Electron Dance
6Nov/12Off

Destiny

Cate Archer, No One Lives Forever

The first time game journalism disappointed me was in 2003.

After the hilarious bag of tricks that was Monolith's The Operative: No One Lives Forever, the sequel No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way, was more like a kick in my bag of tricks. I went hitch-hiking on the information superhighway to find someone who felt the same way. Someone who agreed that the sequel did not live up to the brilliant original.

But apparently everyone thought it was just fine. Apparently it was just me who didn't take to it. I couldn't help but wonder if any of these reviewers had played the original game, whether they had nurtured the vital skills to understand this epic failure, appreciate how NOLF2 was a mere caricature of its ancestor.

I found just one review that gave me comfort. One review that made me feel a little less lonely:

Though I have myriad gripes with the game, ultimately my fundamental complaint about NOLF2 is linked inextricably with its predecessor: in No One Lives Forever, I was part of a story—a complex and hilarious tale with currents and eddies of theme and character and plot. In No One Lives Forever 2, I was playing a game—a game with an impossible-to-spoil story whose end is telegraphed from the beginning and characters in whom I could not invest a single emotional dollar. And that's disappointing.

This discovery, that only one measly review was swimming against the critical tide, is more pivotal than it appears. One year later, I registered the domain electrondance.com. 

And don't call me Shirley

Lengthy games tend to tire me out. At some point, part of my brain will start to see the repetitive hamster wheel I'm snared in and wish for the end already. Although I had a great deal of fun with Dead Space, the hamster wheel kicked in around halfway through. Once a world, its characters and all the mechanics become too familiar, I long to escape from the escape from reality. My powerful completionist tendencies, however, rarely permit me to leave games beyond this obvious best-before-date.

Yet there are those games which are painful to part with, where the innovation or allure of the game is so joyous that the closing sequence is like watching a close friend emigrate to a faraway land. You hope one day you will see their like again. Thief. Deus Ex. World of Goo. And NOLF.

You won't fall out of a plane, visit a space station, interview a wealthy small-game hunter, or swim with sharks in NOLF2. You won't see innocuous hilarity—World Domination Prevention Maps, "Welcome to the Big H.A.R.M. Space Station" or "You Are Now in H.A.R.M.'s Way" signs, etc.—on the walls. The level design is, as stated, adequate; and by "adequate" I mean "rushed."

NOLF is a really long game, a post-Half Life FPS in the time when developers were bending over backwards to script in buckets of story and lend meaning to the gameplay. Monolith hijacked the trend to create a unique spy parody.

Parodies are often failures because the act of lampooning something is not, in itself, funny: it's merely the platform upon which you craft genuine humour. The Zucker Brothers' Airplane! goes beyond poking fun at the disaster film genre to become one of the best-loved film comedies of all time. Monolith succeeds in the same way, creating a game that sometimes had me in tears.

The best NOLF moments are usually found off-piste, conversations that require a little stealth to listen to. Consider this long, beautiful exchange where two evil henchmen debate criminal sociology, after which I was gutted to realise I had to mow them down remorselessly.

If I ever screwed up and broke a conversation before it was completed, I reloaded just to hear the rest. These conversations had little to no relevance to plot or game; they were just there.

Mechanically speaking, the game was nothing to write home about. It included simplistic stealth, only really useful for getting a shooty advantage before kicking off a firefight. NOLF also offered a handful of spy gadgets but deep down it was just a shooter with fetch quest tendencies. But, you know, I didn't care about that. The industry was already awash with FPS wannabes and NOLF stood out with its playful attitude and love of ridiculous set pieces like... fighting for a parachute while in free fall or a shoot out on a gondola.

Now, I was a little late to the NOLF party so once I'd finished the first game I was able to install the sequel the very next day. Sadly.

Kiss me, Cate

Cate Archer in No One Lives Forever 2

In this sequel, Cate has been tarted up to such a degree that she no longer resembles the highly intelligent, confident, empowered, and, yes, sexy woman that she was in NOLF; she has fallen victim to Lara Croft Syndrome. Her chest is bigger, her clothes are tighter, her skirts are shorter, her behavior is more kittenish than well-groomed international spy, and she seems ultimately designed to appease the hormones of greasy-faced adolescent males who may or may not play the game.

