It’s been a while since I wrote a History Lesson post. You may wish to read my introduction if you haven’t already, and previous History Lesson posts can be found here. This is also the first History Lesson post that I’m writing as I play, rather than after the fact.
Having decided to take a break from Skyrim, I figured I should change gears. Instead of a modern game set in a medieval fantasy world, how about an older game set in the modern world? It seemed like the perfect time to try No One Lives Forever, a game I’ve been meaning to play for a long time. No One Lives Forever was released in 2000 by Monolith, the same studio behind Shogo: Mobile Armor Division (which was the subject of a guest post on this very blog), and it is set in 1967. Inspired equally by James Bond and Austin Powers, it tells the story of ’60s superspy Cate Archer, an operative in the British branch of the international intelligence agency UNITY. While ostensibly a first-person shooter, No One Lives Forever is known more for its implementation of stealth gameplay and for its variety of imaginative set pieces. It’s one of those games that many people hear about but few have played, touted as a classic that never quite reached the status it should have.
It’s also one of the rare games that feature a female protagonist. Let’s talk about that for a second.
It’s no secret that female characters in games have been, and still are, handled poorly. There’s been a lot of media attention on this issue recently, in fact, and there’s a great summary by Brendan Sheffield over at Gamasutra. The problems Brendan highlights are not new to me — I never played the original Tomb Raider games, despite being interested in the gameplay, because I would have been very embarrassed if my parents or anyone else saw the overtly sexualized female protagonist on the cover — but Brendan’s article and the other discussions in the media right now have gotten me thinking about these things with more clarity. And while there are many examples of female characters in games that get cited in these discussions, I’ve never heard anyone talk about Cate Archer from No One Lives Forever. How did Monolith handle her character? Is she someone we should point out as a female lead done right, or wrong? Or some of both?
Unfortunately, first impressions aren’t so good. Here’s Cate Archer talking to her superiors:
Sometimes she wears this instead:
Now, it’s clear that Monolith are going for an Austin Powers vibe for this game, and they wanted some outlandish 1960s fashion for their lead character. But in the Austin Powers films, it makes sense that Austin is the only one who dresses that way; he’s literally an anachronism, someone transplanted from the ’60s into the modern day. Cate Archer is actually living in 1967, yet her superiors and coworkers all favor more traditional business attire. Why is Cate the only one in a crazy ’60s getup, one with some rather revealing cleavage? It seems that the problem of Male Gaze is present here, too.
But then I started playing, and realized that’s not the whole story. I learned that Cate Archer is in fact the first female operative ever employed by UNITY, and that until now she has been relegated to wiretaps and office work, prohibited from going into the field based on her gender. This being 1967, attitudes towards women in the western world are a lot more… old-fashioned, let’s say. When the game opens and Cate is offered her first field assignment, her superiors state in no uncertain terms that she’s only been selected out of necessity, and that they fully expect a woman to be unable to handle the job. This is in spite of Cate’s excellent performance in training, and the fact that she can rattle off dossiers from memory. A female spy is simply not something they can accept. When the first mission began, I was resolved to perform perfectly, to prove to everyone else at UNITY that I was more than capable of handling myself in the field.
You’ll notice that I switched to the first-person there. One of the games that Brendan Sheffield took to task in his article is the new Tomb Raider game, in part because its producer stated that players don’t really identify with the lead, Lara, but rather feel that they are protecting her (you can read his actual quote here). Brendan notes that this is simply Male Gaze in a new form; by encouraging players to watch over the female protagonist rather than project themselves onto her, the developers are reinforcing a male perspective. Not so with No One Lives Forever. The game put me in Cate’s shoes and I identified with her immediately, facing down challenges both physical and social. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that dealt with sexism in such an overt way, especially not one that puts the player on the receiving end, and that alone is enough reason to take a look at No One Lives Forever. And as the game went on I was continually impressed with the mature way the issue was handled. It’s simply well written, treading exactly the right line between poking playful fun at various stereotypes (it does take inspiration from Austin Powers, after all) and fleshing out believable characters. I try to avoid spoilers in my posts so I will say no more about the actual storyline, except that, so far, it has avoided several potential pitfalls and has remained mature and entertaining throughout.
