"The Operative: No One Lives Forever" is a first person shooter developed by Monolith Productions and Fox Interactive. It was intially released for the PC in November 2000, and later for PS2. It was repackaged as "No One Lives Forever (Game of the Year Edition)" in October 2001. I know, I sense your confusion. "Game of the Year" and Monolith? Well, perhaps that doesn't seem so odd now, with Aliens versus Predator 2 also in the Lithtech Hall of Fame. But when NOLF (No One Lives Forever) came out, games using Monolith's Lithtech Engine had been underwhelming, and nobody was expecting a game of the quality that they received.
You take on the role of Cate Archer, female scottish operative for the world-wide covert organization U.N.I.T.Y., circa mid 1960's. (No, they don't tell you what it stands for.) Imagine a cross between Austin Powers and James Bond, and you have something approximating the mood of this game. The storyline, dialogue, and characters are humorous, but the gameplay is very violent. The guards will often have conversations with each other as you sneak up on them, that you can eavesdrop on. These are some of the best moments of the game, as they discuss which evil organizations they've worked for before, the perils of the life of an evil lacky, etc. In fact, this switching back and forth between slapstick humor and gunning down these guards who talk about their families was a little unnerving to me as I played it. Parents beware.
Most of the key characters are well imagined and unique. There is Inge, the terrible opera singer. She runs a club populated by beatniks who think her butchering of classic songs is intentional avant garde performance art. There is Armstrong, the honorable Scottish villain in a kilt and beret, always with a cigar in his mouth. The insults he lets fly with abandon at Inge are great fun. Bruno, Cate's Brittish mentor, Volkov, the one-eyed deadly assassin who always leaves a carnation to mark his kills, the list goes on. There are many personalities in this game, particularly for a first person shooter.
The dialogue is entertaining, above average for a computer game, and the voice acting is never intolerable. Monolith's Lithtech engine, which powers this game, is the butt of many jokes, but the developers were able to keep things interesting and dynamic enough so that the weak technology is hidden by new and flashy environments. Characters shot near ledges or staircases will tumble and fall dramatically, walls deform from pressure... The production values of this game are way above average for a game of this type. The fact that the levels almost never feel repetitive says a great deal about the game.
Perhaps the strongest point to this game is the way the designers switch up the gameplay. One level you may find yourself trying to rescue civilians from the street, tail bad-guys, infiltrate bases, storm fortresses, jump from airplanes, ride motorcycles, or escaping from a prison, just to name a few of the levels off the top of my head. There is also a fair share of "fun" in the game. Big explosions, weapons that "feel" powerful, and entertaining environments save this game from the tedium often associated in such games. One effect I have to mention in particular is the poison bullet effect. Bullets in this game may be one of multiple types, including the "toxin" bullets. Getting hit by one of these will cause your vision to blur, cause you to take damage over time for a short while, and cause bleating, transparent goats to tumble through the air around you. Although it's obviously intended to be humorous, it actually comes across as somewhat creepy.
The game is not without its flaws. As mentioned earlier, it's limited by the early Lithtech engine. Graphics, while well produced, tend to not take advantage of newer video cards well. Corners can feel "sticky", textures get repeated often, and it runs slower than its competitors do. Logic flaws, while irrelevant to enjoying the game, are present in the storyline, and there are odd switches in continuity. One level may have you in a high-tech space station with laser pistols, the next may have you in an old english castle with a revolver. These keep things interesting, but are a little much sometimes.
The reason the game got the second release as "Game of the Year Edition" is because it was singled out by multiple publications as best First Person Shooter of the year, and even best game by a few. The emphasis on stealth makes it refreshing for fans of the genre who are tired of the endless river of blood routine, and the ability to repeat missions in the attempt to receive "medals" increases the replay value. It's a very enjoyable single-player experience, and is well worth the playing time, if you enjoy first person shooters.
One last note... I had avoided this title as the advertisements and box cover really play up the sixties setting, obviously attempting to cash in on the success of Austin Powers. However, I found that there is very little of the over the top sixties references I was expecting. In fact, with some slightly different artwork, the game could easily have been put in the modern era with no significant changes to the dialogue. Groovy, baby.