Who Wants to Live Forever?
Who would have thought Monolith could come so far in just a year. After the atrocities of Blood 2 and the rather short-lived Shogo, the Lithtech engine seemed to be marked for mediocrity, but a year on, and No One Lives Forever is one of the best single player first person shooters since Half-Life. Enjoyable on so many levels, and stunningly attractive, it shows just what the technology is really capable of. Although at times rather too linear for its own good, NOLF has a pleasantly paced momentum to it, and the plot, which centres around swinging 60's UNITY agent Cate Archer, is fairly plausible, if a little too Austin Powers-ish. You start out on a fairly routine mission providing protection for the American Ambassador to Morocco, by picking off moustachioed assassins who dash from their trench coat-shrouded holes to try and pick him off. After the mission goes pear-shaped and your fellow agent is lost, you are reassigned on a mission to uncover his murderer, a nasty chap by the name of Volkov, part of an international terrorist organisation called HARM. Your search takes you to the darkened doorways of Berlin, and several infiltration missions later you have more clues. From here on, the game accelerates toward its explosive ending, stopping off in the Caribbean and the Alps en-route for some impressive James Bond-esque action, including sky-diving battles ala the intro to "Moonraker," and some snowmobile rides through the snowy Alps, ala "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."
The Lithtech engine rarely shows any weakness, and despite the fairly large levels, the load times are acceptable (unlike Blood 2's were, it ought to be said). The early Moroccan areas are very nicely done, thanks to some lovely architectural work that actually bears relation to the real world, with high-placed turrets and beige stone walls. Berlin is rather weak, largely because of the fairly generic army-base type textures, but the Caribbean is very nicely done, with misty ruins and lush vegetation. It's safe to say though, that the sections in the Alps take the biscuit. Snow is snow, but the mountaintop castle areas are utterly breathtaking, with the morning sun reflecting in the frost as your snowmobile roars through it. The castle part in particular has a daunting "Where Eagles Dare" type ambience to it, and looks like the sort of unshakable fortress suitable for an arch-villain. Of all the areas in the game, the weakest probably has to be the UNITY headquarters. The Q-branch substitute is utterly devoid of any interesting textures of gadgets beyond what you are being doled out with. Part of the fun in the Bond films is the things that we see going on in the background, like phone booths with airbags, and flame-throwing bagpipes. Perhaps developers Monolith just don't get it. Whatever, it was sorely missed, leaving little more than a carefully prepared maze containing your new gadgets and a few "training" sections, which bear little relation to what happens in the game itself.
Despite with the sublime game engine though, NOLF is rather too linear. Having some enemy beg you to spare his life to help you through a tricky section later in the game would have been nice, or at least something to add to the replayability, but as it is, even the characters you do socialize with, like the American agent Tom Goodman, are rather incongruous. A lot of the time it's all just a sideshow to the Cate Archer slugfest. The AI of your enemies is rather weak at times, too. Although there are some excellent sections where you have to dart from pillar to post avoiding rooftop sniper fire, there's very rarely any danger as long as you shoot accurately and remember to take cover and crouch. Your opponents once shot take milliseconds to recover enough to fire again; the only opportunity you really get to take them out is the split second before the initial volley. As NOLF has dispensed with health packs, instead opting for armour packs, it can be quite difficult to survive an entire level without reloading a few saves here and there. The old mantra of save fast and save often comes into play quite early on, and stays. It reminded me of Soldier of Fortune at times. Thankfully though, although NOLF is hardly original, it does take inspiration from some of the most entertaining games and films in recent history. There's even the odd in-joke for people who are watching closely.
Aside from the nit-picking above, No One Lives Forever has one problem, and one only. Its startling lack of replayability. Once you've completed the single player game, there's no real impetus to go back and do it again. You are bound not to have collected all of the hidden spy documents and such in every level, which is one of your sub-objectives, but crawling inch-by-inch over every single level in the game just to top up your stats at the level's end isn't something to be taken lightly. The multiplayer is fairly meaningless, too, as with the other Lithtech games. Nobody seems to be on any of the Internet's servers, despite GameSpy support, and even when you do eventually discover an occupied server, playable isn't really the word one should use for the action, which is played through pings in excess of 150 (despite this writer's broadband internet connection), and even over a network it isn't terribly exciting, with large, underwhelming levels and inaccurate weapons. However, one thing that does see a lot of replaying here is the second CD, the soundtrack, which features some top 60s tunes that despite their quirkiness are actually quite easy to listen to. The array of sound effects and musical samples throughout the game are also very well placed, and the middle Eastern henchmen voices are strangely appropriate, and an obvious take off of "Mustafa" in the Austin Powers flicks.
Still, although at times little more than a culmination of spy films and stereotypes over the last forty years, No One Lives Forever is an adventure and a half for the single player, and well worth investigating if you're sick of world-threatening plots and Quake-engine oddities. Thoroughly commendable.