Pity poor Cate Archer. Everyone's favorite superspy in paisley has been replaced with a man in the latest addition to the No One Lives Forever franchise, a prequel called Contract J.A.C.K. The move is a timely one, seeing as the comely female version of James Bond by way of Austin Powers hasn't been wowing consumers accustomed to the stereotypical testosterone-heavy shooter. It's just a shame that developer Monolith couldn't have come up with something fresher and more involving, as the new release is merely a mediocre shoot-'em-up that can be finished in four hours.
Even in that limited time frame, Contract J.A.C.K. never takes off. You portray "ruthless assassin" John Jack (the J.A.C.K. of the title is also an acronym for Just Another Contract Killer), a thug working the other side of the street from Archer and her goody-two-shoes comrades in UNITY. Just weeks before the beginning of the events recounted in No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way, he gets forced into an assignment by arch-villain Dmitrij Volkov of HARM. But the potentially interesting angle of facing off against your old friends has been dumped for a hackneyed plot where Jack fights a group of Italian ne'er-do-wells called Danger Danger for the rights to a mad scientist currently dwelling on the moon.
Not being able to take on the likes of Ms. Archer and her mentor Bruno is a letdown from the very start. Even more disappointing, the sense of fun that permeated the series has been replaced by a guns-first philosophy. In some ways this is good, as the game gets right to the point in a way that its predecessors did not, but most often it proves simply numbing. All seven multipart missions deal strictly with shooting your way through waves of enemies from start to finish. You slaughter hired goons to escape a trap laid by a rival. You slaughter HARM agents that Volkov has sent to test your mettle. You slaughter Czechoslovakian soldiers guarding a rocket base. You slaughter Danger Danger storm troopers in secret headquarters, Italian villas, and even on the moon.
These are some interesting locales, particularly the moon base and a climactic fight in space reminiscent of the final scene in the Bond movie Moonraker. The lead-up to the final battle in the Italian countryside allows you to drive a scooter equipped with machine-gun cannons and is very scenic, set amidst rolling hills and a canal. Most settings, however, are pretty bland. The succession of Czech military installations consists of faceless warehouses awash in crates, and the huge village at the end of the game is like a maze of dead ends and doors that don't open. But no matter where you are, you never have time to soak up any atmosphere, since you're too busy bathing in blood.
And you get pretty bloody in Contract J.A.C.K. Aside from regular pauses to search for ways to open blocked doors (and pad out the running time of this brief shooter), there is nothing here but splattering bad guys all over the landscape. There is no stealth, no lock-picking, no playing around with the lethal hairpin, banana, and other nifty devices that UNITY's Santa's Workshop weapons lab provided Cate in the first two games. There are no conversations worthy of eavesdropping, no note trails to be pieced together to tell amusing side stories. Even the swinging '60s atmosphere has been all but eradicated. If not for old cars scattered through the levels and the great title song reminiscent of the classic Peter Gunn theme, the game could be taking place in the present day.
Enemies even lack the character of the previous games. There are really just three types--garden-variety thugs, Czech soldiers, and Danger Danger troops in black jumpsuits and helmets similar to the yellow togs sported by HARM minions in the previous games--and the thugs show up in just the first mission. Those famously goofy catchphrases from the likes of the Moroccan assassins in the first NOLF have been replaced with bland action-movie dialogue, which isn't amusing even when spoken with Super Mario accents by the Italians in Danger Danger.
The artificial intelligence has been dumbed down so that foes often charge your location no matter what. They still duck and throw over tables for cover and are quick to toss hand grenades, although they typically leave safety almost immediately and run right into your crosshairs. Bad guys seem less human in other ways as well. While headshots continue to be noted in mission wrap-up screens, they have little if any effect. It takes at least two or three clean bullets to the cranium to put down a foe, which is at least better than the dozen or so shots that are required to the torso. You practically have to shred enemies to kill them here, spraying blood in all directions like an out-of-control garden hose sprays water.
Supervillains from earlier in the series are no-shows. There isn't anyone here to rival the big Scotsman Magnus Armstrong and mime King Pierre. Danger Danger leader Il Pazzo is a presence, but only through goofy speeches threatening his nephew over various public address systems. You don't even fight him face-to-face in the final battle, a disappointing long-distance affair conducted by rocket launcher from the windows of a far-off house. Your boss, Volkov, is heard only on occasion over a two-way radio. The biggest personality in the game is the unhinged Dr. Harij, who delivers some hilarious monologues--again, always over PA systems for some reason--but he doesn't show up in person until the very end of the game. Even then, his biggest moment is a darkly humorous conversation with Volkov that plays over the closing credits.
Not much is offered in terms of multiplayer, either. All of the modes of play--deathmatch, team deathmatch, doomsday, and demolition--were released as free downloads for NOLF 2 months ago. Many of the maps are also retreads. You do get some new weapons to play with, like Jack's trademark Desert Eagle pistol and a powerful combat shotgun, along with a few snazzy new skins, but for the most part, this is familiar ground.
Contract J.A.C.K. is sort of a backhanded response to all those naysayers who found Cate Archer's adventures to be too cute. The sense of humor, varied mission design, nifty Bond-inspired thingamajigs, and even the groovy 1960s threads have been swapped for a straight focus on action that strips the franchise of its identity and charm. It seems almost as if Monolith is sending a "be careful what you wish for" message to the complainers via one of the most uninspired shooters of the year.