No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way--the sequel to GameSpot's 2000 Action Game of the Year, The Operative: No One Lives Forever--continues the surprising success Monolith has experienced in the last couple of years. It improves on almost everything that worked well in the first game, and it also fixes that game's problems. Thanks to this sequel, an already amazing year for action games just got even better.
Skill points can be used to raise eight different character stats.
Though the details have changed, the new game's story and setting are similar to those of the first game. It's still the swinging '60s, you're still UNITY agent Cate Archer, and you're still fighting the worldwide crime syndicate H.A.R.M. and its quirky henchmen. This time, you'll not only travel to predictable locations such as a remote military base, an undersea laboratory, and Japan, but you'll also visit the never-before-simulated world of Akron, Ohio, an environment that in video game terms qualifies as truly exotic.
If the story hasn't changed dramatically, the means of telling it certainly have. The expository cutscenes--which were sometimes interminable in the original game--have been seriously streamlined for the sequel. Nearly all of them make their points quickly and effectively and then move on. This skillful trimming results in scenes that are funnier and generally more entertaining than those in the original game. And from the unexpected visual gags, to the strange gadgets, to the overheard conversations of H.A.R.M.'s neurotic, chatty minions, all the other elements of the series' steadfast good humor remain intact as well.
The series' stealth elements, arguably the weakest aspect of the original's gameplay, have undergone a complete overhaul. Thankfully, a lean function has been added to Cate's repertoire of actions. Most of the game's 40 levels (spread across 15 long chapters) can be completed using stealth, brute force, or a combination of the two. And unlike in many games with a stealth element, guard alarms are usually localized--if you trigger an alert in one section of a level and manage to escape, enemies in another area won't necessarily be alerted to your presence. The designers have also done away with all the aggravating missions in which you automatically lose if you're spotted. Though triggering an alarm (especially on higher difficulty settings, where enemies pack a real wallop) will often result in a tough situation, you always have the option of fighting your way through, fleeing, or hiding until things cool down. In fact, several new gadgets, such as the bear trap and the banana peel, are specifically designed to help you escape from pursuers.
Excellent level design complements the game's improved sneaking element. Most of the environments include side passages that can be used to avoid guards. These side-passages, however, also give enemies a way to circle around you in a fight. The AI of your enemies, which was already excellent in the original, has been somewhat improved. Often, one henchman will hold his position while another one tries to work his way behind you. Meanwhile, the AI of characters who aren't actually engaged in combat has been improved dramatically. Guards will become alerted by sounds, footprints in the snow, cries from other guards, and the bodies of their fallen comrades (which you can pick up and carry out of sight). Once alerted, they won't immediately pinpoint your location. They'll first check the area of the disturbance (taking a moment to investigate dead bodies). They'll then start poking around, turning on lights and peeking into closets, in an attempt to find you. All these actions are accompanied by auditory feedback in the form of either the guard talking to his compatriots or muttering to himself. The stealth system is both intuitive enough and lenient enough to avoid the frustrating half-baked feel of similar systems implemented in other shooters, which often seem to be nothing more than an afterthought. With the possible exception of the Thief series, No One Lives Forever 2 features the most seamless and satisfying integration of first-person stealth to date.