A Blast from the Past review
FBT looks like he needs a monkey.
I bought ‘NOLF’ on a budget label re-release. Back then, a combination of a wheezing PC and asthmatic bank account meant I could only play cheap or old. Budget resell labels like Xplosiv or SoldOut catered for both requirements. Their carousels in PC World and Game were my domain, not those chart shelves with their snazzy new releases. Pah … Anyways, budget browsing is easy in this digital world, you’ve got gamer’s reviews, trailers, gameplay examples, previousweapon.com … but doing it back then in a real shop meant going by the back cover; If I counted all the £4.99’s I spent on budget games that I regretted buying, I could have afforded Doom 2016 on release day and had all that disappointment in one go. But then I would have missed NOLF. Based solely on Monolith’s logo, the creators of Blood, and not at all the cat-suited Cate Archer cover, £4.99 was blindly spent.
NOLF was a hidden gem. It changed my gamer life and influenced every purchase since. Monolith had done it again. Why this wasn’t up there with the heavy hitters I never understood; why wasn’t Angelina playing Cate in a movie version? Where were the Cate Cosplayers? What happened? It often appears in best retro game lists, and a quick google shows the love for Cate is still going strong. I don’t like to think of others crushing on Cate … She was whip-smart, fantastic to look at and had a mischievous streak; the kind of girl who could get away with anything. She looked like Emma Peel but wasn’t the sidekick. She wasn’t dressed like a stripper or a fantasy image; Cate didn’t slay beasts while wearing Victoria’s Secret.
I played it endlessly, until some sort of tech fallout between Windows and the Lithtech engine meant all I saw of Cate was a fleeting glance then a MFC error. Sad days. I eventually accepted it was over and said goodbye to Cate, the love of my digital life, briefly rekindled with the equally ace sequel. It turned out Copyright issues kept Cate from being rediscovered on Steam or GOG, and so Cate and I slowly drifted apart. Sniff. I blame the patriarchy. I still remember Cate very fondly and she ... I mean NOLF, is still in my top five games despite having not played it for nearly a decade. Such was Cate's influence that given the choice in modern games, I always play female, hoping to see Cate reincarnated. She’s never been equaled. And to think I got NOLF on the cheap. It's been a while Cate, but thanks to the internet and fan patches, I’m back. I hope I still have what it takes.
Still a Blast?
It took some serious googling and dodgy downloads from sites written in Chinese, but after some yelling, I managed to crank NOLF into life and my life suddenly gets better. The menu looks like the set of The Monkeys, the music like the soundtrack to The Avengers. I’m so happy to be back. Influenced by just about every sight and sound from the sixties, it looks great and its retro without seeming like a parody. This is a homage, a loving nod to when we were kids and watched once prime-time stuff on Saturday afternoon repeats. Why don’t they make stuff this classy anymore? On TV and in games.
We meet Cate stepping out of the shower, but there are no longing shots of her body. She’s hidden, tantalisingly, as she talks on the phone with her mentor Bruno and teases him about what she’s up to. We think we’re about to meet some femme fatale super-spy, but Cate, a kind of Modesty Blaise, is a newbie; an eager ex-Cat Burglar retrained by ‘UNITY’ as an infiltration spy only to be stuck with menial jobs, a victim of her gender and positive discrimination so the bosses can say they’re progressive. With her English-Scot accent spouting sly comments, Cate is finally let off the leash by her misogynistic bosses after all the male spies are killed while investigating mysterious exploding people and discovers ‘HARM’, a super-villain agency. And so, we battle and giggle our way through a wacko episode of Avengers, The Saint, U.N.C.L.E, Bond, Matt Helm and ... I could go on, and NOLF does. I never feel like I’m actually in the sixties, instead I’m in all the sixties shows and movies and that’s way more fun.
