For a while, way back in the 90's when the genre was born, FPS games were at first vehicles of slaughter for characters without personality if you don't count Doom Guys shifting eyes to be a personality trait. Then at some point came characters like Duke Nukem, who just wouldn't stop throwing one-liners in the midsts of all the destruction. But still, the games were mostly just your standard run and gun shooters. And then someone figured, that there could be more to FPS genre than just running and gunning and cheesy one-liners while decapitating enemies with a circle blade. There could be a plot and maybe even elements that don't require shooting, elements like stealth.
The Operative: No One Lives Forever isn't the first of those other kinds of FPS's, but it is one people do remember. Not only was it a parodic take on spy thrillers in the style of Austin Powers movies, its main character was groovy 1960's female agent Cate Archer, who did not only try to do the best she could in her work, she also had to put up with the old-fashioned mentality of her superiors, who aren't so keen on sending a woman to do a mans job. This concoction managed to make the Operative a game I and many others remember with warmth. Its legendary status has also helped by the fact you can't buy it from anywhere anymore, considering the deep licensing hell it is. Night Dive, a studio that has brought back many old classics, tried in vain to get the publishing rights, but there was just too many knots to untie for that to happen. That and the fact that the physical copies of the game are pretty hard to get running on modern OS's have ensured that not that many people are willing to put up the hassle of playing it, so they need to rely on their rose-tinted memories.
So that in mind, I don't hesitate to point you towards No One Lives Forever Revival site, from where you can download both, NOLF 1 and 2, made compatible with modern hardware and OS's. That really is the best way to play the games today, as I tried in vain to install NOLF from the original disks only to find out, that it just didn't work anymore and would have required a tonne of tweaking in order to do so. Even the installer was too old to run in a 64-bit environment and despite I found a replacement, the game itself wouldn't run no matter how many patches I tried.
But technical and licensing issues aside, does NOLF hold up? It is an early 2000's title after all and it really does look like it. It has low poly environments, terribly blocky characters, which all are coated with low-resolution textures. So does it hold up? In short, the answer to that is, kinda yes, but mostly no.
See, when you play it, it does feel like an old game. The stealth mechanics especially don't feel very fluent nor comfortable and in many cases, it's just simpler to start sniping the enemies while hiding and lurking behind crates or simply by just move while crouching, waiting for an opportunity to shoot someone in the head. Most of the time the game doesn't really care, as it doesn't matter that much if the alarm is blaring. On a couple of missions it's mandatory to stay hidden, but even then you can strategically shoot people on locations no other enemies are coming, so it's pretty common to just litter the locations with corpses, trying to avoid leaving them in plain sight, as you can't carry them anywhere else. You can use a solvent to make the cadavers disappear, but that's an extra inventory item and one, that doesn't really feel like a necessary thing to take on the missions. The same goes with the enemy distraction items, as it often feels a wasted effort trying to lure them somewhere else if you can just pop a shot on the back of their heads with a silenced gun rather than trying to karate chop them in the neck.
Often I found myself just resorting to good old run and gun, as the game is just simpler that way. You can try and avoid some of the enemies, but often it feels like the field of vision they have is somewhat superior to yours, as they see you behind the corners Then again, at times they can be almost in front of you before they react to your presence. So no, a stealth game No One Lives Forever is not, despite it does try to encourage you to play it as such. Though, it's not a run and gun game either, so as such it's something in between, at times managing it better, at times worse.
The enemies also seem to know exactly from where you are popping up next. In many gun fights, when you are crouching behind some obstacle and change your location to somewhere else, unseen by the enemies, they instantly know where to shoot when you pop up to fire at them. This can be extremely annoying, especially on the bigger outdoor maps (which still are more like corridors, but still).
The age is also quite visible on how the story is told in the game. There's a lot of scenes that are cinematic, but in comparison to modern games, the storytelling is relatively clumsy, as the LithTech engine NOLF is running on doesn't really bend well on doing those cinematic pieces. And the animation leaves a lot of room for improvement. The ugly character models don't help either.
It wouldn't be a proper spy game without vehicles and NOLF offers those too, in form of motorbike and snowmobile. Sadly, again, the age shows its ugly teeth here, as driving with either isn't any fun thanks to clunky controls. The vehicles run like on rails and have very touchy turn rate, so it's pretty common to end up bumping walls and trees with them when you were just trying to steer a bit left or right in order to drive past something.
NOLF also tries to put as many Bond-movie inspired locations as possible. There's not only exotic Earth locations, there's also a space station. On Earth, Cate goes through Marocco, East-Berlin and the Alps to name a few. There's a daring skydive, chasing an enemy with a parachute that Cate lacks, a sniping mission, where she has to protect a target from other snipers, a train filled with spies and information, so pretty much all and everything in between is represented on the mission. Some missions require you to try to be stealthy, some allow more direct approach. Some are even based on talking and choosing a right thing to say at the right time, so I can't blame the level design from lack of diversity.
But very often the levels do feel like corridor runners. At times there's a bit more variation on how to proceed from one point to a next, but most of the time the level design does leave a lot of room for improvement.
In many ways, NOLF has aged pretty poorly in comparison to some more straight forwarded shooters like Doom of Duke Nukem 3D. In the end, though, NOLF is a fun game. What it misses with the relatively poor stealth implementation, it does win quite a bit with personality, despite it does at times feel like Austin Powers ripoff. While it is parodic take on the genre, it also is a bit more mature in style. Not much, but still. And it does deliver some good laughs now and then and overall it is a pretty well-written spoof and Cate is a well-written character in her own right, being tough, fun and likeable.
Considering the current remake boom of old games, The Operative: No One Lives Forever is a game I'd place very high on the list of games that should be remade. It already has a solid foundation in the script and the characters do work very well. Then again, the licensing hell it is at the moment makes any hope of a remake just a distant, thin glimmer in a dark, dark horizon.