By Todd Allen
No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy In H.A.R.M.'s Way is one of the most fun-filled, engrossing action experiences gamers can hope to find this year. Lighthearted content aside, this game has a real handle on the ins and outs of a quality spy title. Players will quite literally be doing it all, from infiltrating Russian weapon installations to sobering up a drunk pilot who's your only hope of escape. Sierra and Monolith have just blessed us with a perfect model of what happens when everything falls into place. This game is a well-oiled machine that won't let you go until you've beaten it.
The story behind No One Lives Forever 2 remains lighthearted, much like the first installment. While the game heavily lends itself to the clichéd spy of the 1960s and 70s, its story nonetheless provides all the necessary components that make you want to stick around. You can tell the developers had a lot of fun making this game as you follow the story between missions. Obviously they're not taking themselves too seriously, but perhaps unbeknownst to them, a compelling storyline emerges that is perfectly suited for this game. This game is about action and some serious spy work and while the plot doesn't take a back seat, it sure shows up some other popular stealth based games out there.
As the title implies, Cate once again finds herself in the crosshairs of the villainous group, H.A.R.M. Not to be denied their evil schemes, the leaders of H.A.R.M. have contracted some of the most strange and deadly assassins in the world to knock off our beautiful Ms. Archer. Opening scenes pit Cate against a very Zhang Ziyi-like ninja whose lethal talent is manipulated by her masters in H.A.R.M. As you progress through the first level you're reconnaissance work yields bits of information about the girl's troubled past and why she fell in with such a villainous crowd. Meanwhile the Americans catch wind of a Soviet super-weapon and want Cate to find out what the Russkies are up to. If they're building what the Americans suspect they are, everyone's swinging days are over, baby, courtesy of World War III. Can you find out what's going on under all the snow while dodging H.A.R.M.'s assassins?
What would a great spy game be without interesting locales? Players will be whisked off to places such as a mysterious Japanese village, a snow-covered Soviet military base, and Akron, Ohio. What? Akron, Ohio?? The game's sense of humor is steady and true. The funny thing is that during your stay in a luxurious Ohio trailer park a twister touches down along with several H.A.R.M. agents. The action is never far away and believe me, Monolith made sure that getting some action never looked so good.
No One Lives Forever 2's visual presentation holds true to and surpasses its predecessor. The environments are rendered very well and really make this game easy to get into. The characters are detailed and exude a tremendous amount of personality, as if this game needs any more of that. Animation is satisfactory and you'll appreciate that better when you see your enemies start rolling, weaving, and ducking to avoid your gunfire. The cinematic scenes are handled with the in-game graphics, which adds a lot of credibility to the developers' talent. Each character's mouth is in sync with his or her voice, which seems like a small thing, but when done badly sticks out like a sore thumb.
Speaking of the voice acting in this game, I must say that the sound quality of No One Lives Forever 2 is easily top notch. The casting of the voices in this game is well done and no one sounds out of place in their character. Often you'll pick up snatches of conversation as you sneak through a location and the dialogue is always entertaining. Obviously, being a spy title, sound figures heavily into how you approach situations. Control over how much sound you make is always easily controllable thanks to the sneak option at your disposal. All it takes is the press of a hotkey and your steps are muffled, preventing any nearby guard from hearing you. Still, it seems at times that the enemy has a touch of omniscience and will find you despite your best efforts. Believe me, though, I'd much rather deal with that than with overly stupid guards you could tap dance around.
Our delectable agent Archer is bound to have the upper hand, though, with the myriad of gadgets and weapons at her fingertips. Naturally, several of her weapons center around stealth, but occasionally matters do call for heavy weaponry and she certainly won't be lacking in that area either. Archer's weapons range from crossbows and silenced pistols to submachine guns and acid grenades. Some weapons will prove both effective and humorous like the ever-useful banana peel or the angry kitty proximity mine. We all tend to find a favorite weapon, but the rigors of No One Lives Forever 2's missions will oblige you to always make use of all your assets. Nothing you carry is useless.
Light RPG elements are present as well. You earn experience points for accomplishing various tasks such as simply gathering information or other tasks directly associated with your current mission. As you accrue these points you have the option of using them to enhance your skills. Skills include things like marksmanship, stealth, stamina, and weapon proficiency. As you spend more points towards a certain skill, your ability in that area will increase and so on. This really adds an incentive to being nosey because there is an awful lot of information you can gather that isn't necessarily crucial to your mission, but will earn you points. You also may be able to unlock certain side missions based on the information you uncover.
Multiplayer options are available depending on your desire for an internet based or LAN based scenario. Rather than a 'frag-fest' players can opt to work together cooperatively to accomplish special multiplayer missions against the computer AI. Of course there are options which allow you to rain "friendly fire" down upon your fellow agents.
Many argued that No One Lives Forever was the action game of 2000. This year's competition is stiff, but No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy In H.A.R.M.'s Way is definitely up to the task of bringing home the gold. This game has plenty of the action and suspense required in any good spy game, but at the same time maintains a lighthearted feel that will refresh gamers that perhaps are tired of life in the trenches.