotting super-agent. Whether you were shooting a special gun attachment to blind a camera or distracting the guard-dogs with a robotic lady-poodle it was always Fun with a big F. and although the sneaking parts didn’t always work (levels that end when you are detected are a particular peeve) it was refreshing to have such a varied and unique toolkit and the options to use it instead of running in firing from the hip.

“Bullets are not my favourite!”

Even now you are left wondering why there isn’t more of this crazy “fun” stuff in shooters now. NOLF was a great work of entertainment; it took the source material and tried to give you the most enjoyable experience possible from it. It let you play all the best bits while still using lengthy, yet well acted cutscenes where you could choose from a limited selection of response every so often, to get you involved in the story. The characters (especially the bad guys) are memorable and larger than life , a standout example is the huge psychopathic Scotsman, Magnus Armstrong. The story rattles along with many moments of genuine hilarity: many of the henchmen, if not blasted immediately in traditional shooter style, will have amusing idle conversations that never failed to raise a smile.

“You look like you need a monkey.”

NOLF is infused with an undeniable charm that fosters a genuine affection for the characters and the story. It is by today’s standards a monster of a game, weighing in at over 20 hours, but I remember wanting much more once I’d finished.

There were some complaints (such as the stealth options) that were addressed in an equally good sequel that also added RPG elements, character development and a really cool opening fight where you battle girl- ninjas as a hurricane rips a building apart. However this, and the ill fated straight-to-budget, Contract J.A.C.K didn’t ever gain the success that the first two games richly deserved. Despite a lot of the gameplay elements resurfacing in Monolith’s Tron 2.0, NOLF sunk without a trace.

Was it due to the predominately male FPS audience’s reluctance to play a female? Was it due to the off-beat humour and less serious tone? Was it that it wasn’t a game about big men shooting other big men in grey, brown and black environments? Was it the gadgets?

I suppose we will never really know now. To think that when NOLF first came out the other big shooter was Soldier of Fortune which people lauded mostly because it was possible to dismember and maim the opponents in a visceral manner makes me champ my explosive lipstick in frustration. Here is a whole 20 HOURS OF GAME crammed with ideas each as good as that one trick pony that you didn’t play.

Sometimes you just can’t win.

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