Content of the article: "The Operative: No One Lives Forever is the best spy story you’ve never heard of."
A few months ago, when the existence of No One Lives Forever (NOLF) was brought to my attention, I entered a state of mild shock. Everything about it seemed tailor made to my exact tastes – a first person shooter/stealth hybrid that riffs off the classic spy genre in the same way Max Payne pays homage to noir. Yet for some reason I'd never heard of Monolith Production's 2000 game which apparently won multiply game of the year awards at release. I was ecstatic to play it, thinking I'd love every second of it.
Well, I was half right.
NOLF has a fantastic story, larger than life characters, sharp dialogue and humour that works on multiple levels, but its gameplay is decidedly mediocre. Neither part of its stealth/shooter design comes close to the strength of stealth or fps games from this era. But let me first take a step back, and tell you all about Cate Archer.
Cate Archer is a woman working as a spy in the 60s, and has to face all the blatant sexism you would expect from that period. Before the game even begins she has been refused assignments from UNITY, the spy agency you work for, entirely because she's a woman. When things inevitably go wrong, its because she's a woman. When not everything goes according to plan, its your 'feminine emotions' that are entirely at fault. Playing this game, knowing it was a silly Austin Powers like parody, I was still feeling angry at the way Archer was being treated like garbage, not due to her abilities but rather for the 'cardinal sin' of being a woman.
She gives as good as she gets though. Note only is Archer incredibly competent, she's able to deliver deadpan verbal whip-cracks that far out do the smug bureaucratic Jones and her fellow agent Tom. And she never loses her cool, sticking to the characteristic British isles quality of understatement ('it was a bit rough' after having to murder 50 enemy soldiers). In the end, she takes the lead and finally demonstrates her brilliance to the point where others have to acknowledge her.
It would have been so easy to not write this stuff in. It would have been a cinch to just not have the sexism be present, and have everyone treat her identically. But instead Monolith decided to include this detailed critique, that makes the story far more interesting and brings her character alive. My favourite scene comes very late in the game, with an extended sharp exchange between Cate Archer and the primary villain, their dialogue constantly building off what the other has said in a very dynamic fashion.
This isn't the only level the writing works on though. NOLF is actually a hillarious game. You listen in to hundreds of exchanges between thugs, as they debate philosophy, the merits of one evil organisation over another, or a desire to murder one's mother in law. You find intelligence items talking about how the evil organisation H.A.R.M. is filing a lawsuit against the Hair Alternative Replacement Membership for stealing its acronym (the Hair people got there first, as it turns out). There's one level that has about 6 secret passages connected to one another, and another where the evil lair has a literal shark trap. As serious and well written as the main story thread is, the game delights in mockery of the spy genre as all great homages do.
And if this was just a movie, it would be a masterpiece. Unfortunately, there's the gameplay half of the equation.
There's a problem with first person stealth games – information. Different games solve it in different ways – Thief gives you perfect audio, shadows to hide in, allowing you to be sitting in the middle of an open room yet be completely invisible. Dishonored has its verticality, letting you observe from atop chandeliers, and has the backup option of leaning around corners and peeking through keyholes.
NOLF has none of this. And the mechanics present seem wildly inconsistent. You need consistency to make stealth games work, but here enemies seem to react almost randomly to sound and vision. Sometimes you can get almost right next to an enemy before being detected, sometimes you get spotted from across the map. Sometimes you can sprint past enemies without them raising an eyebrow, other times they'll hear you across a hall through 3 walls.
It all adds up to make the stealth gameplay incredibly frustrating. Things will go well for a while, silenced gunshots removing the enemies in your way. When something goes wrong though, you don't curse at yourself and vow to play better (which is how I felt with Splinter Cell). You just shrug at the shitty inconsistency and reload. There's no ownership of your mistakes, because it barely feels like you're making them and you get punished all the same.
The shooting is barely better. The visual and audio feedback is fairly bland, but the real problem lies in something fairly technical – the running accuracy reset time. Call of Duty (the original) and Counter Strike has extremely high running inaccuracy – to the point where attemping to run while shooting is a complete waste of time outside of point blank range. What they do have is a fast running accuracy reset time – it only takes a fraction of a second for your gun to become accurate once you come to a stop. This allows you, with proper movement, to still play very aggressively provided you can time your stops and starts correctly.
The running accuracy reset time in NOLF is absurly high. It take multiple seconds after stopping to start getting accurate shots off. And while this might not seem like a big deal, it forces you into an extremely defensive playstyle, one that isn't fun at all to play. Sitting still and waiting for enemies to come to you is the technically correct play, because then you can actually headshot them with ease. Try to take the fight to the enemy though and your bullets will spray wildly. It doesn't help that the AI is completely incompetent. They will conga line towards you along a corridor if given the chance. This is a far cry even from Half Life 1's soldiers.
The gameplay isn't so bad that its genuinely painful or anything, its just utterly unremarkable late 90's/early 2000s shlock. Its the stylings, the aesthetics, and the story that bring this game to life. Running down brown, constrained levels isn't entertaining, its all in the context. Even when you're on a literal space station the coolness is undone by the unfun and repetitive lasering of enemies.
With all that said, I still highly recommend The Operative: No One Lives Forever even today. The story is brilliant, and manages to have its cake and eat it by playing the critical story straight while having ridiculous fun with all the humorous stuff on the side. It actually rises above mere homage and stands as a well told tale independent of what it makes fun of, which is always the mark of an excellent satire.
Give it a go, you won't regret it!
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