I knew something was up very early in NOLF2. The big hint was this: I wasn't enjoying myself.

In NOLF, the mechanics resembled a mildly distracting shooter, but in NOLF2, the player was now cursed with crude stats that would be upgraded with experience. It wasn't NOLF Part Deux but NOLF Deux Ex.

This meant every one of your abilities were hobbled at the start of the game. Unlike the auto-balancing nature of your bog-standard RPG, this meant the opening stages were frustrating but those at the end were comparatively easy.

Enemy guards would sooner run to an alarm than gun you down and then you'd face hordes of respawning enemies, exhausting your ammo. Shooting a guard was a dangerous option due to the attention it would attract and so stealth seemed to be key... but the game's obsession with stats created a stealth experience which was all about swearing at the monitor and hitting the quickload key. Maybe I was playing on too high a difficulty?

That aside, it wasn't NOLF. Although parts reflected its predecessor, the humour seemed forced and lead character Cate Archer had lost not just her earthy, Scottish lilt, but her entire personality.

If a player came to NOLF2 without knowing the original, he/she would conclude that it wasn't a bad game at all. It has its own moments of brilliance such as the memorable level “Ice Station Evil”, set in Antartica, where almost nothing happens to heighten a sense of dread.

But when NOLF2 was done I was relieved. I found that one negative review online and clung onto it for dear life.

The idea for Electron Dance began to percolate although it was many years later, inspired by Second Person Shooter, before it would become a thing.

Ouroboros

Last year, as part of the now-defunct “Alliance of Awesome” consisting of Electron Dance, Bits'n'Bytes Gaming and Tap-Repeatedly, we recorded a podcast. That's what the official record says but it's not entirely true. We actually recorded three podcasts, the first two not making it onto the digital airwaves due to technical issues.

Four of us took part. Leading the charge was Matt “Steerpike” Sakey, head of Tap-Repeatedly who I'd fallen in love with due to an incredible essay on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. Also, Gregg B, a writer from Tap-Repeatedly who I'd stalked back to his web home after exchanging comments on Tom Jubert's blog (where I announced I wasn't “convinced most art games are actually games at all”). Last but not least, Armand K., a writer from Bits'n'Bytes Gaming.

Amongst the lost podcast conversations, I took a moment to speak of my disappointment with NOLF2. Steerpike was agreeing all the way and goaded me into articulating exactly where the sequel got it wrong, how it had managed to burn NOLF's hard-fought street cred. Finally, all those years of pent-up rage lava finally found their volcanic vent.

I went on to explain there was just one review on the internet that had agreed with me and then... I had this really weird feeling. Neurons started firing. New connections were being established. Left brain talked to right brain.

In the middle of the podcast, I did a Google search to dig up the review.

It didn't take long to unearth. It was posted on a site called Four Fat Chicks. Four Fat Chicks is the former incarnation of Tap-Repeatedly. The review was written by someone called “Steerpike”.

And that was some freaky shit.

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  1. It is a small and wonderful world, O Master of Harbours. Of all the games that have ever disappointed me, and of course there are many, NOLF2 is the only one I can think of that actually… hurt me. I felt like I’d been slapped by a friend.

    This was a great read. Watching those videos reminds me of all the great things about the original, and all the missed opportunities of the sequel.

    Thanks for the shout-out, my friend!

  2. Freakier still is that it was Steerpike’s review of GTA IV which ultimately got me writing for Tap because after completing it I was furious that the game had received such universal praise. Did I play a different game or something? Steerpike’s review was the only one I found on the internet that echoed my own feelings. Naturally, I emailed him and he ignored me (or didn’t receive it), and from that point I became a regular on Tap. It was only later, after venting numerous times about GTA IV in various comments that Steerpike offered me a position as a contributor.

    Also freaky: it was only last week that I managed to get NOLF working on my PC as I wanted, that is, with smooth anti-aliasing and no garbled text or UI. Of what I’ve seen it holds up remarkably well though. I hope to play it soon, based on your praise and a recent impressions piece by one of my Solium Infernum acquaintances (Part 1 here and part 2 here for those curious). Besides, genuinely funny games are a dime a dozen.

