A few years ago, UNITY spy Cate Archer made her debut in "No One Lives Forever," and while the game was not perfect, it came at the right time to give the First Person Shooter genre a much-needed twist. Sierra has teamed up with Monolith once more to create a bigger - and better - sequel. With a freshly-released demo, everybody has had a chance to take a look at what's in store for the final product, and the press has had a chance to look at an extensive beta containing four of the six parts of the game. Since it's a beta, the game is still in development, and there are still some bugs and coding errors that need to be ironed out. Either way, we were ready to dive into the world of Cate Archer, our favorite female spy!
There are four different settings to choose from: easy, normal, hard and superspy. Oh yea baby, YEA!
The game is a First Person Shooter (FPS) but also relies heavily on strategy as well as stealth and, if I may say so, creates a perfect mix between the two. You start off with a simple crossbow to quietly pick off the initial guards in the Japanese town, and your arsenal contains two more weapons of stealth - a samurai sword and shuriken. Of course, any noise you make will alert the guards in the vicinity so it is advised to walk slowly and crouch or sneak when approaching them. To give the game a more accurate feeling, materials such as grass, carpet, and snow muffle footsteps while others such as metal, tiles, etc. will amplify them. Being clumsy and knocking over items such as bottles and vases doesn't help either, but on the other hand, those same items can be used as a diversion to lure guards in a certain direction.
All over the game, you will find "hidden places" (you can recognize those places easily since an "eye" will appear on the screen) where you can hide in the shadows as long as you stand perfectly still. Of course, when an enemy has already spotted you, such a place becomes obsolete, but if not, these hiding places give you a perfect spot to hide, wait for a guard to pass by, and attack them from behind. Since your health auto-generates, those hiding places are also useful to take a pause and get back to your senses.
In addition to completing the main objective, each mission also offers opportunities for bonus assignments which will give you extra skill points upon completion. The sub-plots can range from getting past crucial points in the game undetected, to collecting specific documents. All of these are "optional" but give you extra experience which you save and then apply through the character editor to upgrade a skill of your choice (stealth, weapon accuracy, stamina, health, etc.).
A big improvement over the original "No One Lives Forever" is the fact that once you kill an enemy, it is a smart move to pick them up and carry them somewhere out of sight and drop them in a corner so that other guards or patrolling enemies won't stumble upon them and raise the alarm. You can also just knock somebody unconscious (i.e., using your stun gun), but they WILL wake up again and get back to business, so to avoid them attacking you again, it is advised to "search" the bodies and take away their weapons, ammo, and other useful items before they wake up again. There is a quick search that gives you instant results, or a thorough search which can reveal extra items (ranging from useful intel to totally useless crap, such as a pen, a comb or toothpick). Of course, the difference between the two is mainly the "time" it takes to perform, and a thorough search for additional weapons is not advised while under attack (one of the skills you can upgrade is to make those "searches go faster). Also, while carrying dead or unconscious bodies out of the way you cannot use any of your weapons or defend yourself, so only use it when the coast is clear. As is standard in today's FPS and also an improvement over the original NOLF, you can now lean and peek around corner, move whilst doing so as well as take aim and shoot, all at once.
The game starts off in Japan, where you are ordered to investigate a rumored international crime convention. Your objective is to discreetly photograph (and ONLY photograph) the people attending this meeting. The on-site security is being provided by a Ninja Clan, and they are already "expecting" you. A female counterspy has been ordered to make you feel at home, permanently.
The next portion of the game brings Cate to Siberia, where she is in charge of investigating a possible invasion of ..... New weapons have been introduced into Cate's arsenal, and she now has at her disposal a tranquilizer gun, AK-47, and several other gizmos. The coolest thing here is the ability to drive the snowmobile (although the actual snowmobile HUD could have been less cheesy and cheap looking).
Finally, Cate must infiltrate Project Omega's main compound under the cover of night. Yet again, new gadgets and weapons become available. Speaking of weapons, most of them have extra features, such as a choice of two types of ammunition for the AK47, the Bad Kitty Proximity Mine not only chases or lures away the guards but also explodes to wipe them out, your G180 utility launcher not only shoots tranquilizer darts but also has special ammo to disable camera's, and so on. All of these gadgets are made available by Cate's sidekick, a Q-like figure going by the name of Santa who, amazingly, communicates with you by means of a mechanical bird placed left and right in the level. Don't ask!
