Sometimes I hate legal battles over who owns the rights to what game. While I’m a big believer in physical copies, I’d still rather oft-lauded classics were available digitally than… not at all.
So here we are at No One Lives Forever, a 60s-spy-thriller-based FPS from the same people that made my beloved Shogo: Mobile Armor Division (and more surprisingly, the studio who would go on to make Lord of the Rings fanfic Shadow of Mordor), and a game that’s consistently revered by critics whenever it’s mentioned. But I missed it at the time, and it has been locked in a legal dungeon for twenty-odd years so I’ve not had the chance, until… Windows XP computer, internet auction site, still-factory-sealed box, you know this story by now.
No One Lives Forever
NOLF is a slightly peculiar blend of a game.
On the surface, it’s a full-on immersive sim: you’ve got a heap of well-known stealth mechanics based on features like distracting guards to sneak behind them, staying out sight of security cameras and walking more quietly on carpet.
Then you start playing and it regularly forces you into full-on shoot-outs. It’s left me feeling somewhat confused; am I really that bad at stealth, or are the odds stacked so thoroughly against me being stealthy because I’m actually supposed to be guns-blazing at many points?
Guards do seem to have incredibly sensitive vision. During the tutorial, you’re told that ducking out and immediately back behind a wall should leave you unspotted, but in practice, that sliver of time is so miniscule that you’re spotted almost instantly. While it’s possible to listen for footsteps to know a guard is present, you can’t know if he’s facing towards you or away from you without stepping out (and you can’t get a handle on his patrol route without getting a look). Curiously, there is no “lean” button that might make this more reliable.
In most missions, there is no way to turn off the blaring alarm once it’s been activated, so a stealthy slip-up means it really is time to start shooting rather than time to run for a hiding spot until the heat dies down. However, there are times were even being spotted is an instant failure, let alone allowing somebody to get to an alarm panel. This means your finger must be permanently glued to the quicksave button (F6 and it cannot be remapped) as you inch your way round often too-tight obstacle courses of eagle-eyed guards.
But then you get to choose your loadout at the start of each mission, from an ever-increasing roster of items. While one or two might be forced upon you as things you cannot proceed without, others might just let you get into side areas that would be otherwise inaccessible; and again, there’s that implication that you can choose to be stealthy or not by choosing different tools even though the moment-to-moment gameplay rarely works out that way.
Maybe this is why I sometimes feel like the only option is to let the alarm go off and just start shooting. Maybe there’s some combination of equipment items I haven’t unlocked yet that will allow me to bypass the overly-interlocking patrol routes and camera sweeps. Even so: the narrative frequently exhorts you “not to get caught” and berates you for failing to be stealthy, even though the very same narrative just forced you to start shooting.
On the other hand, maybe that’s thematically appropriate. The story of No One Lives Forever is the tale of Cate Archer, a female spy in the male-dominated world of the 60s intelligence community. After being relegated to desk duty for years, she’s only reluctantly given actual field missions because the big bads have been offing the other agents and there’s nobody else left. So being dropped into situations where it’s literally impossible for you to succeed sounds exactly like what her unrepentantly sexist superiors would do, even if it doesn’t make for an entirely fun gameplay experience.
At least all the classic spy staples are out in force: sunny back-streets, clubs and fancy hotels, boats and planes and trains, swanky offices and industrial warehouses and secret research facilities. Even if the levels tend to be a little too linear to make best use of the variety of stealth mechanics available, they are really nice: feeling perfectly comfortable and realistic in their scope and scale (unlike, say, the cavernous Parisian apartments of Deus Ex).
The final element that sets my teeth on edge is that the game in fact encourages you to replay previous missions with new equipment, once you’ve unlocked new items by advancing further through the campaign.
For such a story-driven game this seems particularly odd, as each mission comes with cinematics and dialogue choices and evolving objectives: levels really are plausible, physical places, not arbitrary challenge courses. I’m fine with statistical breakdowns at the end as a bit of fun, but the layer of actually rating your performance gives it a sour edge. (And another point in favour of its flexibility actually being a lie, as the system’s definition of a “perfect” run might not match yours…)
So I’m afraid I can’t say I’ve enjoyed my time with No One Lives Forever all that much. It doesn’t ever feel like it makes the best use of its massive swathe of mechanics — it feels like there is precisely one way to tackle each level (which is mostly mowing down hordes of guards) even though the ability to choose your loadout before each mission suggests that it should be possible to be more free-form. The narrative frequently bumps into the gameplay and the dialogue is windy enough to get quite boring.
It has its moments, there a flashes of greatness, beautiful locations and plenty of wry smiles, but ultimately it’s… well, I guess I’d say it’s nothing special.
Ah well, it only cost a few quid.