No One Lives Forever is one of FBT’s fave games. Contract JACK isn’t.
There’s many games I’ve disliked, loads I’ve given up on and a fair few I hated for what they were, but Contract J.A.C.K. is the only one I hate for what it isn’t.
There’s two things that set NOLF apart from any other FPS game; it’s celebration of the Sixties spy genre, and Cate Archer. CJ doesn’t have either and does nothing to replace them. It is a spin-off without the spin. It’s just off.
Set before / alongside NOLF2, John Jack is ‘just another contract killer’ who escapes a bunch of Mafioso thugs only to be tricked into a to-the-death shootout with waves of HARM troops - the super-villain group Cate fights – and discovers it’s actually a fairly extreme job interview to work for HARM itself. Hired, JJ is sent to uncover what ‘Danger Danger’, a rival super-villain group is up to. Essentially our mission is to stop them finding a mad scientist and deliver him to HARM instead, and that means us raiding military bases, a secret rocket facility, NOLF1’s Moon Base and assaulting Danger Danger’s headquarters in Italy. Considering the universe CJ is set in, you can’t help but think you’re in for some fun with the eccentric, surreal inner workings of HARM; at least more of the sixties tv love and silliness. Nope, nothing. Not a thing. Amazingly, what sounds like a fun romp is a straight shooter without any of of NOLF’s charm, ingenuity or commentary.
There’s nothing to this at all but shooting. Endless, repetitive shooting in badly paced missions that just won’t end, facing waves of henchmen like some close-quarter Serious Sam. CJ has none of the spirit of NOLF, it just happens to look like it, and so you’re constantly reminded of how sublime that was. Cate Archer was a brilliant character. Smart-as, beautiful, capable and able to bat away rampant sexism with a deft one-liner. In her place we have JJ, a standard silent hero – an opportunity to explore the inevitability of being a nameless NCP? Surely he’s called ‘just another contract killer’ for a reason? He should be Sam Rockwell’s character in Galaxy Quest, constantly terrified of getting killed because his character doesn’t even have a name. Or continue NOLF’s commentary on sexism, and parody the unbeatable male hero? No, none of that, JJ isn’t just another killer, he’s just another arm in a shooter.
CJ doesn’t even take the opportunity to repeat Cate’s experiences from the POV of the villains. Hang out with the henchmen, suck up to the Director, observe key moments in the background, getting involved in/ruining HARM’s schemes, meeting Isako, recruiting the villains Cate later faces, the creation of the Supersoliders – there’s a whole subplot about Abigail they could have explored. All ignored. We don’t even get to play with the Man-Handler. So much opportunity and instead we have nothing to do with HARM at all, just a self-contained plot to stop Danger Danger – mostly humourless Italian clichés who aren’t a patch on the French Mimes or Indian Evil Alliance. NOLF parodied generic FPS (remember the sewers?) and now here we are in a master-class of what NOLF aped.
There’s so little of NOLF here it’s like a mod (except the fans would have done better). No stealth, gadgets, puzzles, Santa-style Quartermaster; also missing is Cate’s travels as she dismantles HARM. Admittedly, NOLF2 overdoes the India location but CJ is essentially three locations – the base, the moon and the lair (from the outside) and each outstay their welcome, over-long and over-populated with the same villains doing the same things. It’s so repetitive CJ almost ruins NOLF; there’s so many henchmen to fight you notice how scripted they are when they’re not talking about their mother in law or the causality between villainy and alcoholism. It’s just no fun; how do you miss the fun? Why don’t we have a mission where we (try) to silence Armstrong or recruit Pierre the Mime King? Failure could have been a fun option for this game, an anti-hero in the literal sense, but no.
What about something to tie it in? Naa – when CJ does reference the original it’s getting it wrong; the moonbase is a repeat of NOLF’s trip but without any of the cool 2001-inspired spacesuits or, unforgivably, the nightclub. JJ gets blasted into space and has to fight off other space-villains, repeating the fall from the plane in NOLF, except there’s no henchman yelling ‘please be full of hay’ and falling in zero-g isn't as exciting somehow. It's just a straight shooter using NOLFs assets. There’s no quotable lines, quirky behaviours, in-jokes, references. The only reason I’m persevering is in the hopes Cate might make an appearance. And kill me.
And then, after a too-little, too-late fun ending where we use cannons to take out Danger Danger’s base (which was a slog to get to, enlivened only by a short ride on a Vespa), JJ gets double-crossed by HARM and takes his revenge on Volkov, explaining his pained reappearance in NOLF2. It doesn’t even make sense, other than to explain why Cate doesn’t face off with JJ in NOLF2. Plus, JJ is supposed to be a stone-cold killer and his revenge is ruining Volkov’s holiday? There’s one scene where we torture a Danger-Danger henchman but although it’s played for laughs it’s actually more painful for us, and not an ounce on the scene where Cate tricks a HARM henchman into telling her where their base is.
What were Monolith thinking with this? I can understand some other developer being given the franchise and missing the point but this is inexcusable - they made the original. I mean, CJ is built entirely on NOLF2’s assets, so why did they drop the one thing that made NOLF special? Everyone in HARM is an eccentric, why is JJ a cliched silent hero? He should have been a parody of ill-fated henchmen, or a Frank Drebin type, at least a satire on the silent, masculine heroes. At the very least, it should have been a NOLF game. Contract JACK is one of those straight to video sequels starring Joe Estevez and Don Swayze.
The most annoying moment is during the opening of JJ’s first mission where, from the back of a truck, we briefly glimpse Cate on her way somewhere far more interesting than we are. That’s like briefly seeing the shark from Jaws then realising you’re in Sharknado. Contract JACK is just a loud, relentless, mindless slog of a shooter and aside from being thankfully short, there’s nothing redeeming about it - I was even more pissed off when in researching this, I discovered something I didn’t know. The PS2 version of NOLF contained an additional level called ‘Nine Years Ago...’ which featured The Fox, Cate’s burglarising alter-ego before her capture by Bruno. How do we have Contract JACK and that’s not available? How could they not have made that prequel instead of this ‘side-quel’? I can’t think of a game that has more spectacularly backfired – and I’ve played Mass Effect Andromeda.
2003 | Developer Monolith Productions | Publisher Sierra Entertainment