NOLF introduced one of gaming's best secret agents, Cate Archer, and set a very high standard for later FPS games.
NOLF dates from 2000 and its somewhat angular angular graphics reflect its age however it is in the areas of character, humour and gameplay that NOLF shines. NOLF in many ways is reminiscent of IGI-2 Covert Strike (IGI2) in its theme and use of the stealth mechanic in an FPS game. Unlike IGI2, which is an under-rated spy genre game, NOLF is more fun and less frustration. NOLF is set in the swinging 60s, around the time of those early Sean Connery Bond movies, although the tone of NOLF game is more akin to a Matt Helm or an Avengers adventure. Indeed think CONTROL versus KAOS, except that Cate is no Max, she's more your smart 99 type in fact.
Refreshingly (especially for 2000) NOLF has a female lead character, Cate Archer a former cat burglar and now secret agent working for UNITY. It's great fun listening to the verbal repartee between Cate and her male colleagues which certainly reflects the attitudes of the era the game takes place in. While Cate is effective in her job, intelligent and witty, her predominantly male colleagues and enemies are not, and foolishly treat her with disdain. Cate's enemies, the over-the-top stereotypical arch villains working for HARM and their bumbling minions, are somewhat comic but as the tone is very tongue in cheek this adds to the enjoyment. Though as bumbling as these bad-guy minions are, they can kill Cate if she is not careful. The enemy characters may seem unaware but their AI is pretty good if Cate makes a mis-step. Overall NOLF is an excellently constructed and presented FPS game.
Cate, like fellow 1960s agent Bond, has access to a plethora of Q-branch style gadgets. It is the effective and timely use of these that will get Cate through the missions. Unlike Bond however, Cate is mush less effective in hand-to-hand combat unless she strikes from behind while the enemy is unaware. Apart from walking, running, jumping and crouching (strangely not a toggle) Cate, in gameplay terms, is distinctly unathletic for a former cat burglar. What works in your favour when sneaking around is that the minions on guard duty have a habit of talking on the job and their conversations are usually triggered as you approach a new part of the map (such as a doorway to a room). You will learn to be patient and listen to their generally amusing conversations at the end of which they usually separate to resume their patrols and you can then deal with (or avoid) one or both of them.
NOLF's narrative abounds in memorable characters, some quite stereotypical, but much of the fun comes from the excellent voice actors playing these stereotypes. There are bad guys, like Dmitrij Volkov, Inge Wagner, Magnus Armstrong, Baron and Baroness (Felicity Farsworth) Dumas; and the good guys, like Bruno Lawrie, Mr Jones, Mr Smith, Dr Schenker and Santa (think Q). A real hoot is the American "field agent" Tom Goodman who is meant to lead the missions with Cate in support. He's big, loud (in that uniquely American way), vain and pretty useless. As expected, Cate leads and he is the support act, but he takes all the glory. The narrative is progressed primarily through between mission cut scenes, some of which are quite long but at the same time quite humorous, in a witty Harry Palmer (a wise cracking 1960s British agent portrayed by Michael Caine) rather than a ridiculous Austin Powers, kind of way.
NOLF is a mission driven game although the overarching narrative, which is as far fetched as most 1960s spy movies, is quite enjoyable due to the humour of the game. Basically Cate's mission is to prevent HARM from achieving its goal of global domination which relies in part on using unwitting "human bombs". This means finding out who is behind the plot and securing the antidote for the drugs that has turned certain high profile people into these "human bombs". As might be expected there is a surprise twist or two by the time the game has run its course.
The missions comprising NOLF follow with my personal favourites marked with an asterisk(*) and those with boss fights (BF):
01 Misfortune in Morocco - more or less a training mission, set in an exotic locale, that also establishes the backstory
02 Berlin by Night* - Cate has fun in gloomy old Cold War era East Berlin while rescuing a scientist
03 Unexpected Turbulence - escort scientist; well that's one way to escape a damaged plane
04 Rendezvous in Hamburg - team up with the dashing, smarmy, Tom Goodman; yup, Cate's on her own again
05 A Tenuous Lead* - infiltrate docks followed by the near obligatory FPS escape the sinking cargo ship mission
06 The Dive* - escape hotel; Cate done a facemask for a unique (in my experience) mission set in the briny deep
07 A Man of Influence - a tricky camera avoidance mission, infiltrate factory, interview a blustering baron
08 Safecracker - BF#1 vs Inge, infiltrate offices, Cate undertakes a Mission Impossible style infiltration, watch those infared beams!
