No One Lives Forever review — January 2001, US edition

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Every Sunday, Tyler publishes a classic PC Gamer review from the '90s or early 2000s, with his context and commentary followed by the full, original text from the archived issue. More classic reviews here.

I'd forgotten that NOLF was actually called The Operative: No One Lives Forever. There may have been legal reasons for the title, but Monolith also said it wanted to avoid James Bond comparisons altogether—it heard a lot of them after NOLF was revealed in 1999. That's also why it changed the main character to Cate Archer. According to an archived interview from 2000, the original protagonist was male.

Sometimes, what's revealed at E3 isn't what we get. And sometimes, that's for the best. Also, no one will ever call it "The Operative."

No One Lives Forever review

Hardly anybody does it better than Monolith does with this smart, cocky first-person spy thriller.

At some point over the last couple of years, first-person shooters stopped having fun. I mean, they were still fun to play, but the developers seemed to shift away from the wide-eyed wonder of first-person action and delve instead into dark, somber, ultra-realist melodramas straight out of those awful gun-strapped paperbacks.

No One Lives Forever is a welcome change: a swiftly paced, engaging adventure that cleverly mixes up gameplay styles. The plot is just like a nutty early Bond flick, the atmosphere is one of over-the-top Austin Powers Sixties grandeur, and the action shifts constantly from mode to mode as if you were playing a different game with each new mission. It’s a ton of fun—like an old episode of Mission: Impossible as re-imagined by John Woo. Err…

You play as Cate Archer, a predictably glamorous junior agent in the employ of UNITY, a secret international spy organization dedicated, hilariously, to stopping megalomaniacs. After UNITY’s ranks are thinned by a vicious assassin, she’s given access to Santa’s Workshop, the tools-’n’-toys bureau of UNITY in which field agents are outfitted with the very latest in wild weapons and secret gadgets. A super-agent at last, it’s time for Cate to roar.

The first mission takes you to Morocco, where you have to guard the life of an ambassador. Here we get the first of a wide variety of gameplay modes: it’s essentially a sniper game in this first sequence, as you pick off assassins from a hotel window and thwart the ambushes waiting for the ambassador as he moves through the level.

This is where we first see how No One Lives Forever benefits from the realistic settings made possible by the LithTech 2.5 engine. The urban environment of Morocco—its city streets, the hotel, and the alleys interconnecting the map—are all rendered with exacting detail. The hotel lobby is filled with stuff—soda machines, potted plants, lounge chairs, throw rugs—all of which adds a weight of texture that’s incredibly convincing. This same look and feel extends to the game’s other locales, which include Berlin, the German Alps, and a tropical island hideaway.

Each mission wields some devilishly varied action. In the Morocco stage alone, you’ll move from a sniper nest to a more traditional alley-crawl to a motorcycle ride out to the coast, and finally (after a sweet Great Escape–style fence jump) on foot to storm a compound. Before the game is over, you’ll have escaped a crashing plane (a brilliant sequence—you jump and free-fall to catch up with an enemy, then steal his parachute just in time for a full-on firefight in descent), leaped from a bridge onto a passing barge, scuba-dived to search a sunken freight ship, taken photos of secret files with a sunglasses-camera, and eventually made your way off-planet as a stowaway aboard a shuttle bound for an evil genius’ space station. That’s all in one game, folks!

The value of all this variety can’t be overstated. My biggest knock against almost any PC game these days is that it suffers from monotony. Soldier of Fortune, for example, is a ton of fun for the first couple of hours—but as soon as its novelty violence wore off, I got thoroughly bored with it, and fast.

No One Lives Forever is aggressively new and different, mission by mission. You get an unbelievable amount of hardware to play around with, with each mission introducing new spy toys. The real-life weapons include a .38 revolver, an AK-47, an M79 grenade launcher, and even a Sportsman EX crossbow. Cate can stock up on dum-dum ammunition for increased destructive power, or phosphorous rounds when she needs to blast her way through total darkness. Sniper scopes, silencers, and laser targeting sights add to your killing power—and keep the shooter portion of the game from ever getting boring. And as far as gadgets go, there are some real doozies. Exploding lipstick grenades, anyone? Or how about a briefcase that conceals a built-in RPG? A perfume bottle that sprays acid? Let’s just say the elves in Santa’s Workshop produce lots of fun toys.

Another huge appeal of the game, which again rewards mission by mission, is the fact that you can use multiple approaches successfully to complete objectives. Perhaps even more so than in the wonderful Deus Ex, No One Lives Forever convincingly allows you to use stealth to solve a lot of missions. Rather than just letting you slip behind the backs of guards, you need to worry about security cameras, attack dogs, and other hurdles to quiet progress. Or, if you say bollocks to the whole “sneaky” approach, you can get there even faster by going in guns a’-blazing.

You won’t be let down by the combat. The enemy AI is great: guards duck and cover, hide behind pillars, and scramble for their lives when caught out in the open. They react with far more plausibility than the bots in Quake III or Unreal Tournament.

After you solve the single-player campaign (about 25 hours of gameplay), you can explore the multiplayer modes. They’re mainly variations on standard deathmatch and team battle, but NOLF offers one very cool team mode in which one side plays as UNITY, the other as H.A.R.M. (the uproarious name for the insidious, well-financed anarchist group that emerges as the villain of the single-player game). In the team mode, maps from the single-player game are reconfigured for new, multi-team mission objectives, and the teams engage in a frenetic Spy vs. Spy scenario to win the day.

The highest compliment I can pay No One Lives Forever is that it feels like I sampled five different games before reaching the end. And in an age where completing just one game can seem like a bit of a chore, this wildly varied adventure kept me hooked.

If there’s any real flaw, it’s that the whole mood of the game is wacky enough to maybe turn some people off. Supposedly “secret” documents are lying out on park benches for the world to see. Goons wander the streets as if they were crossing guards. H.A.R.M. agents include a bloated Scotsman named Magnus Armstrong and a bloated German barmaid named Inge (both replete with absurd accents). An air of silliness is pervasive. It wasn’t enough to bother me much, and at times I really appreciated the antics. But compare them to moments when trusted allies get killed, and Cate is crying, and suddenly the mood is supposed to be intensely real. It’s a bit of a muddle, and for a game that devotes so much time to story-advancing cinematics, the whole feel should have been more consistent.

But there’s just no denying the fun factor of NOLF’s many action sequences. You’ll find a lot of gaming goodness packed into this box. —Daniel Morris


Verdict

84

A very fresh action romp with tons of cheekiness—maybe too much.