I would say, then, that Cate Archer, appearance aside, is an example of a female character done right. Which is a relief, because the game she’s in is really quite something. It’s tricky to put one’s finger on exactly what makes it so great, because it doesn’t do anything revolutionary; it’s clearly a first-person shooter, spread out over several missions, much like many games we’ve seen before and since. The most obvious thing that sets it apart is the strength of its theme. Monolith went all-out in getting the feel of a ’60s spy thriller, including a Bond-esque soundtrack and even a trippy opening credits sequence complete with a theme song (sample lyric: “‘Cause no one lives forever / But evil never dies”). Cate is issued cool spy gadgets like a barrette with a lockpick attachment or sunglasses with a thermal imaging sensor, in addition to her standard armaments. But the real highlights are the missions themselves, which are imaginative and varied. The key is a very small change to the traditional first-person shooter forumla: the player does not carry equipment through to the next mission. While in recent years it’s become a trend to limit how many guns a player can carry at one time, for a long time all first-person shooters involved gradually collecting more and more weapons as one progressed through the game. Even games that tried to break the traditional first-person shooter mold, like the Half-Life series, held on to this gun collection mechanic. By simply re-assigning equipment for each mission, Monolith were able to be far more varied with their level designs. One mission might see Cate eliminating goons from afar with a silenced sniper rifle, but another might force her to close the distance to deal with the opposition, or even sneak past enemies entirely. One memorable example was a mission in which I started unarmed; I was undercover and not expecting any opposition. When opposition arrived, I was forced to use whatever weapons I found off of enemies in order to make my escape. Eventually I found myself facing an area with several guard posts and searchlights that I needed to get past. In previous missions, I could have eliminated the guards one by one without being detected, but this time, none of the weapons I’d gathered had a silencer. Any shot would instantly alert everyone to my presence, so I was instead forced to sneak through, carefully dodging the searchlight beams. It made for a much more tense and enjoyable experience, simply by limiting my options.
The other thing this accomplishes is that the various weapons and equipment are no longer tied to an ever-increasing ramp of quality. It’s not all about bigger and better weapons; in No One Lives Forever, the lowly silenced pistol is often the most valuable thing in one’s arsenal. It all depends on the mission. I can confirm that the stealthy infiltration missions are indeed expertly executed; while a few require the player to stringently avoid detection of any kind, most simply reward a more stealthy approach while still allowing the player to get into a few small firefights. The stealth mainly involves dodging security cameras and dispatching guards with silenced weapons, although one must be careful to do so in places where the body can’t be seen by any cameras. Sometimes this means luring guards away from their posts, other times it’s simply a matter of carefully observing their patrols and striking at the right moment. The player must also be careful not to make too much noise, both with weapons and footsteps, which means moving slowly or seeking less noisy surfaces to walk on. Pleasingly, being seen or setting off an alarm does not necessarily spell disaster, and missions can be finished guns blazing if one wishes. But I’ve enjoyed sneaking the most. So far, this type of mission has been the most common, but the settings have changed drastically; I’ve infiltrated everything from shipping facilities to secret research labs to offices and skyscrapers.
Stealthy infiltration is hardly the only thing that No One Lives Forever has to offer, though. Monolith went all-out in crafting some really unique and memorable missions. Each is split into several parts (referred to as “scenes”) that allow for some long-form espionage, and there are quite a lot of them. So far, in addition to the aforementioned infiltrations and action-packed escape, I’ve protected a VIP from assassins with my trusty sniper rifle, done a little scuba diving, conducted an undercover interrogation to suss out a suspect’s involvement in clandestine affairs, and even got into a gunfight while free-falling out of an airplane. And all indications are that there’s plenty more missions to come. The manual describes vehicle controls, which I haven’t used yet, and there are a bunch of spy gadgets I haven’t been issued yet either. Quite a long game, then, and a reminder about how much modern games have changed. Take a look at this scene:
Making that today, with current graphics, would require orders of magnitude more polygons and high-resolution textures. It’s no wonder that modern games have gotten much shorter while still becoming ever more expensive to make. No One Lives Forever made me stop and think about how much I value beautiful modern graphics versus other game content. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not against ever-improving graphical fidelity — one of the things I loved about The Witcher 2 was its utterly gorgeous graphics, both for environments and characters — but I question whether we need such visuals in every game, especially if it means it’s too expensive to provide a long-form story complete with a huge array of interesting missions like No One Lives Forever. Playing these missions simply feels good; I can sense how much fun the designers had putting them together, and playing through them is a joyous experience.
