Ah, another belated review copy from Vivendi, but rather like those contemptuous cinema ads from the mid-90s, this time... it's laudable. Indeed, far from a hot potato that nobody wanted, NOLF2 was more like a Kylie calendar to the Eurogamer office, and there were some pretty ugly scenes when it came to choosing the reviewer. Fortunately, as a master of ugly scenes I triumphed over adversity, and now I've triumphed over NOLF2, and, I'm delighted to tell you, it's a bloody good game.
Who wants to live forever?
No One Lives Forever 2 has preserved everything that we loved about No One Lives Forever (which we're going to have to abbreviate from now on, partly because I keep typing 'Livers'), and not only expands on it, but cuts out all the junk that made it annoying! If only more developers did this. The only slight irritation is the adherence to a two-CD strategy. We have had this lovely DVD format for a long time now, folks - can we please use it?
Beyond that though, NOLF2 is a technical poster-child. A quick reference sheet listing all the controls (amazingly in a default configuration we didn't even have to alter) fell out of the box when we opened it, and upon installation we were presented with a simple wizard-style approach to detail levels, and instructed that Medium would fit our rig best - it did. Like the label on the tin said, High detail was a bit beyond us. When exactly did PC developers learn to be honest? Cripes.
So, five comfortable minutes of disc-swapping installation and configuration later, NOLF2 was up and running, and we sank into the role of Cate Archer, '60s spy extraordinaire, once again. Cate is still working for UNITY trying to thwart criminal organisation HARM's dastardly work, which this time could lead the US and USSR to nuclear war. Project Omega, as it's known, will have to be undone in a campaign spanning twelve locations (Japan, America, India, etc) with forty or so levels to overcome.
Whilst saving the world (again), Cate will run into a number of her old friends and enemies (everyone from Bruno, Santa and Dr. Schenker to crazed Scot Magnus Armstrong) and not everyone swings the same way as last time. Of course there are new and typically witty additions to the fold, like the teams of mime enemies, led by a wordless lunatic, and the legions of ninjarettes, who never seem to give up, even when faced with a tornado in a trailer park...
All around the world
One of the biggest changes to NOLF2 is the game's newfound reliance on stealth. An oft-sidelined issue in the first game, Cate will have to worry a lot more about avoiding detection, and the game has changed shape considerably to allow for this. Naturally UNITY has imbued our favourite pink-clothed super spy with all sorts of new toys and abilities in addition to old faves like the lipstick stun gun - new toys include a mechanical cat, on-screen light indicators and an arsenal of new things to distract attentive HARM employees with. Everything from banana peels and smoke canisters to a motion-tracking dart gun.
The light indicator pops up when you slide into one of the game's "hiding places". These aren't marked but they're pretty obvious - a narrow slit in the wall a few feet away from an enemy position, a clump of bushes or a dark alleyway, etc - and when you step into one an eye appears in the middle of the screen and turns from beige to purple. Once purple, only significant movement, gunfire or something equally oafish can alert guards to your presence. Other new abilities allow you to lean round walls using Q and E and haul enemy bodies off into the gutter and search them for toys - the primary method for uncovering pick-ups in NOLF2.
However well the stealth works in some areas though, it's let down in others by shabby enemy AI and other shortfalls. Despite an on-screen radar alerting you to mission objectives and so on, there's no MGS2-style field of view for enemy soldiers, and they can't always see you moving even if you're only a few metres away directly in front of them. Your own speed and positioning (and avoidance of bottles and other loud nuisances) is far more important. Although you could let it go simply as 'another approach', we prefer fields of view and more MGS2/Splinter Cell style stealth mechanics.
That said, the enemy AI perks up once they've seen you. Henchmen/women gang up on you, scooting through shortcuts if you try to run and even ambushing you. Sadly they still do stupid things, like running up and standing in exactly the same spot as a downed enemy, so you don't even have to adjust your sniper scope later on, but on the whole the effect stands up, and this being a NOLF game, you can always put it all down to their stupidity as henchpeople. If their spoken dialogue (often alerting you to hidden intel, mess hall 'issues' and female ninja sleeping habits) is anything to go by, they're far too pre-occupied to spot Cate waltzing slowly through their line of sight anyway.
