Monday, 11 February 2013

No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way (PC)

no one lives forever 2 title screen
At last I've finally gotten around to No One Lives Forever 2, the second game in Sierra's secret agent spoof stealth shooter series set in the sixties starring sexy Scottish super-spy Cate Archer (still no relation to Sterling Archer).

The first game's title was obviously inspired by the Bond movies, but sadly Monolith decided not to give the sequel its own name and just stapled '2' onto the end. Imagine if the Bond series had gone the same way, we'd be up to Dr. No 23 by now. It's a shame because A Spy In H.A.R.M.'s Way would have actually worked fine as a stand alone title. Though I suppose it makes sense that without a recognisable '007'-style logo or a famous character, the title's the only brand they had to sell it with.

(Click the pictures to view them in their original resolution.)

Hey, that's not Cate's voice! I wonder why they didn't bring the first voice actor back, I thought she did fine in the role.

Okay, the game begins with UNITY agent Cate Archer arriving in the picturesque Japanese village of Inotakimura to do a little photography and maybe a bit of first person shooting if there's time. Rumour has it that the village is about to become host to an international crime convention, and we've been sent here to take photos of the participants without being discovered. Sounds a bit stealth-missiony to me.

No One Lives Forever (2000)                            |                          No One Lives Forever 2 (2002)
I gotta say, Cate's looking a lot healthier than she did in the first game, a lot less like an alien wearing a wig. You can tell there's been two years worth of graphics tech advancement in the meantime.

What makes the biggest difference though is the animation. Motion capture and face rigging has taken her from a Gerry Anderson puppet to something resembling an actual human being, capable of communicating emotion with just her expression and body language. It definitely helps make the cutscenes more interesting to watch.

Silent takedown, she never even knew I was there. Sneaking around with a crossbow is definitely a lot more entertaining than the sniper mission the first game started with. I was told to be quiet; no one said anything about not killing every guard in my path.

Though hang on, I can move the bodies this time? That's new.

Hey, I can search bodies in this game too. Plus it seems they can carry health kits, which weren't even in the first game. Well this should definitely save some wear on quickload button.

I may be choosing the 'kill 'em up' style of gameplay here, but there's no way I could go in guns blazing and expecting to win; mostly because I haven't been given a gun yet. This crossbow takes a second to reload after each shot, so I'm creeping around and making use of shadows and alleyways when I can.

Whoa, I've collected a map! Thank fuck for that. I spent so much of the first game wandering around lost and miserable, trying to find my next objective.

Though it's actually a pretty vague map, without much I could use as a point of reference. In fact I can't even figure out where I am on this damn thing! Disaster, the map is useless!


SOME SNEAKING LATER.


Aha, I've found the meeting place for this conference I'm here to photograph.

Despite this being a very stealth oriented level, there's been no harsh penalty for getting seen up to this point. The enemies managed to run off and trigger an alarm a few times, but all that happened was a whole bunch of angry ninjas jumped in from the rooftops and I had to hide for a bit or shoot them all. Then any survivors eventually reset to patrol mode and walked away. No instant fail, no constant alarm siren drowning out the music for the rest of the level. It's so much of an improvement over NOLF1.


BUT THEN, AFTER I SUCCESSFULLY DID ALL THAT STUFF THEY WANTED ME TO DO.


Well crap. I guess the ninja really didn't want her photo taken. Weirdly Cate just kind of let this happen, making no effort to fight back. It's like she expected this was going to be one of those pre-boss fight cutscenes where they just kind of threaten each other for a bit.

After putting a sword right through the protagonist the game cuts straight to the opening titles, leaving her fate a mystery. Did she deliberately fake her death? Are we playing as a new character from now on? Is the rest of the game a flashback?


LATER, AFTER THE CREDITS.


Aww, they've completely remodelled UNITY HQ and now the giant U doesn't spin anymore. Also apparently people like to smoke and dance in the lobby now.

But c'mon, what about Cate?

And the fate of Cate Archer is at last revealed: she got better. Back in the field in two weeks like nothing even happened.

So what was the point of the dramatic cliffhanger then? Was she stabbed just to build up the villain as a threat? All it's done is make Cate seem like Wolverine's slightly slower healing British cousin. I mean sure in gameplay if you give her a first aid kit she can instantly bounce back from multiple gunshot wounds to the head, but in the cutscene dimension the characters are meant to be human.

No One Lives Forever 2 General Morgan Hawkins
Anyway, this cutscene sets up the story for the game. The US government believes that the Russians are planning to invade the island of Khios within the next two weeks; which is a bit of a problem as it'll force them to launch nukes in retaliation because of reasons. So they'd appreciate it if a British agent could pop over to Russia and see what's up with that.