NOLF is still brilliant to play. Graphically it’s been surpassed but this is a real gaming experience. They don’t make them like this anymore. To get the most out of it you need to be sneaky and aware, but it doesn’t punish you for slipping up and getting spotted. Likewise, going in shooting is fine too, they’re not drastically different experiences but it’s up to you how Cate behaves. NOLF is an adventure, a shooter at its core with stealth elements but that’s a simplistic description. It’s an old TV episode with bursts of action, story, changes in pace and location, pathos and plot-twists. And it’s not all style; there’s substance under the disco balls and kinky boots, a lot of commentary and observation and it’s strange to think NOLF was ahead of its time then, and regrettably, still is now.
As she shoots and quips her way through the plot, Cate contends with sexism more damaging than the bullets she faces. From the condescension and dismissive attitude of her superiors, the sexist behaviour of the muscled American spy she’s teamed with, to even the people she saves who express amusement that a ‘girl’ is saving them, Cate classily proves she’s more than a match for them all. In one of the more wicked nods to misogyny, every time Cate meets a contact, they are forced to use terrible pickup lines to confirm her identity. You can imagine the ‘lads’ back at base giggling over making her go through this and thinking it’s just a bit of harmless slap and tickle. Cate rises above it but doesn’t accept it – she even expresses discomfort for the poor contact who has to say the lines. That’s class.
I don’t know what’s worse, that it took until 2000 to have a female character who’s sexuality isn’t a key element of her capabilities or that we’ve not had one since. And no, Lara in the TR reboot doesn’t count; resisting rape attempts and avoiding graphic deaths via button-mashing is not an expression of strength; she’s a manipulative character in the reboot – manipulating us into caring that is, as she sits helpless and crying at a campfire, unlike the original Tomb Raider who DGAF what we thought. She may have looked like a sex-doll but that Lara was more than her looks, more of a feminist character than the reboot can dream about and no way OG Lara sprang from that wishy-washy brat. Maybe Fem-Shep comes close to a modern female hero, but that’s just reskinning and why is it Femshep? It’s just Shepard. But Cate revels in the danger while taking it seriously; she is consistently smarter, wittier that those around her and a capable hero; the he/she identifier doesn’t matter. Yes she’s feminine, but in moments where gender means nothing, it doesn’t come up unless it’s making that very point.
The villains are great fun to fight. The AI was advanced then and still holds up well now thanks to their clever scripting – both in actions and words. They investigate sounds or evidence of you being there, can be led into areas away from others and leap about, look for cover, run and retreat when you whittle them down. But I’ve never played a game that encouraged sneaking so successfully; not to get the drop on them but to listen to the goons moaning. They whinge about the health and safety aspects of being a henchman, the perks, bitch about their bosses, discuss other supervillain groups they may join, complain about their mother in law. And when the shooting starts, they throw out some genius lines - ‘I do not like getting shot at!’, ‘watch out for the bullets!’ and a personal favourite 'I should definitely stop ingesting hallucinogens’ when they give up looking for you.
You get to choose which weapons you load out each mission with, and there’s lot to choose from as Cate will add any weapons she picks up to her next loadout inventory. Within the usual groups – pistols, machine guns etc – they’re mostly variations on a theme making it as much an aesthetic choice as a practical one but you also get different ammo choices, including dum-dums (the stupidest name ever for a bullet) and ones that are coated with poison or phosphorous; the goons have those too and the effects bypass your bullet-proof vest. Cate can’t gain health while on the mission so just diving in gun first is a riskier option if you want her to make it to the end. Cate is also furnished with an array of sixties inspired gadgets by ‘Santa’, her version of Bond’s Q, allowing Cate to go into the field with fluffy bunny slippers to quieten her footsteps, a belt-buckle grappling hook, perfume that knocks people out, lipstick grenades and a robotic poodle to distract the guard dogs. It’s a nice touch in the way Santa’s Little Helpers find appropriate ways for a girl to hide grenades and not raise suspicion. Plus, they all have a great sixties look.