Perks 'r' Us
Level design is fairly flexible and non-linear, with objectives scripted tightly around finding particular items, which are sometimes chained together. Finding a power coupling to restore the power to open a door can be boring and we're pretty sure this was the mainstay of games that pre-dated Half-Life, but if you can overlook the at-times identikit FPS level design, then you're in for a treat. Unfortunately it's a treat you'll earn at the expense of much backtracking (particularly in the larger levels) simply because you missed that one shred of paper or critical dropbox. Turning that one upside down, another of NOLF2's flaws is the way that presently indecipherable but clearly portable items can't often be moved - something borne out in the very first level in fact. Scooting through a Japanese village, we missed the briefcase containing the decoder, and thus the three question-marked papers we found dotted around had to be revisited once we had. Simply scooping them up and then applying the decoder in the menu would have been a bit easier...
Thankfully, Monolith clearly understands that simply dipping NOLF in an MGS2 acid bath isn't likely to result in a suitable successor, and from hereon in the list of flaws grows short. And for every wrong in NOLF2 there seems to be a right anyway - like, in this case, the presence of a compass to track objectives, and an excellent inventory system. Right-click is your use button, context-sensitive, and the inventory, intelligence and weapons menus are all almost seamlessly integrated - available with one-button stab at any point.
Another key improvement is the skill system. You earn skill points throughout NOLF2 for collecting intelligence, killing enemies, avoiding detection, finding secrets and lots more, and from these you can boost your marksmanship, speed, accuracy, gadget skills, you name it. Skill points also provide a nice incentive to scour the world for bonus items - and the game is undoubtedly a lot more engrossing and enjoyable if you do try and find every last scrap of intel to flesh out the story. More often than not you'll get a laugh for your efforts too.
And like an invisible car in an ice palace to all that has come before, NOLF2 looks stunning. We've not always been a bit fan of the Lithtech engine, mostly thanks to atrocities committed during its early years, but the draw distance, level of architectural detail and smooth running of this engine really helped keep NOLF2 in our good books. Just through choosing the appropriate settings at the beginning (literally four or five button-clicks), We ended up with a perfect balance all the way through.
Even in the medium detail bracket (which we reckon is about where the average rig will fall), the buildings, swaying grass, explosive waterfalls, rippling reflections, real-time lighting and shadowing and emotionally active characters help shape a world of pleasant cartoon depth. We were particularly taken with the use of eyes, which move individually and often prompt some amusing "he's behind you" visual cues and eye-rolling at the cringeworthy script! Character movement in general is also well handled, and weapon designs and other incidental details are lovingly treated. And the mechanical cat mews occasionally - bonus.
In another boon over the original, extensive, pointless cut sequences have been dropped in favour of curt, relevant ones, and the rather boring Santa's Workshop escapades have been axed entirely. Santa's back of course, but now he chats to you via mechanical birds with glowing green eyes which pop up throughout the game. Nauseatingly cute and Austin Powers-style funny.
So, NOLF2 has most things licked - presentation, visuals, stealth, level design, longevity. Anything else? Oh well yes, there's also a nice little co-operative campaign mixing various bits of the single-player game into a short-lived adventure, and the deathmatch mode is straightforward and entertaining. However we reckon that given the way the PC FPS genre has behaved lately, NOLF2 will skip off into multiplayer obscurity pretty quickly.
All in all, your mission-should-you-choose-to-accept-it is a very enjoyable one. There are more spy film clichés than the 1960s managed and more dodgy accents than you'll see on the panto stage this Christmas, but NOLF2 is an excellent game nonetheless. Flawed in places? Yes, thanks to backtracking, repetition and some curious design decisions, but fans of the original should be flicking coins across counters to distract shop assistants immediately, and if you like first person shooters and have a sense of humour, the only other thing to stop you playing this game is the central role of a pink-suited woman. Are you man enough?