A Blast from the Past review
FBT reviews the return of Cate Archer. That's if he can see her all the way up on that pedestal.
The best thing about discovering games released on budget labels was you didn’t have to wait forever for the sequel. When I picked up Xplosiv’s NOLF release, A Spy In HARMs Way was only a few months behind so I didn’t have to wait too long before slipping into Cate’s kinky boots again. I loved Cate. I mean, NOLF.
I remember NOLF2 being a huge leap from the first. Graphically it looked amazing as Cate continent-hopped trying to avert a Bay of Pigs event. Great baddies including the mime assassins (who doesn’t want to shoot a mime?), a huge amount of comedy and some commentary on the Cold War. And Cate, being Cate. Lovely Cate. It was just really good; a great shooter with a solid story and good characters; a rarity for any sequel, in any media. It was more of the same without being samey; more outlandish than the original, with hulking super-soldiers to take down – but then the original was all about people mysteriously exploding so where do you go from there? I remembered playing it so much the two games merged into one beloved game. But as I prise them apart in my head, I realise my best remembered moments were from the first and remember NOLF2 getting repetitive and spending way too long in India, like they’d run out of money and just shoe-horned narrative reasons for everything to take place in one or two locations. But it was still a great game, its Cate and it’s still the swinging sixties. I’m excited to go back and see if those Kinky Boots still fit. Everybody's going for those kinky boots, kinky boots (boop-boop) kinky boots.
Still a Blast?
Our first mission as Cate, looking as lovely and acting as cool as ever, is to infiltrate a super villain convention being held at a Ninja Village. It’s largely a tutorial as we learn the ropes of this more seasoned – but no less perfect - Cate. It’s a great little mission where we learn a few new tricks like stealth-hiding, moving bodies and searching for goodies, and relearn awesome distractions like listening to hilarious conversations and daft moments, and soon enough we've lost ourselves in Cate. I mean World, Cate's world. It’s good to be back, I’m grinning and enjoying it way too much and that’s not just ‘cos Cate’s back and she hasn’t aged a bit. Cate’s back because HARM is up to something with an island called Khios. A speck in the ocean to most, its strategic worth has become a lynchpin in the cold war build-up and HARM offers to help the USSR take it – in return for building the world’s first ‘5star Communist Hotel’ on the island. Stopping WWIII and all-inclusive holidays? Cate has her work cut out for her.
NOLF2 is technically better looking than its predecessor and it’s a good shooter, the goons are quick and hard to pin down, while stealthing is actually fun for the most part, especially when you’ve got the camera disabler and tracker darts - new and improved presents from her Q, Santa; while Cate no longer does runs through his Workshop, Santa is still here, advising via a robotic bird that unnervingly knows where to perch when Cate needs info on the mission and monitors how she’s doing (‘don’t shoot the bloody bird…’). He also leaves dainty little presents for Cate to find, filled with lethal and fun goodies. Cate also gains intel from rifling desks and can trigger side-goals, both of which give xp to upgrade; better weapon handling, health etc., but also how quickly she can hide and use gadgets. We also don’t have the loadout screen anymore, Cate defaults to basic weapons and everything she needs, not that she needs anything, being perfect n’all. I can see why gadget picking was dropped from the first one, anything that was required for the mission you’d find nearby or were default carried anyway and the optionals are now always available. But it does mean your approach is dictated; you can’t pick a sniper rifle if you intend to stealth or the Corrector if you wanted to be anti-stealth. The weapons and the multiple ammo makes a return but there’s new gadgets like a hair-spray that doubles as a welder, nail-clipper lock-picks, a phone bug that looks like a ladybug (which Cate plays with while idle) and a cute little robo-kitty that will attract baddies with explosive results. Not quite as good as the fluffy slippers and belt-buckle grappling hook but still silly yet practical ways UNITY, Cate’s spy organisation, found to equip their first female agent. But Cate’s not a ‘female agent’ anymore, she’s Agent Archer, UNITY Spy; less eager newbie and more company man now.
