After launching the anime-inspired mech-shooter SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division, Monolith Productions was down in the dumps. Although SHOGO had reviewed pretty well, internally Monolith's view on the game reflected my own when I returned to it a few weeks ago. In both style and substance SHOGO fell short of the developer's expectations, and in some areas it was downright broken.
Nevertheless, Monolith saw the game as a failure, and their misery was compounded by the equally problematic release of Blood 2: The Chosen. The difficulties encountered by both games left Monolith visibly bruised, forcing it to restructure and let go of its publishing arm. With its identity compromised, Monolith needed an extraction, and it would be down to super-spy Cate Archer to undertake the mission.
Although she nearly didn't.
What's fascinating about The Operative: No One Lives Forever (henceforth referred to as NOLF, as I'm not writing that out every time) is that in some ways it suffered just as turbulent a development as Monolith's previous 3D shooters. Moreover, you can see the results of this in the game. There's a lot of stuff in NOLF that simply doesn't work.
The glitches and wonk which pervaded SHOGO and Blood 2 after it are still very much present in Monolith's beloved spy shooter. The difference with NOLF is that it succeeds in two areas where Monolith's previous games failed, namely style and scope. Monolith present us with a riotous pastiche of 60s spy fiction, one that is funny and smart and so incredibly vivid. At the same time, it offers a genuinely brilliant FPS adventure that is so vast in scope and inventive in execution that the fact that maybe a third of it falls flat simply doesn't matter.
It's also, of course, one of if not the only 90s shooter that lets you play as a woman (technically NOLF released in 2000, but in form and function its recognisably a product of the preceding decade). Cate Archer is a cat burglar recruited by the British spy agency UNITY, and is relegated to bodyguard duty and emissary work by the resolutely masculine world of British "Intelligence". That is, until several British spies are murdered, and UNITY are forced to send Cate into the field to discover who is behind the killings.
It's worth dwelling on the nature of NOLF's protagonist for a moment, because Cate's character is so fundamental in establishing the game's final tone. In early iterations, Monolith opted for a traditional male protagonist very much in the Bond mould. But in a shock twist, they struggled to say or do anything interesting with the character. Bond had been parodied to death even before the sixties ended, his character lampooned in films like Casino Royale and Our Man Flint - the latter of which Monolith took direct inspiration from.
Then Monolith had a brainwave: make the protagonist a woman, but keep the core characteristics of Bond. All of a sudden, Monolith went from having nothing to say about 60s spy fiction to having everything to say about 60s spy fiction.
If there's one thing that stands out most about NOLF all these years on, it's the script. Not only is it laugh-out-loud funny at times, but the way Archer skewers the inherent misogyny of her less-competent superiors is delightful. What's more, behind the humour is an earnest exploration of the obstacles put in Archer's way because of her gender, the extend to which has to over-perform just to be viewed as "equal" to her male peers, and how savagely she is criticised for failure due to events way beyond her control.
There are some stumbles, such as the fact that the first time we meet Archer is in the shower, which risks undermining all the good work Monolith do with the character later on. But there's also intelligent and amusing commentary in there too. There's a great running gag where all the codephrases which Archer's contacts use to liaise with Archer are formed as sexual advances. But these agents are absolutely mortified about using them, and even prod at the fourth-wall as they discuss the mindset of the codephrase creators. "These codephrases have a somewhat confessional tone to them, don't you think?" one spy comments to Archer.
Cate is the backbone of NOLF, the foundation that gives Monolith the confidence to push the boat out in its affectionate mockery of 60s spy fiction. Cate's gadgets, for example, are all given a feminine twist, such as lipstick grenades and a perfume bottle that contains blinding and even corrosive sprays.
Beyond the quality of the writing, the other thing that stands out about NOLF is the ludicrous ambition of its level design. Monolith's globe-trotting spy adventure makes even the most wide-ranging Call of Duty look like a rainy weekend in Skegness. NOLF sees you travel to Morocco, Berlin, the tropics, the Alps. Many of these levels have aged quite poorly, particularly those that take place outdoors. But it still feels sumptuous and exotic as a traditional spy film should.
Plus, there are a few setpieces that still have a surprising impact, such as an early mission in a German nightclub with gorgeously garish psychedelic wallpaper. Later on there's a genuinely spooky underwater mission, in which you must search a wrecked cargo-ship patrolled by sharks and enemy divers. My favourite mission, however, is Low Earth Orbit, which sees Cate infiltrate a sprawling space-station to retrieve a cure for a virus that turns people into walking bombs. Featuring a neon-drenched space-club, and Moonraker-style laser guns that instantly vaporise enemies, it's NOLF at its maddest and most brilliant.
All of these elements make NOLF worth returning to, but it's not an easy game to play today. One of its big selling points is how it let you play it either as a straight shooter or as a stealth game. But if you try to play it as a stealth game, you will have a horrible time. The AI is way too perceptive and aggressive to make stealth enjoyable, while neither the levels nor your equipment are built with sneaking in mind.
In hindsight, it's easy to see that NOLF would have benefited from some slightly more ruthless editor's scissors, especially directed toward some of the interminably long cutscenes that take place between missions. But it's important to remember that back in 2000, the shooter to beat was still Half Life, a similarly indulgent FPS that broke ground with its approach to storytelling. Attempting to be bigger and better than Half Life is no mean feat, and it's not surprising that Monolith's lofty ambitions come at a price.
Indeed, in his own retrospective on NOLF from 2009, John Walker lamented that you couldn't make a shooter like NOLF in a modern development studio, because it would be too expensive. But in 2017, NOLF can't come back for different reasons. A legal tryst between three publishers, Activision, Warner Bros, and 20th Century Fox, means nobody knows who owns the NOLF trademark, and even Night-Dive studios, the champions of resurrecting old games, couldn't successfully navigate the legal quagmire NOLF is buried in.
What makes this doubly sad is that I don't think what John said in 2009 is remains true. In fact, I know it isn't, because someone has made a shooter like NOLF very recently. MachineGames' Wolfenstein: The New Order is basically a NOLF sequel wearing a Nazi uniform, boasting a similarly stylised aesthetic, a surprisingly strong emphasis on storytelling, and offering the player a choice between stealth and shooting. It even has a space level.
Wolfenstein shows there's absolutely a market for that kind of mad and colourful shooter, and I think a modern NOLF sequel would have an equal if not better chance of success in 2017, now that the industry is slowly coming around to the fact that women sometimes maybe occasionally like to play games as well. Sadly, until the ownership of the NOLF trademark is settled, we'll have to be content with the fact that the spirit of Cate Archer lives on in the watery blue eyes of B.J. Blazcowicz.