Friday, February 24, 2012

You Shoulda Been a Movie: No One Lives Forever

The Operative: No One Lives Forever is one of the best video games... ever. It was smartly-written with a great sense of humor. It also provided cool, challenging spy missions that take the player steadily from one great sequence to another. The game was a constant surprise with neat weapons, objectives, and locations.

It also features the greatest threat video in human history:

Best global conquest video ever!

The story seems simple, then gets insanely complex. It's the 1960s and you are Cate Archer, a Scottish cat burglar who was befriended by a British secret agent. Cate has abandoned crime, training instead to be an operative. Her first mission is to protect an important American visiting Morocco - she fails and her mentor is killed. Now, Archer must find out who's responsible and discover their agenda.
Henchman: You're not going to kill her? What if she wakes up?
Magnus Armstrong: Now look here, you. I'm not gonna butcher a fellow countryman without a specific grudge. If she wakes up, she can fend for herself. [DISTANT BOOM] If she dies, then she ain't really a Scot, so I won't feel bad. Now go get that Doctor fella and do a final sweep.
That's a-nice meatball, ehh?
This 2000 release was a critical and financial PC hit. Later, it received a solid Mac release and a really poor PS2 port. And in the three years following, there was one wildly successful sequel (NOLF 2), and one spin-off (Contract J.A.C.K.) that bombed in every conceivable way. Only then - like a non-theatrical, electronic Keyser Soze - it vanished.

I can't understand why it didn't spawn a bigger franchise. NOLF was a challenging first-person shooter with a dizzying range of in-game options. The graphics were fine. The jokes were really good. The game makes you feel like a super-spy - the settings, events, and enemies will remind you of the earliest James Bond pictures... Intrigue, deception, German scientists, super-weapons and vengeful KGB spies.

I already mentioned that it was funny, right? Watch:

NOLF is famous for the dialogue given to random characters.

Best of all was the design aesthetic. The game designers chose the early 60's and wove it into every part of the game. The menus and loading screens have paisley patterns, bright primary colors, and rotating daffodils. The characters dress in eye-searing mod clothes.
Cate: What are their demands?
Mr. Jones: Mr. Smith?
Mr. Smith: 50 Million Pounds Sterling. The contintent of- Australia?... And an international holiday to be known as Praise Be to H.A.R.M. Day!
For NOLF, everything is a strong point; among the strongest is the music. It sticks perfectly to the spy music's prime inspiration, James Bond: lots of horns, delicate strings and strange electric guitar twangs. I kid you not - the soundtrack was part of the purchase and I've never put it away for more than a few months. This isn't one of my favorites, but I still like the track below:

It has no title, so I call it "bouncy roller rink fun."

As with its PC/Playstation contemporaries, Forever uses "dynamic soundtrack" - if you're snooping around unseen, the score is quiet, with a calm tempo; when you're in danger, it becomes brassy and loud. All of these tunes are engaging - the scored songs and quick stings, the themes and incidental tones. It's possible that I only like NOLF because I enjoy the music so much.

As an FPS-game, it's fleshed-out with a generous selection of pistols, machine guns, etc. Your options are expanded by offering different ammunition types (e.g., poison, flame), as well as various spy-appropriate gadgets. There's a real joy in deploying a robotic poodle that distracts people, or lobbing a lipstick that's actually a grenade. Other players enjoyed the perfume bottle that vaporizes downed enemies, removing the corpses that would spoil a stealth section.

I thought that last was creepy and morbid (but impressive).

Start at the 50 sec mark, you'll be glad you did.

Of course, there is one big argument against a film adaptation of this video game: there's already a movie called Modesty Blaise, and it's an obvious influence on the finished product here.That 1966 film was very campy, and also featured a female criminal called up to protect Britain's interests.

Rather than hide it, No One Lives Forever proudly displays its influences: Modesty, The Avengers, James Bond, and Our Man Flint. The castle section - all soaring heights with a cable car as the only access - is a straight lift from Where Eagles Dare; ideas on commando-style action were taken from The Guns of Navarone. These references are not painful or dull, they're smartly used as inspiration to heighten the action, humor.

But, you might ask, "how did it play?" It played very well, with good controls, sound, and story. Moreover, it gave you many reasons to look forward to this game. For one thing, there was a nice mix of tasks. Sometimes, you needed to stay hidden and photograph some records. Other times, you would simply have to complete a conversation with a character. Here's a clip from one of the "quieter" missions:

Over and over, No One Lives Forever would give you more reasons to keep playing. In many games, this is done by offering new weapons and the like as you progress. It's true that NOLF does this too, but a player's eagerness in this case is about how exciting and fun the game is, or how lively and interesting the characters are.
Mr. Smith: Success at last!- albeit overdue and underwhelming. Head to the War Room for an update on the situation. Perhaps there is a shred of hope, after all.