It's funny how much of a dumb warmongering paranoid American stereotype this guy is, considering that Monolith is actually an American developer. In fact both No One Lives Forever games have a very British perspective to them, which I guess comes down to the team doing their homework (i.e. watching lots of 60s British spy movies.)

In fact I was expecting him to be outraged that the Brits would send a woman to do a spy's job, as half the characters in the first game never shut up about it, but it seems he's wise enough at least to not antagonise the agency's most talented mass murderer while she's standing in the same room. I think it's probably a good thing that they've resolved the issue of her co-workers' open sexism this time around, as it serves no purpose to the story now that Cate's proven herself.

The giant bunny observes my arrival in Siberia, and lets me pass without incident.

Hey, not every picture requires a short essay underneath it.

Alright, so I have to sabotage the enemy comm tower and power station, rig the bridge with explosives, and then infiltrate the installation under cover of darkness. The game has even been kind enough to let me choose what order I sabotage things in. There's only one thing I'm still unsure of: where the fuck am I on this map? I'm in a cabin, so I assumed I'd be over there on the left (where it says "cabin"), but the roads don't match up.

After a bit of investigation, I figured out the reason I couldn't locate my position on the map: I haven't even reached this bit of the level yet! I'm off the map somewhere to the east.


SOME PEACEFUL SKI-DOOING LATER, I SEE A PAIR OF ENEMIES.


Uh, why aren't those enemies dead? I pointed the gun at them and pulled the trigger, and I'm pretty sure bullets came out. Last I checked headshots were still a one shot kill in this and with all the time in the world to line up my crosshairs on a stationary target I can't really fuck this up.

Oh wait; I just had a thought...

No One Lives Forever 2 skill point screen
They've added a Deus Ex style skill point system since the first game, and I've been going around with level 1 accuracy. It's a wonder I was able to hit anything. Four level of marksmanship should help with that. Or at least I bloody hope it will.

By the way, skill points are earned by completing objectives and finding stuff in the level, not killing people. I doubt it's possible to get through the game without ending up in a few fights along the way, but it doesn't penalise me for sneaking past enemies.


SEVERAL ACTS OF SABOTAGE LATER, INSIDE THE INSTALLATION.


A security camera! These things made my life miserable in NOLF one, but they've been pretty rare in this so far (thank fuck). Plus now I've got camera disabling ammo to take them out of the equation permanently. Monolith has made a real effort to make stealth less annoying in this and I appreciate it.

Though I'm still just as terrible at sneaking around. Even when I clear the level entirely, it seems the game eventually spawns new patrols. Then they stumble across one of my piles of bodies, sound the alarm, more enemies pour in, and I end up with another heap of bodies to drag into the shadows one by one. Fortunately they drop health and ammo, so I can keep this up as long as necessary.

As long as necessary to find out what I'm supposed to do next I mean.


SEVERAL LAPS OF THE LEVEL LATER.


Okay, I give up, what the fuck am I supposed to do on this level? I've killed every guard, checked every door, looked for switches, opened every box... there's just no way through this electric fence! I even tried shooting the cables, and that didn't work either.

I had this problem with the first game too. A level would be fantastic right to the point I came to a dead end and had to spend ten minutes wandering back and forth through trying to spot what I missed. You'd think that objective marker on the compass would solve this, but it's pointing to something on the other side of the fence!

I had to look it up in the end. Turns out I needed to open this cupboard in the kitchen, take the sugar, and then go back to an earlier area past a level transition to pour it into a generator I didn't even know about. To be fair to the game there were notes around with clues that make a lot more sense in retrospect, but I couldn't piece it together.

Okay, now I can get into the main building and go hunt for, I dunno, a big map with arrows on it pointing to the island maybe? This would be so much easier if they'd just put me into an easily escapable death trap and tell me all their plans.

The game is actually pretty slow paced, even when I am playing it guns blazing. Filing cabinets and desks should be searched for clues, cupboards raided for crucial equipment... you know, actual spy work.

Aha, found something: evidence of a drinks machine conspiracy. Most of the comedy in the game comes from overhearing conversation or collecting intel and the game does a good job of filling in the stories of these places with the documents lying around. They're a lot like the audio diaries in something like Doom 3, System Shock 2, Bioshock etc, except it's all text on paper so they've got the freedom to do more stuff with them. And these particular files paint a clear picture of this installation being a real shithole.


SEVERAL FILING CABINETS LATER.