Of course, no Bond film would be complete without supervillains and NOLF has some and then some. The brilliant mini boss, Wagner who warbles terrible operas and provides a fun mini-boss battle, the creepy Volkov who becomes Cate’s arch enemy and a Scottish vagabond called Magnus who appreciates Cate for her abilities - and that she's a Scot. When she goads the hulk into a brawl to prove she’s better than him is one of the best moments in the game (least in the cutscenes, scuffling with the lug is a nightmare and the only time I wish Cate would just use her feminine wiles to get around someone instead. Damned equality.) Plus there’s three slinky female assassins who spend most of their time lounging about in a classic Our Man Flint-style apartment waiting for the call to kill Cate. Those ladies are not to be messed with, although it’s a shame it’s not more hands on - not that I wanted a cat fight for any titillation, just that the build up to them appearing is actually let down by it being an explosive firefight rather than a roustabout or an opportunity to further the equality issue which would have been more fun.
The levels are nicely done too, full of little interactions and areas to explore, and they're epic-sized, but rarely drag and it's well balanced for the most part. Only a few camera-avoiding stealth-only scenes grate. It’s not strictly linear and you can take various routes or approaches, sometimes dictated by the gadgets you brought along. The NCPs wandering about slow the action down because you can’t help but stop to listen to their conversations too. Some areas do drag a little, especially where Stealth is insisted on, and there’s an interrogation mission where you have to listen to a rich old duffer blather on about his life - Cate is posing as a journalist - but I like to think it’s a commentary on sexism, that a man would assume a woman would be delighted to listen at length to obvious fibs about his manly life rather than just talk to her as an equal. Mansplaining in a shooter?
This being an espionage thriller, the plot takes you all over the world stopping off in nightclubs, a shark infested sunken ship (which Cate previously sank), a mid-air shootout after a plane explosion, and in space - What spy thriller doesn’t feature a space station, brilliantly including a Go-Go club? As Cate investigates H.A.R.M a real plot emerges, not just a cut-scene to justify the next shoot-em-up; Problems, double-crosses and unexpected events play out and it’s not until the credits are rolling you realise you played what could have passed as a classic TV spy-caper. Instead we got a classic game. And if you’re lucky enough to have the GotY edition, there’s a full post-credits level where Cate, enjoying some R&R on an island getaway has her gun stolen by a monkey…
Being over 15 years old, NOLF has aged. It looks very Half-Life 1 era, but only if you’re a real fan of environmental design or screen clutter. NOLF’s art design is so well done, the story so compelling, the gameplay so tight it’s just brilliant to be a part of, not to mention the characters, the humour and of course Cate herself. In short, all the stuff they add nowadays to make games look cool is missing and NOLF makes you realise it’s not needed. Peal that away from a lot of today’s games and you’d realise how empty they are. NOLF is missing that shine and yet it’s incredibly polished. It’s more than a shooter, it’s an adventure, a battle-of-the-sexes comedy-homage to a great-looking era all through the eyes of one of the very best heroes of modern gaming. It was one of my all-time favourite games when I first played it, and now it might be my favourite game. It’s certainly one of the best games of all time.
It’s a shame that NOLF is so mired in rights issues and big business indifference that Cate won’t get to adventure for a third time, let alone the classic originals see the legal light of day. I’m not ashamed to admit that when my original disk went MFC Error on me and Windows was no help, I wound up pirating NOLF from a site that just wants to keep Cate alive, keeping it playable as Windows updates threaten to leave her behind – that’s hero worship. Night Dive Studios tried to re-release it as did GOG.com, but both got so entangled they gave up. It’s a masterclass in mergers and acquisitions of mega-corps; Vivendi, Activision Blizzard, Fox and WB all possibly own a slice; some of them aren’t even sure themselves, having either owned, sold or absorbed companies that might have had a stake, and they all seem to have owned each other at some point. If they could all just get in a room, agree to share and let Monolith do what they do best, we’d all win. Of course, we could wind up with an unpleasant TR reboot but I’d love to see Cate save the world again. For now, there is something about how no one gets to ‘own’ Cate in the end. It seems oddly fitting.
2000 | Developer Monolith | Publisher Fox Interactive
platforms; the internet