    I came away from Dead Space feeling exactly the same by the way, I think it could have done with ending around chapter 6. Instead it lasted another 6 chapters and went nowhere really.

  3. I didn’t receive it! I didn’t receive it!

  4. > Besides, genuinely funny games are a dime a dozen

    Genuinely funny games are really common? That has not been my experience at all.

  5. @Dan: Yikes, thanks for calling me out there. I must have had a momentary lapse because I’ve no idea how that came out. That’s not been my experience at all either, they’re rare. How embarrassing. It’s not like I don’t know what that idiom means either…

  6. Steerpike, don’t tell anyone but this is unofficially “Steerpike for President” week. I laughed so hard watching some of those NOLF scenes again and just had to include them. I never went near the expansion for NOLF2, Contract J.A.C.K., but the reviews seem to suggest that was a wise choice.

    Gregg, I had those GTA IV feelings you’re talking about about San Andreas and I still want to write those up. I interpret your story as ranting at Steerpike so many times about GTA IV that he gave up and said “alright! alright! how about you get out of my hair and write for the public?”

    The emotion I most associate with NOLF is fun. Glad to hear it seems to have weathered the years better than expected, although during video research for this piece, I found someone just breezing through without listening to the incidental dialogue. In the monkey section above, for example, he blasted the conversation away after a couple of lines.

    I have to admit that although I loved System Shock 2, I felt fatigue in the last third of the game. Epic, of course.

    Dan, welcome and thanks for keeping Gregg on his toes. He absolutely deserves it. I think he should play SCP-087 again as punishment.

  7. Having not played a GTA before (aside from the first one briefly on the PS1) I was expecting an awful lot, especially after all the ‘perfect’ scores. Now they were a dime a dozen, hence the silly, silly, silly metascore.

    You just reminded me, I can’t interrupt incidental conversations without reloading either. I’ve even been known to put subtitles on just to give me enough warning if I’m out of ear-shot. In DX:HR if you talk to somebody just as they’re about to say something they’ll continue saying whatever it was they started when the conversation ends. It’s a bit weird but it’s a nice touch for obsessive compulsives like me.

    Did you ever play the original System Shock HM? (Shock 2 spoilers from here!) A good chunk of the end sequence in System Shock 2 ‘simulates’ the opening areas of System Shock. I only know this because I booted up the original game and had an hour or so with it the evening before my last System Shock 2 play session. Had I not done that the relevance of the closing environments in Shock 2 would have been lost on me entirely. Of course, the ending was crap anyway but the build up to it was pretty cool. (End spoilers!)

    I don’t think my brother or Mat C have seen SCP-087 yet so as and when we arrange another games night I’ll have to stick them in front of it. Is there a name for taking pleasure in watching somebody shit themselves in a horror game? Scatator sport perhaps?

  8. That is quite freaky. No One Live Freakyless: A Joel in P.I.K.E.’s Way

    Gregg, I believe the term is “schiessenfreuda”. And if they get upset at you setting them up, a good comeback is “U MERDE, BRO?”

  9. Wow, I see what you did there Beam, impressive!

  10. To this day I don’t know how I missed Gregg’s email about GTA IV. I only learned his views on it when we were emailing back and forth to get him set up as a writer for Tap. It was then I discovered that the two of us share almost creepily identical taste in games.

    HM’s article here has inspired me to get NOLF up and running again. Watching those videos and reading his own reminiscences of the game make me remember how much I adored it. Like you, HM, I never touched Contract J.A.C.K. By all accounts it must have been truly awful, since the reviewers who lavished such inexplicable praise on NOLF2 butchered it.

    NOLF2 failed in light of its predecessor. That’s an interesting thing. Had it been a standalone game I probably would have liked it a lot. There wasn’t anything technically wrong with it, and even the humor remained fairly strong. But I couldn’t like it because I couldn’t stop comparing it to the original, which had been so delightful.

