The female game heroine really does have it tough these days. Show too much boob and not enough brains, and she gets derided for being nothing but a bimbo who exists to fulfil male gamers' fantasies. Yet appear too emphatic and emotional, or on the other hand, too much of an independent man-hater, and she risks ostracizing the male audience and creating one of those exclusive pink-boxed "girl games." For some heroines, the solution is simply to be androgynous. Samus Aran of the Metroid series has been one such case; encased in a de-sexualizing metal body suit with a full mask, she might as well be a man. It has only been with the release of Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime that Samus has actually started behaving and acting as something we could perceive as feminine.
Enter Cate Archer, the sexy star of 1960s spy spoof No One Lives Forever. When presented with a hot chick in a skin-tight outfit we may be tempted to make the comparison to Felicity Shagwell of the Austin Powers movies and be done with it. Yet a bit of delving will reveal that there is more to Cate Archer than pretty hair a tight body. She is smart, articulate, sharp with her tongue, and deadly with a gun.
No One Lives Forever marks Cate's journey as a rookie agent in the British secret service. Being the only woman in a highly conservative organization, Cate must prove her naysayers wrong—and there are quite a few who doubt her in the beginning of the game. Cate is entrusted with her first high-profile assignment only because everyone else in the organization has been killed off, and there is literally no one else who can take the job. Of course, Cate eventually does exceed everyone's expectations, but not by being the robotic über-spy super woman. She makes mistakes—quite a few actually. She remains human. She eventually becomes as good as the men around her. She is not necessarily better, yet her colleagues come to appreciate her for her decidedly unique approaches. The very fact that Cate Archer is not perfect is what makes her so endearing to me. Personally, I don't believe in the adage that women need to be better than all the men around them in order to be accepted. By having a few chinks in her armour, Cate remains true to life…maybe even a bonafide Female Role Model.
Part of the reason why I think this works so well is because No One Lives Forever is, at heart, a satire of the spy genre, and rarely takes itself too seriously. Make no mistake, No One Lives Forever contains the usual number of fire-fights, stealthy one-timer shots to the backs of heads and screams from victims as they topple from high buildings that permeate any first-person shooter, yet in the midst of these serious moments the player will frequently come across absurdly funny character dialogues, or be treated to highly entertaining cutscenes. Cate endures the gamut of clichd sexist phrases from her stuffy superiors, chauvinistic partner, and even random passers-by on the street; my favourite being the ever stolid "I should have known better than to send a woman to do a man's job." But this is just part of the game's camp factor. We are meant to accept the comments for the vintage cheese that they are, and Cate responds by keeping cool, taking it all in stride, and responding with a few withering comebacks of her own.
While girls will feel comfortable with Cate and appreciate all the little feminine touches that the game offers (for example, some of Cate's spy accessories include a lock-picking barrette, fuzzy bunny slippers for "stealth," and a perfume bottle full of sleeping gas), the game is still first and foremost just a basic stealth shooter, and is therefore still equally accessible to male gamers. By maintaining this sense of equality, No One Lives Forever becomes even more comfortable to girls, because it implies that we don't need a game to be prettied up or somehow specially tailored for us in order to enjoy it. No One Lives Forever is a game that just happens to star a female.
It is for this very reason, however, that tempted as I am I cannot rate No One Lives Forever highly simply because it contains an admirable heroine and an intelligent story. The game is a decent representation of its espionage/action genre, yet contains some rather serious gameplay and control flaws as well.
The plot centers around Cate's mission to stop a crime organization named H.A.R.M., and is rife with intrigue and colorful villains. The various sub-missions, which are called "scenes," include infiltrating a warehouse, collecting incriminating data, and lots of assorted sneaking and snooping. The game is refreshingly non-linear, and there are always alternative routes and decisions to make regarding how to complete a mission. Like Metal Gear, the best results are always achieved through stealth, although Cate does have an impressive array of weapons to use if she happens to get discovered. In most of the levels, the only consequence if Cate is discovered is that an annoying alarm gets triggered and will blare for the rest of the level, and all the guards will be alerted to Cate's presence and will come at her with guns blazing.
However, there are occasionally levels that absolutely insist upon stealth. While there are only a handful of levels of this type, they are extremely difficult and put a huge snag in the game's flow due to the fact that if Cate makes even one mistake she is tossed back to the beginning of the scene and has to attempt the entire thing over again. This is incredibly annoying, to be sure, but it is pushed into the realm of intolerability by the fact that there is no quick-save feature to record progress from any point in the scene other than the beginning. Most scenes are smallish, but there are some rather large and intricate ones that make this incredibly frustrating. Countless times, I would invest fifteen nail-biting minutes into a scene, only to have the alarm suddenly go off because a guard way off in the distance happened to see me and press the alarm button, or I was caught by a security camera coming around the corner, or my gun was too loud and a guard in the next room heard it and sounded the alarm, or the guard was somehow invulnerable to my shot to the chest and ran straight to the alarm anyway.
It may seem unfair to gripe so much about a problem that is only applicable to a small handful of levels. However I wasted such a significant amount of my time on them, and I really can't emphasize enough the utter lack of enjoyment that results from replaying the same scene over and over again. The healthy load times between scenes do not help matters either; nor do the graphics, which are often choppy, and the controls, which lack the precision that a first-person shooter really needs. The game's auto-targeting system is also rather argumentative and inaccurate, especially when trying to target enemies at long range.
Despite its flaws and the fact that I went through a great deal of frustration with the game, I would still recommend No One Lives Forever for what it is: a solid though ultimately unremarkable first-person shooter who's biggest asset is not its gameplay or controls, but its heroine and clever and compelling story. Here at GameCritics.com, we are always trying to balance a game's intellectual content with its other, more visceral features, and with this game it came down to the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed it on the one level, but had serious issues with it on the other.