09 Rescue Attempt* - night time train excursion followed by infiltration of underground base to re-rescue the scientist
10 Trouble in the Tropics* - many uses for the silent speargun to prevent guards sounding alarms in this mission
11 Low Earth Orbit* - reminiscent of Moonraker with great use of a very detailed 1960's sci-fi style multi-level space-station map
12 Alpine Intrigue* - alpine villages, an icy swim, a ski lodge, snow mobiles, minefields and off to where eagles dare
13 The Indomitable Cate Archer* - BF#2 vs Armstrong, a hidden enemy lair worthy of any James Bond movie complete with walkway over shark pool, overall a rather difficult mission
14 A Very Large Explosion - BF#3 versus 3 catsuit clad babes (reminiscent of Bambi and Thumper), cable car ride attacked by helicopters, BF#4 vs Volkov
15 Such is the Nature of Revenge - race against time to save civilians from human bomb, BF#5 vs HARM's mole at UNITY, then watch the credits through to the end
16 Rest and Relaxation* - following the credits and final cut scene Cate is rewarded with a holiday in the South Pacific but stumbles upon a secret HARM base deep inside a volcano
Note that Cate's back-story as a cat burglar is explored in additional "flash back" missions in the PlayStation versions (only) of the game.
One of my favourite missions was "The Dive" where Cate needs to dive down to a recently sunken vessel to retrieve some key intelligence. Swimming through the 3D vessel while spear-guning sharks and enemies was great fun. This underwater mission is unique in my gaming experience. Indeed Cate will use need her underwater swimming skills a few more times before the end.
Most missions permit either stealthy and/or guns blazing styles of gameplay. Some missions however are very much the "you must not be detected" kind of mission which means a combination of stealthy gameplay and lethal, though, silenced weapons. The mission briefing and/or objectives will clue you in as to such requirements. Thankfully, for reasons discussed later, the stealth focused gameplay is limited to certain missions though it is rewarding to play in a stealthy fashion as (a) you will get a better rating and (b) it can be fun when its optional rather than forced on you. The introduction of stealth, which is essentially avoiding cameras and being seen or using silencer kills, out of camera view, led to some initial frustrations until one gets into the groove of the mechanic. Indeed 007 Nightfire could have used a similar snooping mechanic to a greater degree to give it that covert spy feel, which for me seemed to be lacking, in that game. Fortunately NOLF does not go to the extremes of IGI2 which is very much THE first person stealth game from this era.
Arguably the 3rd person perspective is better suited to the stealth genre as it can better reflect the meed to lurk in the shadows and behind cover to avoid detection as evidenced by the Splinter Cell series, The Saboteur or Velvet Assassin games which I have played (no doubt there are many others). Consequently NOLF at times feels clumsy, especially in stealth-biaised missions. It suffers somewhat from the limited WSAD-based movement controls as peeking around a corner (without the ability to lean) can be fraught with danger if a camera or guard happens to be looking in your direction. Shooting guards in the vision range of cameras triggers the alarms so you need to observe both the camera and guards before you take action. Alas 1960s Cate has none of Sam Fisher's excellent camera deactivation tools and techniques.
NOLF, like all games, has some frustrating mission segments and I have touched on the stealth oriented missions. It's not until you have successfully passed a particularly "tricky" segment and discovered the solution that you realise it was pretty much a storm in a tea cup. For example, I found the Safecracker mission, which includes the Inge Wagner boss fight segment, and the following segments involving walking along beams and jumping from narrow beam to narrow beam, with beams at odd angles and different elevations particularly frustrating. Alas Cate is not Sam Fisher, so with the limited controls, the awkward dance along the beams was tricky indeed requiring several save-jump-save replays until Cate was safe again. For the record, I hate the boss fights from this era of gaming whereby the boss (or bosses) have inordinately high survival against the same weapons that will kill other mortals. Fortunately there are only a handful "boss fights" spread throughout the game and as expected mainly near the end. On the plus side you can do quick saves during the boss fights and indeed during timed missions which some contemporaneous games do not allow.
Each mission has a number of hidden intelligence items to collect. While your ability to succeed in a mission is not compromised by failing to find all the items scattered on the various maps it is good to be observant and worth spending some time, usually after the HARM guards are disposed of, exploring. The more items you collect the higher your mission rating will be.
The voice acting in NOLF is pitch perfect, not just for Cate but all the characters, whether the main bad guys or the numerous minions. The dialogue, which drives the narrative along, is exceptionally well written and takes what could have been "just another FPS" and lifts it far above its competition. It is arguable that the dialogue alone will keep NOLF a classic for years to come. Likewise the musical themes keep the player immersed both in the swinging1960s and the game itself. An excellent job. Although the graphics are dated by today's standards they are more than acceptable and in no way diminish the enjoyment of the game.
OVERALL: NOLF is justifiably rated as one of the all time best FPS games. All FPS fans, whether or not fans of the spy genre or tongue in cheek humor, will thoroughly enjoy NOLF. Don't be mislead by the humorous tone of NOLF, it is indeed a serious FPS game as challenging as the best plus plenty of laughs along the journey.