    Interesting trivia:I was coming down with pneumonia when I played and reviewed NOLF2. Just after I finished and filed the review it got so bad I wound up in bed for about three weeks. And for a long, long time I thought maybe my being sick had somehow colored my view of the game, because all the other reviews were so positive. To this day I have a rule – if a game I’m excited about comes along when I’m sick, I wait until I’m better to play it. I was sick when I played NOLF2 and sick when I played Oblivion, and they both broke my heart. I’m not sure if illness affects my opinion or if I have some sort of superpower whereby starting a game when sick somehow causes it to be bad, but it’s a rule.

  11. “…or if I have some sort of superpower whereby starting a game when sick somehow causes it to be bad…”

    That literally made me laugh out loud, at work.

    I’m with you Steerpike. When I was at uni the local music store had a no quibble ‘return if unwanted’ policy (this was before piracy was A Big Deal). Over the course of three years I bought a number of albums and a handful of them went back because I listened to them while feeling absolutely awful, and to my sickly ears they sounded awful. Hell, even the fucking Final Fantasy VIII Piano Collections that I got imported sounded awful. I know it was my illness causing this reaction because when I got better and heard tracks from those returned albums I’d be like ‘actually that song was pretty good… oh, and that one as well… maybe I shouldn’t have taken that back’. A lot of them I’ve re-bought since. As a result I don’t tend to listen to, watch or play anything while feeling horribly ill. Perhaps I possess the same superpower as you.

  12. @Gregg: I think there’s something special when you’re enjoying a new type of gameplay and you are there while it’s happening. I knew GTA III was all the rage but ignored it because it was I pigeon-holed it as some console fascination. That was until I read Warren Spector had said GTA III had raised the bar post-Thief. So I got into GTA III when it was a new thing; it’s possible Saint’s Row has picked up the better aspects of GTA gameplay that have since been lost. Saint’s Row 2 was fun but I wasn’t compelled to finish it and it ran like a dog on the PC. It remains unfinished. I’m told SR3 is a very special experience by Badger Commander for one.

    I didn’t play the original System Shock but I was completely aware that the end game featured sets from the original game. Still, that whole section really didn’t work on me at all. Boss fight utterly depressing in the same way Bioshock failed, as you know.

    @Steerpike: I don’t think you’ve seriously considered the possibility that your superpower is knowing when you’re about to play a bad game and your illness is a clairvoyant message. Back to NOLF2, I think Monolith had put a lot of effort into their new game engine at the time, Jupiter, and I wonder how much of that technical effort distracted from building the game. Then again it wasn’t utter rubbish. It just wasn’t NOLF.

    Let us not forget Steerpike’s Great Axiom: “Never play Dark Souls angry, but it’s okay to play drunk.”

    “Scatator” OMG, Gregg. And you too Beam?

  13. You would be surprised to find that I actually have a weak stomach for solid human waste and would rather put up with horribly mutilated dead bodies any time. It’s part of the reason I’d play Saints Row 3 over 2 (sewage spraying and all) and I won’t play Binding of Isaac. I might have played life as a plant to avoid it if I could have.

    The original NOLF was ported to the PS2. I’m totally going to buy it, because like Max Payne, there’s something wonderfully bizarre about experiencing obvious PC game design on a console.

  14. Beam, maybe there’s an essay in there about sex vs violence vs excrement =)

    I haven’t played NOLF for nearly ten years now, but those moments in the videos still make me laugh. I’d love to hear if the game still stands up today. I played Monolith’s SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division a few years late and found it banal.

  15. The weirdness keeps on coming, because I haven’t thought about NOLF in years, and not two days ago (without having been to ED for a few days) was I reminiscing about how much I LIKED NOLF 2. Zomg!

    BUT, but…but, I have in fact not ever played the first No One Lives Forever. Which I guess I can just call No One Lives Forever, the first. Without foreknowledge of its predecessor to colour my thoughts, I quite liked NOLF 2. Ok, I’m lying, I regarded it– and still do– as one of my favourite shooters ever played. At the time I’d played it I’d probably rank it behind only Half-Life and Max Payne.

    And I haven’t played it since. And it has lived well-regarded in my memory. So there’s some perspective for you lot, whose gaming tastes I all give very much weight to!