Some rather irritating points about NOLF2 are the rather hefty loading times and the rather high-end system requirements. Taking into consideration that this is a beta, the code might not be optimized yet (hopefully). Each time I started a new game, or loaded a saved game, the play was very shaky, to the point where I often got killed before I even got to move, or I was stuck in a choking screen. Tested on a P4 1.8 system with a Geforce 4 MX, this is not quite "normal."
The Artificial Intelligence of your enemies is some of the most impressive we have EVER seen in a game, pretty damn solid all throughout the game. In most cases where a stealth approach is needed, you will find it near impossible to defeat your opponents once you have been spotted. As soon as they see or hear you, they will raise the alarm and call for backup and in a matter of seconds, the place will be swamped with guards or ninjas. A nice little addition here would be that you can actually "disable" the alarm if you manage to sneak up to it while the guards are on patrol.
When ninjas or guards encounter bodies of colleagues, they will try to wake them up (in case you just knocked them unconscious), by nudging or simply kicking them, get their gear and weapons and attack you, or call for backup. Open doors will make them suspicious and is reason enough to investigate. Your enemies will perform cartwheels or roll over to avoid your attacks, or counter attack in groups from several angles as well as take cover, lay flat on the ground, turn over tables and use them as shield, or hide behind doors. The enemy AI has various stages of alertness since noises or open doors will make them suspicious and so they will casually check the area while finding bodies or hearing gunshots will make them search for the cause (obviously being Cate Archer), raise the alarm and call for backup.
Visually the game looks spectacular. Monolith's Jupiter engine is excellent, seamless transition from outdoor indoor and back, highly detailed characters with great skins, no arguments at all. The "Gore" level is kept to a minimum and is not very prominent, apart from some blood splashing upon impact and a red glare on the ground.
In between levels, there are a ton of simply amazing cut scenes. I think this is the first time where I can notice in a game that the lip synch is actually real lip movement according to the words and not random movement like some dubbed Kung-fu flick. I know it is a detail and doesn't really contribute a lot to the game, but I noticed it right off the bat and I love it!
Monolith has spent a great deal to develop the environment in NOLF2 as accurately as possible. For instance, the water ripples look VERY realistic; if it weren't for the fact the water looked a bit TOO clean, you might actually think that you are looking at real water. The game also features an abundance of excellently-rendered graphical details that contribute to a rich gaming environment, such as falling snow, grass and trees gently waving in the breeze, your scooter wobbling when driving over dead bodies on the ground, gas containers and fire extinguishers exploding when shot, and … just too many to name!
With all the graphical details, the developers seem to have skipped the fact that, since you can pick and carry bodies around, you cannot "pile" bodies on top of each other. When you try to do so, they blend into each other, and you end up with a human octopus lying on the ground.
While playing NOLF2, one will take notice of the ambient sound and background music right away. During the opening menu, you encounter music - best described as a mix between the James Bond and Austin Powers theme songs - that will put you right into the spy mood. Inside the game, the ambient sound and music scores are very well done, and balanced. The music plays in the background while you are sneaking around, but the tone and tempo of the music quickly changes as soon as you come to a crucial point in the level or are detected by enemy ninjas or soldiers. We saw this "dynamic" sound already being used in Fox/Sierra's "Die Hard," and they have perfected its use (can you say bigger budget?) in NOLF2. Each level has its own custom music typical for the settings or environment that particular chapter is situated (the Japan chapter has a snappy Oriental tune, and the Siberia chapter has a fitting Russian-themed tune).
The game is also filled with humorous conversations between guards or ninjas. When you sneak up on them, it is fun to listen to them talk about how fat some of their colleagues are, why they don't have dates, gossiping about their bosses, etc. You can also "enjoy the show" and watch guards dance to music, take a nap, or watch them loaf around.
Unfortunatly the beta we received did not have any multiplayer support yet so we will have to wait for the final version to arrive before we can put it to the test. The initial NOLF did not really cause any great MultiPlayer frenzy so Monlith promised that this time around they would create a more appealing online experience (and add replay value) to the sequel. From what we have heard the maps for multiplayer will be totally different than the one's you encounter in the singleplayer part, which is always a good sign, and there will be DeathMatch and cooperative multiplayer modes.
The gameplay in "No One Lives Forever: A Spy In Harm's Way" is a perfect mix between pure action, tactics, stealth, sneaking around, and even some RPG (through the character skill upgrades), something I cannot remember having seen in any other game, so there is something for everybody. Boasting some of the best graphics you will have seen up to date, Sierra/Monlith really outdone themselves this time. If they can fix the little issues remaining in NOLF2, then they surely have another serious contender for Game of the Year on their hands. Two Thumbs UP!