Ripe for a Reboot: No One Lives Forever

August 26, 2019

Ripe for a Reboot is a semi-regular feature which takes a classic game or series which has been neglected by developers or publishers over the years and makes a case for introducing it to today's market in the form of a sequel, remaster or full reboot.

Let me tell you a story. It's the turn of the century and I have somehow persuaded my parents it’s time for a new PC to help me with all my university work...and play all the games...and watch all the films and so on. I might be a year out (my memory isn’t great these days) but even if I am, the salient point I’m trying to make in this perfunctory introductory preamble is that I had a funky new PC which could pretty much do anything I wanted it to. That means playing all the new games at decent settings. When not working, naturally. 

It just so happens that the turn of the century was an exciting time for gaming and gamers, too. Things seemed quite experimental in some ways, and definitely progressive. I guess if I had to put my finger on why, it is probably because PC gaming was de rigueur back then and quite possibly the most common form of gaming, despite the PlayStation 2 and Xbox being rather popular. This meant devs could make the PC the lead platform for game development, knowing it would sell well if they made a good game which was scalable across a large range of settings, and therefore do a return on investment calculation which worked. Even if they created something a little riskier than today’s world allows (hello Call of Duty and the male-led, non-stealth straight shooter spin-off, Contract J.A.C.K.) with the bigger budgets and the need to hit home runs. 

A pictorial representation of Cate Archer, superspy (not in-engine graphics)

This wonderful period of time brought us two fabulous games the likes of which we hadn’t seen before and perhaps haven’t seen since, despite the fact they were bloody brilliant. The games? The Operative: No One Lives Forever and No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M’s Way. In simplistic terms they were high-quality first-person shooters, but in reality they were much, much more. Playing as Cate Archer, a ‘60s superspy working for U.N.I.T.Y. as she defends world peace from H.A.R.M. (the goodie and baddie operation acronyms do stand for something but I’m pretty sure we’re never told what), the game railed against type and enjoyed riffing off of spy tropes made famous in films such as the James Bond series, whilst being very self-aware that you were playing as a female protagonist. The gadgets at your disposal were often disguised as normal everyday items ladies of the day might have been carrying, like lipstick for instance — which could be used as an explosive device. Those are my lingering memories, at least. 

Other images that stay in my mind even now — and therefore might be totally accurate, or perhaps just have some similarity to what ACTUALLY happened — include being in some kind of hut or barn which was flying through the air thanks to a tornado, falling through the air with no parachute to hand after Point Break did it but before The Fast and the Furious series; being drugged (perhaps whilst in a sauna) and going to outer space. Yes, freaking outer space. I did say the game riffed on James Bond. Austin Powers too was an obvious inspiration, and pretty much every other popular culture spy-thing you can think of. 

A pictorial representation of Cate Archer, superspy (in-engine graphics)

All of the over-the-top plotting was wrapped up in brilliant tongue-in-cheek humour and really well done gunplay and stealth. You were a spy, after all. In fact, given that, stealth was the preferred mode of gameplay for me and the one encouraged by the devs more than any other, I think. You could complete a lot of the missions in one of multiple ways, like in Hitman’s sandbox. The pair of games are perhaps my favourite first-person shooters ever, and given the competition (hello Return to Castle Wolfenstein!) that’s saying something. 

The good news is that anyone can play each game now, for free. Available here, thanks to like-minded folks who believe the game should be enjoyed by anyone with a passing interest in gaming, you can play along with me as I go back to these games and risk spoiling my memories of how good they were. I’m willing as the risk is low — I know they’ll still be brilliant. 

Some very cool and funky fashion in this game

And here’s the bad news, which makes me sad. Cate Archer and her travails are currently locked in intellectual property ownership hell. Said hell is an as yet undefined thing, given nobody really knows who owns the rights. It’s all because the game was originally published by Fox Interactive and developed by Monolith Productions, each of which has been bought and subsumed separately, on at least one occasion. So the rights could be with all parties, some, one, or perhaps none if the IP records management wasn’t really kept up. Unfortunately no one has yet been able to trawl the right documentation at each and every company to find out, and the games and everything about them are stuck in digital purgatory, saved only by the above which is allowed because no company claims ownership and therefore a drive to stop distribution of the freely available game versions. It sounds complicated but the main takeaway is that you can play the original games for free right now and that’s all you’re likely to ever have.

Whatever could he mean?

Hopefully though, as life without hope is not something we should live in, this can all be sorted sometime soon. Whilst the freeware versions of the game are great to play, a remaster of them would be vastly superior. It would work really well on console (the original was ported to the PS2 after a while), but PC would be ok if that was all we got. Remasters would be a low-risk way to bring back the female lead and the slightly out there story, enabling anyone who does the work to test the waters now, nearly twenty years later but in a world where we have to deal with things like this. If it worked well — and I believe it would do — then we might finally get that trilogy-ender, or reboot, or whatever. I don’t actually care what we get, but any chance to play an updated Cate Archer game, a new one or anything in between would just make my day.

It’s not just me who needs it. We all do. Something to bring colour to the array of greys that the shooter genre largely is today. Series like Wolfenstein show what can be achieved when you go against the grain, and the daily grind of shooters as platforms (Cough *Destiny* cough). Humour, pathos, character and differences could mean a world of success now and in the future.

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Luciano Howard

I've been gaming for 30+ years on the Commodore VIC-20 to the Nintendo Switch and most things in-between. I enjoy all kinds of games but if I had to pick a couple right now, I'd say I adore Mario and love Dark Souls. I can talk about either ad infinitum...