Before concluding I must take some time to discuss just how funny the game is. The Austin Powers influence is obvious, including a few overt references, but if I’m honest, No One Lives Forever is funnier than those films. The humor comes mostly from overheard conversations between guards and goons, which range from arguments over the purchase of a monkey to the various health care benefits of working for a secret international criminal organization. These snippets really humanize the enemies and made me feel quite guilty for dispatching them as I moved through the levels. Sure, if they’d seen me they’d have killed me without a second thought, but still… that guy sounded so excited about band practice on Saturday. This was yet another reminder of how games have changed over the years. Modern games have gotten a lot more serious in tone, but back in the late ’90s and early 2000s it was OK for games to be a bit silly. Seeing how well it works in No One Lives Forever, I really hope we’ll see it make a return in modern games. The success of games like Portal and Dungeons of Dredmor make me hopeful that it will.
There’s more I could say, but I should probably leave at least a few things for part 2. I will finish with a few technical details, however, for those interested in trying the game themselves. Unfortunately it’s not available for official purchase anywhere at the moment, but a quick look through ebay reveals some third-party sellers who still have factory sealed copies for sale at around $40 or so. Used copies are cheaper, of course, and if you’re interested I recommend looking through a few other online retailers for the best price. I simply borrowed my brother’s old copy, so I don’t know the best place to buy one myself. Once you get your hands on the game, running it on modern machines can be slightly tricky. The game itself runs fine on my 64-bit version of Windows 7, but the installer does not work on a 64-bit OS. While you can copy some files to your machine to get the game to run, you won’t be able to apply the patches, which is a problem because in v1.0 there’s a bug that causes enemies to be alerted when you shoot someone with a silenced weapon. That makes stealthy play nearly impossible.
Fortunately, a devoted fan re-wrote the installer for both the game and the v1.003 patch so they will work properly on 64-bit systems. You can find those here (look for the post by BuckoA51). The final patch, which brings the game up to v1.004, works without any modifications and can be found here. Once the game’s installed and patched you’re good to go. A few more things: there’s no widescreen support without distorting the image, so I recommend playing letterboxed to a 4:3 resolution if you have a widescreen monitor. I was able to run at 1400×1050, which is only 30 pixels short of the native height on my 1920×1080 monitor, and it looks quite good. The game also has no antialiasing support whatsoever, so the edges of objects can look pixelated and jagged, but I was able to force some high-level antialiasing in my graphics drivers that worked like a charm. You can see the resulting crisp edges in the screenshots I took.
I’ll be back with part 2 once I’ve played some more. Hopefully I’ll have finished and can report on whether Monolith managed to maintain the high standard of writing through to the end, but the game may prove long enough to warrant three posts. We’ll see. I can say that I’m enjoying it enough already to wholeheartedly recommend it. I still hope it will see a re-release from digital distributors, but in the meantime there’s nothing stopping you from picking up an old copy and giving it a go. You won’t be sorry that you did.
Stay tuned for part 2! [EDIT: Part 2 is here.]
EDIT: One other technical niggle I forgot to mention: when I first fired up the game I had some really bad mouse lag. Turns out the solution to this is to force vsync, enable triple buffering in the game and turn mouse smoothing all the way up in the game. Normally mouse smoothing is the cause of mouse lag, but in this case it fixed it. You may also need to turn the mouse sensitivity down in the game, something I wanted to do anyway since I have a high-DPI mouse.