The Jade Hamster in Kung Fu Spy of Fury poster
After searching what feels like every desk drawer in Russia, I finally found the clue I needed. A rogue Soviet commander has been working with the sinister crime organisation H.A.R.M (the villains from the first game) on something called Project: Omega. If we can find out what this is we may yet have a way to prevent the invasion and cancel WWIII.

So now I've broken into a H.A.R.M. agent's house in Ohio to.... search his desk drawers for intel. I've even got to look behind the bloody posters. There aren't even any enemies around yet, just an oppressive gloom and a storm rattling the shutters outside.


EVEN LATER.


No One Lives Forever 2 trailer park hurricane
Well I found my next clue, but after leaving the house I couldn't help but notice that there was a rather impressive meteorological phenomenon tearing up trailers down the road and I think it might be coming this way. Oh, plus those ninjas from level one have dropped by to assassinate me as well. Somehow I don't think this is going to be a sneaking level.

I run from house to house, trying to dodge shurikens and figure out where the game wants me to be. If there's any clever level design tricks here designed to subconsciously lead me down the correct path, they ain't working on me.

Well I eventually wandered into a boss fight against my attempted assassin from the pre-credits cutscene and now I've been suckered into a sword fight with a master ninja in a trailer caught in a hurricane, while it's spinning around and being torn to pieces around me. Seems to me there's not really a winning outcome to this, though I guess if Cate can survive being stabbed through the heart it's possible she can survive being dropped out of the sky. Maybe she'll crawl out of a little crater all flattened like Wile E. Coyote.


SOME CUTSCENE STUFF LATER.


Yep, she just walked it off and now we're in India, chasing the slim lead I got from the house in Ohio. Actually I'm the one being chased, by this pair of cops. They think I murdered some guy, and they're really insistent on beating me to death over it. Unfortunately Cate's lost her hand to hand skills between games and UNITY frowns on gunning down the innocent, so all I can do is run. While some bloody Austin Powers style music loops in the background. I love dynamic music, but it gets very one note if my situation never bloody changes.

It'd help if I knew where the fuck I was running to. On the other levels I'd give up on stealth quickly whenever I got frustrated trying to find the next objective, but that's not really an option here. Not unless I can get good a head start.


MUCH LATER. MUCH MUCH MUCH LATER.


I've finally completed that bloody level. Man that stage was a pain in the ass, absolutely zero fun for me. I find stealth a bit annoying at times, I find being completely lost completely annoying, and combining the two just makes me miserable. It was like a Benny Hill sketch that never ended.

Anyway, this next level is a pure stealth level, with instant failure if I'm caught. I can't kill anyone and I don't know where I'm meant to be going so I've got to sneak into every room in turn. Joy.

And then my reward for finally completing that stealth level... another cop stealth level. Actually, it's the same one: same streets, same cops, only this time I have to stay hidden long enough for them to put up wanted posters, then grab them before civilians can read them.

I honestly hate this level. I'm terrible at it and it's dragging on forever. It doesn't help that I didn't realise I needed to be hidden for them to put up the posters at first, so for ages I had no idea that I was running around searching for wanted posters that didn't exist yet.

On other levels they'd give me tranquilliser darts so I could take the enemies down non-lethally and steal their weapon so they were no longer a threat. But they don't want me doing that this time, so the best I can do is tag them so they appear on my radar. Or get lucky with a thrown banana peel.


A FEW LEVELS LATER.


And now the famous tricycle chase, where Cate hilariously hangs onto the back of tricycle to chase down a mime on a unicycle! Except it's a first person game, so from my perspective all I can see is my gun and occasionally the back of the driver's head.

It's basically just a painfully slow rail-shooter sequence taking me in a loop around the streets of India (yes the same few streets again), and I have to shoot mimes as they pop up from the balconies. And I can't get off to search bodies for health so I have to make good use of quick saves. Stealth fans, you're out of luck on this one.


EVENTUALLY.


Oh thank fuck I'm finally done with India! It feels like I've been running around those same roads for hours.

But now I've got a new problem, I'm totally stuck, again. I got the wrench to turn off the steam to pick up the fuse to turn on the power to open the gate, but now I need to get the keys to open the door to grab the handle to open the storage room to collect the explosives to blow open the floor to get the wire to fix the other gate... and I can't find them!

My theory is it's something to do with these pipes in the ceiling. If I can jump up there somehow, I could get into that room on the right.


FIVE MINUTES LATER.


Uh, turns out the keys were just lying on a table next to me. In my defence they were really hard to see; absolutely no effort by the level designer to draw attention to them. Perhaps the opposite in fact.

But then this bloke suddenly crashed in though the wall and I had to climb up onto the pipes to escape (so hey I was half right about them). He must be this Project Omega I've been hearing so much about I presume: a super-soldier designed for island invasions.