    Perhaps I’ll get my hands on the original someday.

  16. Max, I guess you proved our point that NOLF2 is quite loveable if you haven’t played NOLF. If you reviewed NOLF2, however, I might hate you. =)

    I like it! Another Max Payne devotee! That is seriously excellent news. (I think Max Payne 2 is the better game and its narrative is beguilingly labyrinthine, but the original has a special place in my heart.)

  17. The original was awesome (especially at the time) but I agree, The Fall of Max Payne is the masterpiece of the two. I had a really sharp small boxed edition for the PC back when it came out, but in my youthful haste I purged many of my PC boxed editions later on. Imagine my delight when I repurchased a copy last year (albeit, the PS2 version) for $1.99! I asked the clerk at the store why such a good game was priced so ridiculously low, even for a used title … she was a bit dumbfounded by it herself.

    In the end, winner = me.

  18. Max, I’m still surprised that the standard ending of MP2 actually tugged hard at my heart strings. Biggest shock ever. I fucking loved those comic strip sections. I was actually a little irked by who the villain turned out to be, though.

    (That reminds me, some of the dream imagery in the original Max Payne gave me the impression that Payne killed his own family under the influence of V. Was surprised when it was *actually* just internalized guilt rather than repressed memories.)

    I’m so scared to even touch Max Payne 3. I mean, it is not the same genetic lineage at all aside from “hey we own the IP”. I fear a NOLF/NOLF2 disconnect.

  19. From everything I’ve heard about MP3, is sounds like an even greater disconnect.

    Also, thanks for not being specific about MP2’s ending- I was actually going to jump into it very soon after beating the first, but my PS2 couldn’t read the disc. I might have jumped ship to the PC master race version, but even with $3 shipping the PS2 version was cheaper.

    All I know is that I’m going to miss the permanent smug expression on Max’s blocky face from the original.

  20. You get used to the change in the visuals between MP and MP2, particularly because the voice work is all the same and the feel is so similar. I was always amused that Sam Lake, the writer of MP and MP2, was Max Payne’s face in the original. That kind of touch makes it feel more indie, strangely, saving costs by using the warm bodies they already have in place.

    Anyway, I guess we’ll stop talking about Max Payne 2 now, in case we spoil you inadvertently. If you liked Max Payne you will most definitely love the first sequel.

    “The past is a gaping hole. You try to run from it, but the more you run, the deeper, more terrible it grows behind you, its edges yawning at your heels. Your only chance is to turn around and face it. But it’s like looking down into the grave of your love, or kissing the mouth of a gun, a bullet trembling in its dark nest, ready to blow your head off.”

    It’s why I looked forward to Alan Wake you bastards. It was FINALLY released on PC… but after they had thoroughly lost my interest.

  21. Ohhhhh but Alan Wake was so good! I think I once described it as my favourite Max Payne-like game since Max Payne 2. That’s an endorsement! Plus, it’s graphically very beautiful, which I normally, mostly, don’t care about – I think it’s the best looking game of everything I’ve played PS3/360 wise; it adds something that hyper crazy graphics usually don’t. It has to be equally impressive or more on PC.

  22. I’ll get round to Alan Wake. One day, I guess… I watched all of Bright Falls. Does that count?

  23. I wandered over here from Tap-Repeatedly, sort of like a lost puppy.

    I never finished NOLF2. All I remember is an early mission where you have to sneak around some guards. It was in Japan or something, and the guards were ninjas perhaps? It’s been a long time and my memory is faulty. Anyway, I noticed that the guards walked around like cardboard cutouts on a track and it completely broke the immersion. The magic was gone. It seemed like the level and AI design had taken a step backwards.

    Watching those videos reminds me of how much I enjoyed the NOLF soundtrack. Quirky, 60’s spy music is like a wonderful sub-genre all its own.

    And on the topic of games outstaying their welcome, I was ready for Bioshock to be done about 2/3 of the way through.

  24. Hello SB, I’m afraid that I catch lost puppies and refuse to let them out of the house again. I mean, it was Steerpike that wrote the headline: “If Stabbing a Puppy Would Make it Cooler, I Would Stab a Puppy. Bring Me A Puppy” Why would you go back to that?

