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Game Name:  No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way
Developer:  Monolith Productions
Publisher:  Sierra Entertainment
PC Release Year:  2002
Review Date:  June 1, 2014

To what few readers the site has, I say this:  Happy anniversary!  While this post is definitely off-schedule, thanks to the ridiculously long slog through Neverwinter Nights and some large projects at work, it has been a little over one year since I started my journey into the past of PC gaming.  Considering it all began with a post about a groovy first-person shooter that mixed the swinging ‘60s with Goldeneye for Nintendo 64, it seemed only natural to put the sequel through its paces for this special occasion.  No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy In H.A.R.M.’s Way (henceforth known as NOLF2) is definitely a game that fans of the series can get behind, because it does not deviate radically from what made the original great.  You still view the world through the eyes of superspy Cate Archer, there are more than enough jokes to lighten up a genre that tends to take itself way too seriously, and the strong stealth shooter mechanics remain intact.  Combine these factors with the impressive graphical overhaul that occurred between releases, and this title is a no-brainer to recommend.  However, just because it is worth playing today does not mean it is better than what came before it.  For how big and bold the developers went with the original, the sequel just seems pale in comparison.

Diminished risk-taking in NOLF2 is best exemplified by the choice of characters and how they interact with each other.  If you happen to follow industry news at all, you have undoubtedly heard reports of the blatant sexism towards female gamers and game designers.  Whether it is the guys from Penny Arcade trivializing rape by making jokes about it, or a Blizzard game director disregarding interview questions about how they hyper-sexualize their female characters, there is definitely an old boys’ club mentality that pervades video game culture.  With this in mind, it is pretty incredible to think that nearly a decade and a half ago, Monolith Productions was willing to establish both a heroine and villainess as the stars of their new franchise.  While I am glad they did not burden the original title with some kind of grand political statement, I definitely respected the awkward comedic moments that ensued.  It was almost like watching an episode of Mad Men, where a given scenario is only funny with 50 years of hindsight.

Unfortunately, this sequel almost completely drops these gender themes by the wayside.  From the main character’s perspective, the battle of the sexes is over and she has won.  Following the death of Mr. Smith in the original game, there is no longer someone among the good guys who is vocally challenging our heroine and threatening her position internally, just because she is a woman.  His replacement happens to be one of Cate’s friends, so she has naturally been promoted into a fully functioning UNITY operative and is no longer forced to prove herself.  Among the H.A.R.M. crew, a void has definitely been left by the death of Baroness Dumas, who took her husband’s riches and used it to build up an evil empire.  What do we get in her place?  A whiny man named Eustace, who is supposed to illicit laughter when he his dismissive and rude to his mother on the phone.  This sequel still has its moments, like when Cate is subjected to ridiculous pickup lines while she is undercover in the field, but these attempts at humor are way more juvenile than what is found in the original game.  It is sadly like being downgraded from Don Draper to Austin Powers.

Equally disappointing, although for entirely different reasons, is the level design of NOLF2.  It is not that the chosen locales are bad; they are just nowhere near as clever and fun as the original.  Ms. Archer’s first outing was a very clear homage to the James Bond films of Sean Connery and Roger Moore, with space stations, airplanes, and mountaintop fortresses among the many highlights.  Along with these settings came the amazing gameplay elements that went with them; like using ray guns to disintegrate enemies, fighting henchmen for a single parachute as you fall from the sky, and shooting down helicopters while riding a gondola.  So what is the problem with this approach?  There are only so many Bond movies to draw these set pieces from, and the first game pilfered the best of them.  Monolith Productions tried valiantly to infuse originality into their sequel with some entirely new scenarios.  At one point, you will find yourself battling ninjas in a Cleveland trailer park with a tornado bearing down on your location.  While I can honestly say I have never seen something quite like that in another video game, it definitely did not make me feel like I was channeling a secret agent from the movies.

So without providing that connection to classic spy films, what makes NOLF2 worth your time?  Simply put, it is the ability channel an actual secret agent.  My absolute favorite moment from the playthrough sees our heroine in a conversation with a H.A.R.M. double agent.  The chat ends with the man telling Cate that her hands are dirty and she should go wash them.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a hidden message appear on the nearest bathroom’s mirror, when I turned on the hot water so it would steam up.  Little touches like this are a welcome addition to the series, and define the overall experience of the title.  It is nice to be reminded that spycraft is more often about passcodes and secret signals, than it is about being an action hero.

Another welcome addition to NOLF2 is its willingness to branch out beyond traditional first-person shooter mechanics.  Considering every new release today seems to incorporate some type of experience scheme, it is easy to see its implementation in this title through cynical eyes.  As gamers, we have come to expect these systems as a way of gating off content and padding playthrough times.  However, in this particular case, it is used to great effect as a means of customizing Ms. Archer to fit the player’s style.  Prefer to hide in the shadows and strike without warning?  Buffing your stealth score will make you even better on that front.  Want to charge around like Rambo in large and frantic gunfights?  Throwing points in Stamina and Armor will help you there. 

Switching gears, adventure gamers will undoubtedly be fans of the Antarctica mission.  One of H.A.R.M.’s science experiments has gone horribly wrong, and you are left to investigate what happened in a crumbling base full of dead and dying bodies.  While exploring the level to find the tools, wiring, and batteries that would be needed to restore power to the station and open a series of locked doors, a sense of dread dropped over me like the first time I entered the underwater corridors of Rapture.  Imagine my surprise when I was introduced to what I can only imagine is the prototype for Bioshock’s Big Daddy.  The super soldier you find, and subsequently have to escape from, is a monstrosity befitting the creative mind of someone like Ken Levine, and one that definitely infused an unexpected breath of fresh air into an otherwise cheery game.

New components like these, and a strict adherence to the underlying gameplay from the original, are more than enough for me to enthusiastically recommend NOLF2.  It is both a great addition to an excellent franchise, and a solid title that can easily stand on its own feet.  However, there was definitely a certain sadness that accompanied my playthrough.  Seeing how the developers cut out almost all of the satirical commentary on sexism in the ‘60s, it makes me glad that conflicts over licensing rights are keeping a modern sequel from becoming a reality.  It would crush me to see today’s industry move the series further away from the roots that made the original so awesome.  If you only have the opportunity to play one of these games, opt for number one as it is the quintessential No One Lives Forever experience.  However, you could do a lot worse than spending time with both titles.

Verdict:  Recommended