Can't say I'm very pleased to see indestructible Big Daddies stomping around in my spy shooter though. On my favourite things about the game so far is how every enemy has gone down in just a couple of hits, even if I didn't manage a headshot. I've never been a fan of bullet sponge enemies.


BUT THEN.


You have got to be shitting me. I... they... they put me back in India again! On those same streets! Fighting invulnerable super soldiers that can't be killed. Well, avoiding them anyway.

It seems that the developers and I have very different ideas of what this game should have been about. I was hoping to be able to creep around super villain lairs, taking out enemies one by one, making my way around like a ninja with a silenced semi-auto. They seem to have focused their efforts on giving players the experience of hiding from things around a block in Calcutta.

Anyway civilians have been trapped behind fires, so I have go fill a bucket and throw it on the flames to put them out, one by one. Also first I need to go find a bucket. Also I'm sad now.


EVENTUALLY.


YES! They've given me a crossbow and a whole enemy base to play in! Look, they've even got an evil submarine, how cool is that? I'm back to my happy place, stalking my evil henchmen prey, and making the world safe from the bad people.

How did I get here from India you might be wondering? I have absolutely no idea. I must have missed the part where she discovered this secret underwater facility and knew it was where she had to go.

And then they had to go and spoil everything by adding henchmen cubes that roll around and bite me. You couldn't accuse the first game of being overly realistic either, but this is a whole new level of WTF. I even went and replayed this level after finishing the game just to take some better shots, because of how ridiculous they are. Uh, I mean better screenshots, my aim is always impeccable.

You can tell I used the level select here, because it's started me off as a level 1 character with no upgrades. Which is a bit annoying really. Actually that should be the tagline for the game.

Anyway, after this there's a big finale at the island of Khios (where I was finally able to kill some super soldiers) and Cate's friend is tragically shot a whole bunch of times while saving the world from a nuclear apocalypse. But then he just gets right back up again without explanation and they laugh about it as the credits roll. Because by this point they've basically become indestructible cartoon characters and it's hard for me to care about any of it anymore.


At times No One Lives Forever 2 is easily one of the finest first person shooters I've ever played. At other times it's a pain in the ass. It fixes so many of the flaws that dragged down the original game and adds a couple of Deus Ex-style features like searching bodies and raising stats, but it has so many of its own problems that it evens out to be about equally enjoyable overall as the irritatingly imperfect NOLF1. I still found myself stuck in an empty level time and time again, stepping over corpses, trying to figure out where I was meant to be, or stuck searching for the next item. Looking for a set of keys in the dark isn't much fun in real life and surprisingly it ain't much fun in a video game either.

Improved technology and better editing has made the cutscenes are far more watchable this time around, but some of the drama and wit seems to have been lost in the process. NOLF had some good arguments between Cate and her acerbic alien-looking boss as she struggled to persuade him to trust her judgement and let her do what she needed to do, but in this game she's free to casually march out of HQ to do whatever she feels like. It weakens UNITY as a halfway plausible intelligence organisation. Plus continually resolving cliffhangers with 'and then she woke up in hospital' doesn't do much to make me give a shit about the character's fate.

In fact in one scene her friend makes a tragic sacrifice and is sent out of an airlock at the bottom of the ocean, miles away from land, with no scuba gear or hope of rescue... and then turns up back at HQ a few hours later like nothing had happened, with comedy music playing. Yeah I know it's a comedy game, full of dumb jokes and caricatures, but it's not Looney Tunes, it's supposed to have some resemblance to reality. Or maybe it's not and I've misjudged the tone they're going for this time around.

But anyway don't let me put you off, this is packed with charm and style and polished gameplay, and it rewards patience and curiosity. You can also fight enemies with bananas, glue guns and exploding robot cats, how can that not be worth a look?

If you've played No One Lives Forever 2 and want to argue or agree with me, to share your thoughts on the franchise, or just want to say things about this site you've found yourself looking at, feel free to leave a comment.

3 comments:

  1. Woooh another game i loved that never managed to finish.

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  2. Thanks for getting around to this one! I think we mostly came to the same overall conclusion on it, and I'm still not entirely sure it's an all-around better title. Mostly, I felt like it often tended to be more silly than smart in its humor, which the prequel was generally the inverse of. The phrase "trying way too hard" also springs to mind about NOLF2 in terms of its plot/jokes, whereas the original felt a lot more natural. At least, that's the impression it left on me after playing both nearly back-to-back.

    Still a fine game, though, as you say. Even still looks pretty decent, too, all things considered.

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  3. Really very nice game I love this thanks for sharing.

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