No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way
I Awarded the original No One Lives Forever a desultory 69 per cent and it was one of the most contentious reviews I've ever penned. Some people agreed the game was a shambles, with poor execution, terrible Al and a mission structure that meant you had to wade through 14 hours of tat to get to the set pieces that almost made the game worth sitting through. Others of you loved it, thought it was one of the finest shooters of all time, and hated me intensely. In one heated thread on the forum someone actually threatened to come to our office in London and batter me round the face. It was probably the mum of one of the developers, but she never showed up. Shame really, as I like older women.
The Drugs Don't Work
NOLF might have been one of the first high-profile shooters that I didn't rate but it wasn't the last. What do you want from an FPS? Guns obviously, but is that it? Are you happy just to move your fingers from the back and forward key, alternately hitting the Quick Save key and bulldozing your way through a game until you reach the end? I used to be, but games such as Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor ultimately left me feeling a bit cold.
Wolfenstein was too samey, and Medal of Honor was brilliant until about halfway through when it just became frustrating. After years of being slavishly addicted to straight shooters I wanted more. I knew I was on a slippery slope but I wanted something a bit harder, something that bit more addictive, something that was going to give me more of a buzz.
I experimented with Ghost Recon and other real-life' games and fooled myself into thinking that lying in the mud by the side of a hut giving out orders to my Al comrades was the way forward. It didn't work -I always got the sneaking suspicion that getting through each level by either sticking my head in the ground or panicking and running away while the PC characters shot each other wasn't the way it was supposed to be.
Field Of Dreams
In a bizarre twist of fate I even spent a whole weekend running around the lush fields of Morrowind, picking wild flowers and attacking small insects until I realised that the sun had been out for 48 hours and I hadn't opened the curtains/eaten/ changed my underpants.
Things had to change obviously, and when the call came through -"Woods you lazy twat, get your arse into gear and review No One Lives Forever 2" -I installed the game and sat back thinking of England. I wasn't expecting a lot to be honest, despite Keith Pullin's enthusiastic preview last issue, and I certainly wasn't expecting it to rekindle my love affair with the FPS genre, and I didn't think I'd end up stating that for me this is a contender for game of the year.
But it is. And it's great from the very first chapter, which concludes with a massive Bondtike twist before launching into Austin Powers-esque music and credits. Each of the 15 chapters is split into a number of missions, where you might have to locate someone, kill someone, find a piece of intelligence, or escape, but right from the off you're sucked in. Dropped into Japan, you have to secretly photograph a meeting, dodging hordes of Ninja chicks or taking them out with shuriken and dumping their bodies out of sight.
The game's still pretty linear, although it's rare that you're forced to take one particular route, and all of the parts of a chapter fit together to make one big level. It's sometimes necessary to backtrack to solve puzzles or liaise with one of your contacts. This helps to create the illusion that you're free to roam wherever you want, and means that the stealth aspect of the game that the developers are so keen to push this time round actually works, without being overly frustrating. And relying on stealth is a lot more rewarding than going in with your weapons cocked.
Sneaking around, using the darkness to stay hidden, listening to conversations (that might provide you with clues or an amusing anecdote), creating a disturbance in a room before slipping out of the window, and getting through a section of a level without using a bullet is one of the most satisfying things you can do in the game. You've also been provided with a number of stealth weapons and gadgetry to help you get around undetected, like the tracking device you can fire undetected into someone, leaving them displayed as a red dot on your compass. Keep an eye on where they are, make sure you haven't missed anyone, and you should be free to sneak to your heart's content. There are also tranquillisers you can use to take someone out silently, before dragging their bodies somewhere where they're not going to be found. If you're feeling particularly sadistic, you can go to a location where a quick bullet to the head isn't going to be heard by anyone else - and yes, I did feel a bit guilty afterwards, but what the hell?
Of course, none of this would work without decent Al and although you're not going to leave this game thinking it has the ultimate in artificial intelligence, the scripting is subtle enough and clever enough to make the game work perfectly. Leave a dead body lying around and you're likely to be discovered. Anyone who wanders past will see the body, move up, talk to them (what's the matter?) before running off to raise the alarm. And here's where the game gets even better. In most FPS/stealth combos, an alarm going off usually means that you're going to have to restart the level. In NOLF 2 you can either switch to your guns and use the scenery to your advantage, taking everyone out that pours from the nearby buildings (hard, because you can't take too many direct shots before dying, but certainly not impossible), or dash for a suitable hiding place, watch your darkness meter fill up and sit and pray that they don't stumble on you before they give up convinced you've managed to escape. Bits of the environment are interactive as well - you can open windows to gain access to buildings without being seen, turn lights off to hide yourself from prying eyes, and tip bottles over and brush against wind chimes to give yourself away. You can even set the alarms off yourself if you want but that would just be stupid. If you're really stuck in a mission try looking around to see if there's anything you've missed. If there's a room with an open window in it, try creating a disturbance, attracting the guards and slipping out round the side and back in the front. Or look for something in the environment that might take an enemy out without making any noise. Chances are if you're getting really, really frustrated, you're doing something wrong.