Being a company man means practically none of the sexism Cate endured in the first. There’s references, comments but she’s accepted and respected. She has a reputation after the events of the first and that’s what they comment on, not her dress sense. Although the catsuits are gone, she’s not been sexed up either; Cate’s no less stylish but she is refreshingly functional. When in Siberia she’s in a parka rather than some barely there outfit (there are some fetching white gloves clutching the gun), around the office she’s in a stylish little V-neck dress and leather jacket, but there’s no cleavage on display. The closest she gets to baring flesh is in India, and she’s only showing a midriff. She still has her charm and playfulness (‘can you stop fidgeting?’ / ‘no’ ) but less of the sharp putdowns because she’s no longer enduring the sexist passcodes or fending off security guards belittling her for being on the shooting range and then asking her out on dates.
But then, what looks like NOLF2 topping NOLF’s sexism and misogyny by exploring feminism and patriarchy is actually a missed opportunity in the form of Isako, a female Nina Master whom Cate spends much of the game battling. Isako’s indebted to the HARM Director who toys with her, promising Isako freedom if she brings him Cate’s head then says she is his and he’ll never let her go. That’s the kind of thing Cate would not have taken kindly to. Isako is the only non-jokey mini-boss of the entire series and Cate’s equal; recognising Isako’s predicament, Cate tries to reason with her even after Isako puts her in the hospital -twice- and it feels like their relationship and Cate’s influence was intended to weave into the plot as if Cate, having won her personal battle must now step up and fight for other women but it doesn't really happen. While their resolution technically works, it’s solving the problem not the issue and it's a let down after the searing commentary on sexisim in the original.
NOLF2 just doesn’t explore empowerment as it should have, like Cate ‘proved’ herself in NOLF1 and that’s enough but being capable isn’t the same as equal and I expected NOLF2 to satirise the fact that Cate had to save the world to get respect. There’s none of that in NOLF2, but it’s good to see Cate simply treated as an Agent rather than judged as a woman, even if it’s ironic that she’s accepted as an equal and that feels like a fantasy.
The biggest (well, smallest) foe of Cate’s adventure is an assassin called Pierre the Mime King. The little theatrical brat has been tasked with stopping Cate from interfering with HARM’s plans, and he unleashes a group of mimes on her trail. Who are a work of genius. They hunt you down, invisible walls notwithstanding, tip-toeing despite their huge size, yelling in ‘Allo-‘Allo accents. You never get tired of them – it’s really saying something when you’re pleased to see more of an enemy. Less welcome are the Russians you battle, who aren’t quite on the same scale as the original HARM goons – they’re a lot more shooter-typical, although they have their fair share of comments (‘This is the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics - People don't just disappear without a trace!’) and at one sneaky stage I caught them dancing to an evil capitalist radio station, but overall there’s a lot less of the conversations going on; NOLF2 feels shorter than NOLF1 because you’re not wasting hours listening to them complain about mothers-in-law or discussing the moral implications of providing beer to HARM’s ranks. Volkov is back too, spending the entire game in a head-to-foot plaster cast and not in the best of moods, while Armstrong returns as an ally. Drafted in for his intel on HARM, Cate and Armstrong constantly bicker and argue to cover their mutual respect; that there’s zero implication of an attraction makes it even better. The big lunk is one of the best things in the game, constantly pissing and moaning before doing something hugely heroic, or really dumb. He was always an ambiguous character in the first game and in NOLF2 those flashes of a moral code come to the fore. But, he’s not above winding Cate up – and she responds by making him hold her handbag. They’re great.
We also fight HARM’s soldiers, who are somewhere between the Mimes and the Russians and do have some awesomely inane conversations or spend time practicing their evil laughs, and perhaps the most surreal baddie of any shooter is the ‘Man-Crates’ – Volkov punishes HARM thugs by turning them into crates who remain committed to the HARM cause, rolling towards you trying to get in a bite. There is one absolutely beautiful moment when, if you’re quick and sneaky, you can hear two HARM goons discussing something (‘Like all quantities, horror has its ultimate. And I am that.’ / ‘Hey! That's from The Brain that wouldn't Die, I love that movie!’) and it turns out one of the goons is actually just sitting on his crate-friend as they chat. Nobody does it better than NOLF. But the real big bads of NOLF2 are the Super-soldiers. Genetically engineered hulk-meets-Big Daddy, they are HARM’s present to the USSR to secure Khios and not to be messed with.
