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
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.
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.