In keeping with many spy novels and films, there's a whole range of mid-level baddies working under one main enemy. Each of them has a distinct character, and one or two provide some great moments and speeches. These people are not just henchmen or sub-bosses - they are well-realized and rewarding to the audience.

Everything is laid out for an easy Cate Archer film: the background, roles, music, story, and sub-plots. It's an easier task still as dialogue's already been written for the major, minor, and nameless parts. Often, the best compliment I can give a game is saying that it's like an excellent movie. That's NOLF.

The villains are vivid - and they're lots of fun!

NOLF's appeal is so strong since the game may suddenly astound you with something new and very unexpected. Like a great spy thriller, our ass-kicking Ms. Archer runs through a maze of locations all around the globe. The varied level design is refreshing, moving you from jungle to railyards to a corporate office with two Japanese-style floors.

The way the levels are used plays into the thrill. You're supposed to investigate a house; you find an office, pull a lever - the walls and floor flip over to reveal a full-on villain's base! It's this constant surprise and raising of stakes that can pull you in so quickly. An elevator might start a boss fight. If the boat you were searching is sunk, you'll have to go in with a big diving suit like in For Your Eyes Only. Or maybe you'll start a level and find that you get to drive a vehicle.


Like the best novels, this game finds many different ways to invest you in the action, to make you want to learn what'll happen next. The dialogue (which I've mentioned so often already) is such a linchpin. It's employed in a very clever fashion.

Although Forever may give you multiple ways to run through a level, you will eventually have to slow down. Then, without forcing you to awkwardly stop to listen, you'll sneak around a corner and catch two evil flunkies have a memorable conversations. Check out the amazing discussion below:

How many henchman have such heady debates?

Better still, the novelty of playing as a female hero (it's not that common) isn't lost on me. Cate Archer's gender plays into the dialogue and the design of the gadgets - it also gives her a stronger connection to her motive, like her fallen mentor. It also provides comedy in the form of the spy's code phrases and the pathetic flirting of an American ally. And it gives her a bigger obstacle to overcome in the form of a chauvanistic boss with low expectations and lots of prejudice.

In all these ways, it's good that this problem is in keeping with her time. Throughout, Archer is a fierce, attractive, smart woman. It's refreshing to get a female protagonist in a game, and better still that she's so skilled and capable. It's not just an awesome feminist message - it's a joy to guide her through enough adventures for 6 Bond films, cutting bad guys to ribbons and saving the world. She even has her own "Q," called "Santa."
Santa: Here's a perfume that'll really knock 'em out - literally! It sprays a cloud of vapor that contains a potent sedative capable of knocking out a horse, let alone an adult human... Why don't you try it out on Leon here? He's been up 32 hours straight working on a new prototype. The rest might do him some good.
I've left out so much. I don't want to reveal exotic set pieces or the incredible weapons that you'll come across. The game itself never warns you when things are about to take a big turn, or when you first pick up a new gun and find out what it does; it's part of the appeal. You might want to just find a video walkthrough and watch it like a film.

This is what you get at the game's start!

I guess if there was a cinematic failure to capitalize on this successful game, it's because the 60's revival burned out quite fast (before Mad Men brought it all back). Another obvious influence might also have been responsible for blocking its advance: specifically, the Austin Powers series. Mike Myers' moment of raw genius produced a great first film, a throwback that twisted a familiar genre. More specifically, the villainous Scot, Fat Bastard, was an inspiration for Archer's nemesis and countryman, Magnus Armstrong.

While 1999's Austin Powers 2 was a huge success, the critical response was not as strong as for the first film. There were a lot of commercials for the series, and people on the street were saying "yeah, baby!" so often that it was... a severe strain for people who don't like committing real-life violence.

2002's Austin Powers 3 was a bit less successful than the second installment, but also did not get much critical acclaim. The franchise was then abandoned. Perhaps the 3-year gap between films left viewers less interested. Perhaps they were inferior sequels to the original movie. I personally know that Nolf 2 was fantastic.

For my part, I assume that people noticed the drop in quality, and that they were also over-saturated with the excessively loud and over-the-top Austin Powers routine. It seems that the second time out, the 60's came and went more quickly and quietly. 

Of course, it's been easy for me to suggest what should've been. The publisher should've released more games in this franchise and studio execs should've jumped on the chance to spin off some movies.

It's even easier for me to suggest this because the protagonist was based on an actress. Mitzi Martin served as the physical model for Ms. Archer, and I don't think anyone can complain about their choice. Certainly, this non-speaking part was a much better role for her than what she got in Dude, Where's My Car?, The Island, or Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. If her voice is as lovely as her looks, they should've let her do the audio work for Cate Archer as well.

In closing: this was a great game, and it could've made for a better movie - with no extra direction, acting, or screen-writing - than what audiences have received so often, recently, from major directors and established franchises.

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