After Cate survives the Ninja Village and her first encounter with Isako, it’s off to Siberia where we learn more of the Soviet’s plans. It’s a huge and mostly fun mission, with lots of infiltration, skimobiles and explosions. And save our drunk pilot twice. Later we investigate double-agent Tom from the first game, learning how he’d been conditioned by HARM. What follows is a running fight with the Ninjas, spilling out into a nearby trailer park as we try to outrun an approaching Tornado. Until Isako blocks our exit. Cate asks if we can possibly postpone considering the tornado is ripping up trailers all around us, but Isako thinks the storm adds a level of excitement to their duel. We wind up fighting with Katanas inside a trailer spinning in mid-air inside the storm. Although Isako uses flashbangs to stealth attack, it’s one intense, close-quarter scrap (and maybe a Kill Bill reference) and the game’s standout. Only the graphical limitations stop this from being heart-attack thrilling as the trailer disintegrates and Cate has to avoid the swirling winds and Isako’s attacks. Awesome stuff. And I’m sure there’s a Mary Poppins - Wizard of Oz reference in there.
NOLF2 does run out of steam a little after the trailer park fight; the extended stay in India is even longer than I remember and it’s a bit of a slog; infiltrating HARM twice, putting down a HARM rival (Unlike HARM and UNITY, they don’t have an acronym, they’re just called Evil Alliance …) It also hits the same beats as the original – a rescue mission, a sneak mission that’s mission-fail if you get spotted, it starts to feel a little familiar. Things pick up with a 'The Thing'-like exploration mission in Antarctica to discover HARM’s ace in the hole – the Super-soldiers - then it drops again when HARM field-tests them (in India, again) and it's a 'save the population while avoiding death' mission which just feels forced. But we’re back in the saddle when the mimes attack UNITY and Cate goes on a rescue mission inside HARM’s underwater base. While it's always fun, NOLF2 is mostly Cate just playing catch up, whereas in the first she foiled plans and was a thorn in HARM’s side.
There’s nothing wrong with NOLF2’s middle section, there’s tons of gags, in-jokes and bullets flying about but it's largely padding – Tom’s house and The Thing base are essentially the same for instance - find enough clues to trigger the next scene - while India outstays it’s welcome. You get this feeling we're just kicking our heels until the final mission which slowly builds during the cut-scenes, as a warmongering US general pushes for war - and straight into HARM's hands.
The finale, escaping HARM’s (amusingly fake) volcano base, resolving Cate’s differences with Isako and stopping the Super-soldiers on Khios is all good fun – and there’s even time for a touching moment with one of the super-soldiers, who retained some memory and thinks Cate is its daughter – but NOLF2 doesn’t quite have that warmth of the original, that love for its sixties TV inspiration. Instead it ramps up the humour, almost reaching screwball comedy; I’m not saying Cate jumps the shark here, but it’s definitely going for the silly. I have nothing against chasing a three-foot-tall unicycle-riding mime through the backstreets of Calcutta while riding on Armstrong’s back as he peddles a kid’s tricycle, who can argue with that, but NOLF2 is more an absurdist experience compared to the subversive tone of the first. Okay, so NOLF1 had an opera-warbling mini-boss you bested by turning off her radio so she walked into electrified puddles, but NOLF2 is The Monkeys to NOLF1's The Beatles.
The unrealised potential of Isako and Cate’s relationship does sour things a little, and the subplot of the Super-solider searching for his daughter is another aspect that could have been explored instead of more India shenanigans, but NOLF2 is still a far better realised game than most. It’s not NOLF1 but few games are (almost none to be honest) and pacing and plotting aside, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the world. Around HARM bases there’s constant reminders to the staff ‘remember what HARM stands for’ – even though no one knows (Unless you play Monolith’s FEAR...) Games could learn a lot from Cate; they don’t all have to build social or gender commentary into their narratives or feature men turned into crates, but the NOLF games show it’s possible to deliver so much more than a reskin. The energy, excitement, wit and fun on display in NOLF2 reminds you why you love gaming so much; this is a game that loves to be played. Cate is lovely too.
The real heartbreaker here though isn’t the unobtainable, perfect Cate, it’s that the NOLF franchise is so mired in copyright issues it’ll never see the light of day or manage a re-release let alone a third game. And so, the NOLF games remain the very definition of a Blast from the Past - a real, genuine contender for the ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ crown. Cate would look great in a crown, but only if it had a grappling hook hidden in it.
2002 | Developer Monolith | Publisher Sierra