And then I hit Chapter Four and it nearly went tits up. It might just be me but I just didn't get on with this one at all. It felt like the original - being pushed into relying on stealth in situations where it was next to impossible to get through without being spotted. I hit Quick Save more here than at any other point in the game and almost felt like throwing the PC our of the window, snapping the game disc in half, resigning from the magazine, before weapon and in sight before on myself. Moving into a trailer park, you can see a tornado approaching. Rather than just sitting in the background and being something pretty to look at, this whips up everything around you, scattering massive trailers in your wake and dropping lethal power lines around you. The following Ninja assault is pretty tough, especially if you don't find the exit, but this is where I made use of one of the games most ingenious features: you can switch the difficulty level in the middle of the game. Simple, yes. but how many other games let you switch the settings up or down without starting again?
This chapter is also where you encounter the first boss of the game, and again it's handled perfectly. Halfway through killing her (and no you don't have to do anything ridiculous to finish her off) she kicks a door down and runs into a house. When you follow her in the whole thing is picked up and you have to complete the fight at close quarters while you're flying through the air like an extra from The Wizard of Oz.
And I've got all this way and haven't even mentioned the fact that the LithTech engine is looking better than ever. You're going to need a high-spec PC to make the most of it, but with a decent GeForce card and a processor over the 1 GHz mark you'll spend a lot of time running around and marvelling at the huge outdoor areas. It's still more cartoony than other engines but this complements the style of NOLF 2 to perfection. As Keith mentioned in his preview last month, the game is never far from a laugh, and amazingly the humour is almost flawless. There are some really bad jokes but they usually catch you unawares and before you can catch yourself you're sniggering like a 12-year old who's just farted in assembly. Most of the humour is carried off with panache though, and the story, script, excellent voice acting and set pieces encourage you to play the game the way the developers want you to. Scream into any given situations with your guns drawn and you're going to miss hilarious conversations, or, something I missed the first few times, the sight of a H.A.R.M guard pissing off the edge of the bridge. It might not be up there with Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights but it worked for me.
But no games perfect, not even Ker-Plunk! Sometimes the game tries to force you down stealth-only tracks and it falls a bit flat. Some of you might have been adept enough to get through the first NOLF without killing anyone but most people (and I include myself in this) haven't got the patience required to squat in a dark corner for five minutes waiting for a procession of guards to quit smoking and walk over to study a painting. And there's one mission involving ripping down Wanted! posters that really jars - the time between the police putting them up and concerned civilians walking over to pick them up isn't enough, and you have to spend the rest of the mission dodging just about everyone you meet. Combine this with the need to Quick Save all the time and the fact that the loading times are pretty horrendous (see Missed Opportunity) and you've got the classic hallmarks of deep-set frustration. Other times you might have to pick up on something really obscure to help you through a seemingly impossible situation, when access to a stealth weapon of some description would have done the job perfectly.
Thankfully none of these criticisms spoil what is an excellent game. Games don't make me laugh out loud, but this one did and for that reason alone it's worth a Classic. It's intelligent, well structured, looks gorgeous and attempts to offer something extra from the backwards/forwards/shoot cycle that most other FPSs are content to throw at you. Singleplayer shooter of the year? It is for me. Medal of Honor and Wolfenstein might have brilliant multiplayer components but both suffered in solo play. Not so NOLF 2. The King is dead, long live the Queen.
Nolf 2: The Co-Operative
NOLF was never a massively popular multiplayer game, and this time round Monolith has ditched standard deathmatch altogether. There's a bonus though, with an additional co-operative campaign that you can play through with up to four people. Each of you play a UNITY agent and your first job is to rescue Cate Archer - the silly lady's gone and got herself in a compromising situation. Better let the men take care of it, eh? The dynamics work really well - if all of you get killed you have to go back to the start of the mission. You can revive dead players to stop this happening but when you come round you've only got a tiny amount of health and need to find first aid. Fun with a BIG F.
A Super Spy Shouldn't Be Expected To Tramp Everywhere On Foot, Especially When She's A Lady.
Why aren't there vehicles in most first-person shooters? We ask the question constantly and get the same reply back: We wanted to concentrate on delivering a pure first-person shooter, and feel that the inclusion of vehicles would dilute the experience. Yadda, yadda... NOLF2 proves you can have vehicles and they can be fun and playable. Early on in the game you're invited to jump in a snowmobile and plough your way through the enemy guards. Snow... plough... I'll get my coat But they're not just there for fun - in this heavily guarded compound there doesn't seem to be a way out and there are a load of blokes shooting at you. Can you see how you'd escape? The clue's in the picture.
When Almost every first-person game you care to mention goes the wholly unoriginal deathmatch/capture the flag route when it comes to multiplayer, NOLF2's decision to have only co-operative mode is refreshing. Up to four players can get together to rescue Miss Archer and, although this means trawling through the single-player levels again, there's loads of evidence of the events you unleashed in solo mode.
Co-op modes are underused by developers, but the problem here is that the narrow corridor design of most levels doesn't lend itself to a four-man team. The second problem is that with such a small number of players you get stuck with beginners getting lost and stopping you from going on, and idiots who get a thrill out of sounding hard and insulting said beginners. Synchronisation problems and bugs don't help. It only really works if you have three mates to play with, so you can agree a starting time and play properly.
It's not surprising then that NOLF2 isn't proving too popular online, with only a handful of servers running at peak times. This is set to change as soon as Monolith gets its deathmatch patch out, and there should be some pretty interesting modes popping along soon too. For now, though, stick to single-player.
Download No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode