As far as protagonists in FPS games of this game's times go, they tended to be either mountainous men who communicates through growling, snarling and/or one-liners or mute so-called heroes who only utter something when they are hurt - if they utter anything at all.
Therefore, No One Lives Forever, with its athletically-built heroine who has a penchant for tight-fitting clothes, is a very obvious deviation from the typical designs of protagonists for shooters at the time. However, there were other games with voluptuous heroines who were plastered up-front on the box-covers before, and they tended to be shallow games whose only selling points are player characters who are highly appealing for not-kid-friendly reasons.
Therefore, No One Lives Forever's box-art probably would not make a good first impression on anyone who is skeptical of games that have attractive-looking female protagonists. Its themes of fictional covert operations in the 1960s a.k.a. the "super-spy" pop-culture bring to mind the Austin Powers franchise too, which did not exactly amuse everyone who knew about it.
Yet, if a player can get past any negative presumptions that surfaced due to the box-arts alone and play the game proper, he/she will find that No One Lives Forever is a game that is very different from the run-of-the-mill games that attempted to sell themselves using sex appeal - different in a great way.
The premise in this game is of course a tale about covert organizations pitted against each other in the 1960s, as mentioned earlier. In this game, there are two: UNITY and H.A.R.M. (though the canon for this game universe had more than just two).
H.A.R.M. participates in illicit activities like developing weapons in secret, dabbling in the black market and performing other dastardly deeds in order to further their power. The game does not make any effort to give H.A.R.M. an identity that is more unique than the stereotypical bands of ever-scheming bad guys in super-spy flicks, but it compensates by ironically lampooning a lot of the traits that made up these stereotypes in very, very amusing ways at many moments in the game.
The (UK-)government-sanctioned UNITY happens to be the only organization that is capable of matching H.A.R.M.'s capabilities - as to be expected from a story with more than a few inspirations from spy flicks. While UNITY is far from reaching its goal of dismantling H.A.R.M., it has sparred with the latter and foiled many of its evil plans.
Covert organizations of course require new recruits to keep up with the rate of attrition that a behind-the-scenes war incurs on its participants. This is where Cate Archer, who is the aforementioned heroine, comes in. As a newly minted agent of UNITY, Cate not only suffers sexual discrimination from a few of her superiors, she also has to endure the constant minding of her mentor, who is a veteran UNITY agent with a penchant for keeping one too many secrets - even from his best student.
From here, the player is treated to a tutorial that underlines Cate's capability as the protagonist of an FPS game at the time: aiming, shooting, reloading, scrounging for ammunition and other supplies like extra armor and health kits and other survival skills that an experienced FPS player can expect from, well, an FPS like No One Lives Forever. Controlling Kate as an FPS protagonist is as smooth as that of any other competent FPS game.
However, the latter half of the tutorial is where the game diverges from the norm. Like any covert organization that values its super-spies properly, Cate has access to highly portable gadgets that can be used to aid her in missions. The first tutorial will have her familiarizing herself with some "rudimentary" ones like body-removing powders and lock-picks.
(It is worth noting here that the powder also appears to work on enemies that had been knocked out cold - effectively killing them.)
In keeping with the underlying theme of feminism and a gag about the creators of these devices in the game, they are amusingly disguised as cosmetic products and clothing accouterments. Cate herself makes a few jokes about the peculiar looks of the devices, and these happen to be some of the funnier moments of the game.
That said, these funny moments occur for just about every level where Cate is introduced to a new device - which will, unabashedly, resemble another item associated with ladies of the time.
After the tutorial, the game sends Cate on her first actual mission against H.A.R.M. This is where the game starts proper (and also where the story starts to develop in intriguing ways - but writing about this would constitute as spoilers).
The enemies in the game initially appear to be not really that much different from enemies in other competent FPS games: if the player character gets into their view, they open fire, and sometimes get back behind cover (or create some by kicking over things like tables) if they decided that emptying their current ammo magazine in a continuous burst is not expedient. Their behavior appears to be predictable, that is, until the player character gets out of their sight after they have been alerted to her presence.
Enemies do not just "know" where the player character is all the time, unlike their cheating counterparts in so many other FPS games of the time. Similar to the design of enemies in the Thief franchise of games, the foes that Cate encounters adopt almost unpredictable search routines when they lose sight of her - starting with the last spot that they had last seen her (or the area that she was last seen going to). If there are any alarm buttons nearby, they are more than likely to trigger these too, if the alarm had not been raised already.
Having alert enemies prowling around on the search for Cate can be a very entertaining as well as suspenseful experience. Enemies in the game may tend to behave a lot like each other regardless of their theme and the relevance of their inclusion in the current level, i.e. they use practically the same A.I. scripts, but the utterances, taunts and threats that they make are very different from each other and often very entertaining.
(There is one level where the enemies in it do not behave like those in other levels at all, and have to be handled in an entirely non-violent way. This level happens to be one of the more refreshingly and entertainingly different ones due to the presence of these physically unfit adversaries.)
Enemies also have default behaviors - that is, behaviors that are in effect before they are made aware of Cate Archer's presence in the level. When subjected to these sets of AI scripts, enemies are pre-scripted to have conversations about matters that are relevant to their role in the game and the theme of the level. Most of these conversations would not yield much useful information, but they have plenty of hilarity and also often include gags about enemy stereotypes in spy-flicks; observances about the jobs of goons for evil organizations and the risks that come with such jobs are particularly note-worthy.
This gives an incentive for the player to engage in another part of the gameplay: stealthy infiltration, in order to eavesdrop on these conversations. However, the stealth gameplay of the game is not as well-designed as the FPS portion. Its sophistication is also not near that of franchises such as the Thief or Rainbow Six games.
Cate Archer can incapacitate enemies from behind with her melee attack, but she can only reliably creep up on enemies who are stationary without alerting them to her presence. (The melee attack also happens to be generally useless against enemies who are already alerted to her presence.) Moreover, the creeping speed needed is really, really low - it is almost a crawl. Fortunately, the game does not consider the type of surface that Cate is moving across to be important, nor does it consider the fact that she is wearing hard-heeled footwear.
Other than running to somewhere completely out of sight of enemies and some ironically obvious hiding holes that had been scripted to completely block the line of sight of enemies even if Cate is partially hidden within them, there are not many other ways to evade enemies with. As such, if the player wishes to adopt stealthy means, he/she will have to resort to memorizing the layout of the map and the patrol behavior of enemies in that level, often resorting to a lot of reloads (which are thankfully fast in this game).
Adhering to stealthy means is an option in most levels, but in one particular mission, it is required. This one is not very enjoyable, as it exposes the deficiencies in the design of the stealth gameplay of the game. There are cameras that can trigger the alarm if they managed to get a glimpse of Cate for a few seconds, and while these can be easily handled with some gadgets that Cate has, they are plentiful in this level. This forces the player through many re-tries until the most optimal routes (and there are so, so few) have been planned out.
Other than this particular level, the others are much better-designed. Many of them have the missions which are associated with them develop in very entertaining ways, such as a mission that starts with an innocent enough recon operation (that gives the player an opportunity to appreciate the attention to detail that the level designers have given to that level), then escalates to a suspenseful sniping wet-work and after that, a run-and-gunning chase through tight streets.
The levels are not just limited to missions on foot. There are some that take place underwater, and these showcase different underwater enemies and weapons. While not exactly pretty (in fact, they are quite murky), they do show that the LithTech engine can be used to run such aquatic levels.
Many levels contain collectibles, such as documents containing intelligence, and these levels can be replayed using gadgets that had been unlocked in later levels. They tend to have locations and otherwise impregnable rooms that can only be accessed using said gadgets. The documents do not exactly contain information that can be considered "intelligence" however - many of them are witty or hilarious observations that H.A.R.M.'s personnel had made about their less-than-orthodox methods of operations (as orthodox as evil covert organizations can be of course).
In addition to the performance of the player in activities that do not involve intelligence-collecting, these intelligence items also increase the score that the player gains upon the completion of a level. A higher score in turn results in permanent bonuses to Cate's capabilities as a super-spy, such as increases in maximum health, maximum armor, greater ammo capacity and quicker actions like faster looting.
(Cate Archer may not scrounge items right off enemies by running over their corpses. She has to search them, and in addition to getting what was obviously being used by the formerly alive/awake adversary, she may also obtain extra items like additional ammo, depending on any bonuses that she had gained to her skill at looting.)
An FPS game generally cannot be complete without bosses, and No One Lives Forever is no different. The bosses in this game are particularly prominent H.A.R.M. lieutenants, and they are typically tougher than regular goons, e.g. cannot die instantly from head-shots and take the same (small) amount of damage at any location of their body (whereas goons take different amounts of damage across the locations on their bodies). These lieutenants also happen to be much more entertaining to fight than the goons that they lead (if they do bother to lead them at all). They also happen to be sources of very rib-tickling humour, in part due to their oddball personalities.
Gadgets won't be enough to defeat enemies with, so Cate also has access to firearms (and she naturally has the training needed to use all of them). Most of these firearms - and the ammunition for them - need to be pilfered from neutralized enemies. These tend to be weapons with Eastern Bloc themes, which are somewhat less accurate than those of their Western counterparts, but they are quite reliable (as well as have plentiful ammo that can be stolen from enemies). The rarer, Western Bloc guns can only either be equipped before the start of a mission, or retrieved from supply drops that had been placed by UNITY agents.
Many of these guns handle quite well, with some of them being especially entertaining to use, such as the literal hand-cannon that is the ominously named Bakalov Corrector.
In addition to actual gameplay, the game also has plenty of in-game-rendered cutscenes to watch. While many of them tend to reveal the LithTech engine's poor aptitude at facial animations and sometimes jittery animations, they are still worth watching if only to listen to the surprisingly entertaining conversations among the characters in this game, the biggest star of which is of course Cate Archer herself.
Speaking of animations, those of (humanoid) models in this game have been created using motion capture, so they generally appear quite well-animated. However, the setbacks of the LithTech engine can be seen here; some animations cause models to warp quite awkwardly. There is also the aforementioned jitters, which give the impression that they are shivering when otherwise standing almost still.
Polygons in this game also appear rather jagged, and textures that are stretched and repeated to cover surfaces often look muddled. Fortunately, these graphical blemishes are glossed over somewhat with art design that really portrays the colourful era of the 1960s quite well. The look of the game will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has an interest in that era.
However, that is not to say the LithTech engine is all terrible otherwise - it is far from that. Monolith appears to have learned much from its previous experiences at utilizing its own proprietary engine, and have greatly increased its efficiency; the game has tremendously faster loading times than Monolith's previous games, such as the slow-to-load Alien VS Predator 2.
The audio design of the game is excellent compared to its graphics, on the other hand. Much of the music soundtracks in the game are of course tunes associated with music of the 1960s, and whichever soundtrack that is picked for a kind of situation in the game happens to be quite appropriate to the moment. The main theme song of the game is particularly catchy to listen to (especially since the protagonist's model was used for a somewhat silly dance in the lengthy intro/credits cutscene).
The sound effects in this game, as expected, include those for gunfire. While this reviewer could not determine for sure the extent of the authenticity of the gunfire noises of the guns in the game, which are mostly based on real-world weaponry (also of the 1960s), this reviewer can say that most of them are satisfying to listen to. Those that produce explosions are especially a joy to hear.
If it is not clear already, voice-overs for the main protagonists and antagonists are very well-done. Those for goons can be a bit melancholic and flat, but they portray the tedium and monotony of their jobs as generic goons quite, surprisingly enough, humourously.
Multiplayer is where No One Lives Forever does not seem to do much to differentiate itself from other shooters. The multiplayer in this game consists of the usual suspects in FPS games of that time: deathmatch, team deathmatch and capture the flag. Players can select models from the single-player portion of the game as their player characters, but ultimately this is only a cosmetic choice, as the models do not come with any unique traits or voice-overs and thus felt even more generic than the goons in the story mode.
It should be obvious by now that the main attraction of The Operative: No One Lives Forever is its single-player portion, which is lengthy, full of entertainment and which many FPS veterans may find very refreshing. Monolith had promised a worth-while story to go with this FPS, and it certainly delivered on this promise in spades.
In conclusion, anyone looking for a great game about the 1960s super-spy pop culture, or very interesting femme fatales who are certainly not shallow bimbos, would be far from making a mistake if they choose to play No One Lives Forever.