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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Criminally Overlooked Games: No One Lives Forever

Here's the real travesty in gaming right now: Companies are raking in money on Call of Duty derivatives, and first-person shooters are blowing up. Yet, with all that cash, no one attempts to do anything different.

In the late 90's/early 00's, the template for first-person shooters wasn't quite as well-defined as it is now, which led to some really cool experimentation. For example, in 1999, The Wheel Of Time was a first-person shooter with a female protagonist based off of a series of Robert Jordan books that used magic as ammo. Good luck sneaking that past Bobby Kotick now.

Part of this was because companies were afraid to make shooters after 1998's Half-Life out of fear that they would suffer in comparison. Everything about Half-Life was just plain better than any other FPS in existence up until that point: The AI, the graphics, the gameplay, the setpieces, everything. If you wanted to compete against Half-Life, you had to do your best not to draw direct comparisons to it.

This brings us to Monolith. Monolith made its name with games like Blood and Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. They had demonstrated a propensity for trying new things in shooters, but most of what they made up until 2001 had more potential than results.

Enter No One Lives Forever. Released in 2001, it was a shooter with a female protagonist set during the swinging go-go 60's that included stealth elements and a healthy dose of humor, along with a weak multiplayer element. In other words, it was everything that modern audiences don't want in a shooter, but it was still awesome nonetheless.

You play as Cate Archer, an agent of UNITY. She's the last spy standing after several colleagues turn up dead by the hands of a mysterious assassin with a glorious moustache. The assassin, Dmitri Volkov, is working for HARM. Who is behind HARM's nefarious plan? Will you need to leap out of an airplane and steal someone's parachute on the way down to find out? Will it require you to electrocute a large opera singer in full valkyrie regalia? Will you have to disable a rocket while the engineers bicker over the loudspeaker?

No One Lives Forever plays extremely well, with the controls being tight and entertaining. The AI is surprisingly good for a game in 2001, with enemies tipping over tables to create cover and doing their best not to charge your position randomly.

Here's something else that blew my mind back in the day: In the years before ragdoll physics, if an enemy died on an incline, their body laid flat on the incline/staircase, jutting out as if rigor mortis took hold suddenly. Sometimes their body parts would be stuck in the incline, too. It looked stupid, but it was surprisingly common.

No One Lives Forever solved this by determining whether or not the enemy died on top of an incline. If they did, the enemy would fall forward and roll down the stairs. Yes, it was a scripted enemy animation, but it went a long way to making the game seem more realistic.

Dynamic music was also pretty new to shooters. Since No One Lives Forever was a stealth/shooter hybrid, having either a constant stream of bombastic fighting music or constant stealth music wouldn't have worked. No One Lives Forever wasn't the first to change musical themes depending on what was happening in-game, but it certainly did a great job at it.

However, what really separates No One Lives Forever from other games is the humor. A few early stabs are a little lame, but when it gets rolling, it gets rolling.

Examples: If you shoot a monkey near the beginning of the game, your game ends with an explanation of "Unacceptable Simian Casualties!" During one area where you end up in a sewer, you'll see a sign bolted to the wall that says "Mandatory FPS Sewer." When you're given a knockout gas weapon, you're instructed to use it on a scientist who's been working too hard and refuses to go to sleep. You come across a man whispering sweet nothings to a goat. You run into a large, drunk man nursing a martini repeatedly throughout the course of the entire game, even on the moon.

That's the kind of game this is: It just plain doesn't care. Its only objective is to entertain you. That's it. If that means you're going to be treated to a sequence where you have to use really bad pick-up lines as codewords with fellow spies, so be it.

That's missing in modern shooters: A sense of fun. Underneath all the grit and grime of today's brown-colored shooters, there's no real sense of joy. I suppose people don't want that in a shooter anymore, but there's room for it, if it's done right.

Of course, all the humor in the world doesn't help if your game isn't very good. Fortunately, No One Lives Forever is incredibly fun to play, made some major leaps forward for shooters in general, has some extremely memorable sequences, tells a good story. It struggled at retail and is largely forgotten today, but it doesn't deserve to be. If you can find a copy, go ahead and play it. You'll see why No One Lives Forever is Criminally Overlooked.