    Yes, the first level of NOLF2 was in Japan with female ninjas. The level was fairly short and ended with the “death” of the lead character I guess reflecting the opening sequence of something like You Only Live Twice. It was the follow-up Siberian levels where I departed from the realms of fun.

    Yeah the NOLF soundtrack is pretty groovy; they did some wonderful work there and it was also one of the earlier games to implement dynamic music that switched up a gear in combat situations.

  25. Oh yeah, Steerpike and his odd fascination with puppy violence. Most troubling.

    I also remember the talk back then, or maybe this was something Steerpike mentioned in a write-up, about the disappointing sales of the original, and how that was tied to the presence of a female protagonist. Was that seriously an issue (not sure about my facts here)? I just don’t get it. I frankly couldn’t care less if The Operative were a male or a female, as long as she’s interesting. Cate was certainly interesting, and funny and witty and endearing. And after getting to know her, seeing her replaced with a man, or a caricature of herself would be nothing but a let down.

    I guess it’s a general criticism that can be made against the entertainment industry: they always seem to learn the wrong lessons. I’m reminded of the well-known anecdote about that original Star Trek episode in which Kirk kisses Uhura. The producers were somewhat worried about receiving hate mail, but the only negative response they got was from one guy who basically said, “Why the hell is Kirk trying to resist kissing Ohura? She’s hawt!”

    Or maybe I’m just hopelessly out of touch.

  26. Honestly, I don’t know SB. I’m like you, I never had any issues with male/female protagonists that I was aware of… then again, I never felt attracted to the Tomb Raider series. That’s more likely due to the hype around TR by the time I became aware of it. I’m strongly averse to hype.

    (To this day, the only TR game I’ve played is the short TR2 demo.)

  27. I played the original Tomb Raider and really enjoyed it. It contains one of my highest rated “Oh crap!” moments to this day. At the time, it was a pretty unique mix of adventure, puzzle-solving, and movement in a 3D world. Plus it supported the new 3DFX (remember them?) graphics hardware. For me it was a must-have.

    It was definitely a good game, but when I finished it, I was just frustrated enough with portions of it, mainly the excessive combat, to have had enough. When the sequel came out, the sense I got was that it was just more of the same. That wasn’t enough to pull me back in. I mean, I like boobs as much as (possibly more than) the next guy, but the extreme amount of attention (that hype you mentioned) this aspect of the character got was kind of creepy, and a bit of a turn-off . Laura Croft had the hot body, but her personality was so cold and aloof that she never seemed sexy to me. Either way that never really factored into my enjoyment.

    I’ve dabbled in demos of some of the later games, but they weren’t enough to pull me back in.

  28. I had always intended to go back and play Tomb Raider but… time moves on, you know? Mrs. HM had a go at Tomb Raider: Legends but she found the controls irritating and that was the end of that. Didn’t even finish the first level. Maybe I should take it on? Then again I just bought Miasmata because of Steerpike’s impressions piece— I’d rather have a go at that first…

    I survived with an S3 card for awhile – I was not cash-rich and living under the dark crushing shadow of debt – but when I saw Half-Life on a friend’s PC, that was the end of that. I’d had enough of living with stuttering frame rates and less than stunning visuals. It was time for a Voodoo. It’s so weird to think this giant of the industry, creator of the 3D graphics card sector, is now dead and buried.

    And the mountain of debt quivered.

  29. I don’t know, if the TR2 demo didn’t do anything for you, it may not be worth it. You could try some of the more recent ones – I get them all mixed up, but I know one is a remake of the original. I personally wish they would have focused more on the platforming and puzzle-solving, which were both great fun, and downplayed the combat, which was not very fun.

    The whole concept is so intriguing – searching through lost ruins in search of forgotten artifacts. That’s what drew me in initially. Certainly the Prince of Persia games scratch that platforming itch, and the Uncharted games feature the exotic locations and fantastic ruins. Still nothing else is quite like Tomb Raider.

    The lure of better hardware is like a siren call.


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