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Game Name:  The Operative: No One Lives Forever
Developer:  Monolith Productions
Publisher:  Fox Interactive
PC Release Year:  2000
Review Date:  April 25, 2013

The Operative: No One Lives Forever (henceforth known as NOLF) is perhaps a strange place to begin this journey into the past of PC gaming.  After all, with the exception of the Battlefield 1942 obsession that followed me from the end of high school and into college, the FPS genre never particularly engaged me in the same way that a good RTS game has.  Do not get me wrong, if that is on tap when I get to a LAN party with my buddies, I will enjoy myself immensely; that enjoyment usually ends when I walk out the door though. On top of that, and as much as I hate to admit it, I find myself being a bit of a graphics snob.  While I try to convince myself that gameplay is all that should matter, I get a little annoyed when a video game is not visually pleasing.  Since FPS games are generally on the cutting edge of graphics technology when they are released, the ‘realism’ that used to be amazing tends to become a liability in old age.  Despite these factors, my recent playthrough of Bioshock Infinite created an itch for the genre that I needed to scratch.  I can safely say that NOLF was an excellent way to do just that.

It is important to preface this by making it clear that I love James Bond films.  Sure, the new ones with Daniel Craig are awesome, but the old ones were always my favorites.  The ridiculous villains, campy plots, and 60s styling just fit together so well.  The best part about NOLF is this is exactly the world you experience when looking through the eyes of British superspy Cate Archer.  Want to jump out of an airplane and have to steal someone else’s parachute on the way down?  Check.  Want to stow aboard a rocket headed for an evil organization’s space station?  Check.  Want to sneak around a train, discreetly taking out enemy agents while avoiding the conductor’s demands for a ticket?  Check.  Want to assault an enemy fortress in the Alps while helicopters fly to the rescue?  Check.  Every single spy movie cliché I could think of is in this game and it is an absolute joy to be put into those situations.  The additional benefit of this is that level design never gets stale.  I have played through enough half-destroyed Western European and Middle Eastern towns in video games to last a lifetime.  Fortunately, you will find none of that here.

Given the setting of the game, it would have been very easy for the developers to have had both a male protagonist and a male villain to keep up with the Bond parallels.  It was very nice to see this paradigm upended on both counts though.  While NOLF never takes itself too seriously (the silly dialogue and absurd code phrases are a testament to that), it was nice to see both the heroine and villainess deal with the sexism of the times in their own ways.  To this day, not very many games address serious issues in any way, shape, or form and while this is by no means a critique of our society or way of life, the fact that the issue is brought up at all is noteworthy.

On the gameplay front, there is one other way it mimics James Bond, although I am no longer talking about the movies here.  For those, like me, who grew up on Goldeneye for Nintendo 64, you will feel right at home. While it does not have to be played as such, NOLF is at its best when you treat it like the stealth shooter it was designed to be.  There is something strangely satisfying about hearing two guards arguing about something random around a corner, popping out to shoot them both in the head with a silenced pistol, and then disposing of the bodies with a chemical agent before another patrolling guard comes down the hall.  Tossing a coin down a hall to distract the guards and bypassing them entirely while trying to stay out of the site of a panning security camera is equally satisfying.  The planning and pattern discovery that takes place on the missions where stealth is a viable strategy kept me engaged through most of the game.  Unfortunately, when you accidentally raise the alarm or are in one of the missions designed as a run-and-gun affair, the immersion breaks down quite a bit.  Compared to modern action shooter standards, the AI and character movements on the bad guys are extremely boring and predictable.  If you are the type of gamer who likes to run through a shooter like Rambo with the largest gun blazing, consider yourself warned.

There is one facet of the game that I had not given much thought to until I sat down to write this, and that is a certain amount of exploration and learning is required in NOLF.  Unlike modern games, and to its credit, it does not hold your hand through this process.  There are no magic arrows directing you to your next destination and no in-game hints when you get stuck.  You are given a set of objectives and have to figure it out as you go.  While this can be terribly frustrating at times, it is also insanely satisfying when you figure out what you have to do next.  As an example, at one point in the game, you are presented with a series of rooms with moving laser beams you have to avoid.  When you get to the final one, the number, frequency, and pattern of the beams make it seem near impossible to get through.  Despite getting close to the exit a couple of times, it took me 15 minutes worth of attempts before I realized there was actually a grate in the floor I could open to access a crawlspace and bypass the lasers entirely.  While something like this should be fairly obvious, situational awareness is not often required in modern games and I honestly did not know I missed it until I was reminded that older games forced me to think through such things.

While the graphics are pretty bad by modern standards, there were more than enough positives in the playthrough to help me look past that.  In fact, I was enjoying myself so much by the end that I almost stopped noticing that I was playing a game that was over 12 years old.  If you are a fan of either stealth shooters or classic spy movies, and can make it through the first few levels where the pacing is slow, you are definitely in for a treat with this game.  Even if this does not sound like your cup of tea, there are far worse ways to spend your gaming time and money.

Verdict:  Recommended