Are you familiar with the phenomenon of the "overrated underrated" game? This is limited mostly to gaming forums, but does pop into the occasional mainstream article as well. Usually it's some game that didn't sell well for whatever reason, and doesn't get much attention, but some handful of enthusiasts swear it's one of the BEST GAMES EVUR, and recommend it up and down until they're blue in the face. If you happen to frequent NeoGAF, for example, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is probably the most prominent example there.
And yet, the established fans always seem to leave out some critical element, usually one that explains why this supposedly AAA-caliber title bombed in sales/got poor reviews/went unnoticed. In the case of Vampire, it's absolutely awful combat. I mean, game-wreckingly terrible. People who have already invested their little fanboy hearts in these games are willing to overlook these major flaws, but they don't think from the perspective of a completely different person who is coming to it completely fresh. And thus people are perplexed, and their money goes down the toilet.
No One Lives Forever is another one of these "overrated underrated" titles you see getting tooted about on various forums. It actually isn't really "underrated" to begin with, because game magazines in 2000 went into rapturous orgasms over it when it came out, giving it largely 90% to 100% scores. And it actually sold well enough to get a sequel. But it's still a franchise that only the most hardcore of PC gamers have probably heard of, certainly not a household name up there with the likes of Half-Life and Halo.
So it's a can't-miss forgotten obscurity? Heh ... well, you saw my score on the way in, right? NOLF is another one of those games with a massive, crippling flaw that fanbois seem to just gloss right over like it isn't there. In this case, it's abysmal level design and amateurish programming. It wants to be a "high-concept" shooter like Deus Ex or Thief, blending in stealth and conversation elements, but it seems like those elements were too hard for the designers to implement in a fluid and meaningful way ... so they just hammered them in a halfassed way instead, pasted in clumsily over top of the sort of 1990s-style kill-em-all simplistic FPS that they had previously been doing (Blood, Shogo, Blood 2).
The game's art makes it look like a "homage" (you know what that's French for) to Austin Powers, a campy parody of 1960s spy movies. Which is sort of is. But it's also a surprisingly melodramatic story with lots of "serious" bits, that unfold in dialogue and cut-scenes that often drone for *far* too long.
Design problems are quickly on display in the (seemingly interminable) first mission. Sadly, your very first task is an escort mission, with instant death if the escortee gets shot even once. This isn't too bad, as you hve the option to have a handler point out where dudes are coming from, but it's not the last time you'll deal with some bullshit instant-death escort nonsense. Next up, an ambush in your hotel room teaches you that enemies can see and shoot you through solid objects, but you can't do the same to them (despite what the tutorial level seemingly teaches you.)
The enemies really deserve special mention. It's one of those games where every single common enemy is the goddamn Terminator. Their awareness of your position is based on "zones" instead of line of sight, which is part of what makes the stealth approach nearly useless in this game most of the time. That, and once you're "spotted", they are constantly aware of your exact position and everything you're doing, even if you ran 100 yards away down a maze of hallways or something and they haven't seen you in a full minute. They are also aware that they are bullet sponges on PCP, and are programmed to charge you wildly and suicidally upon detection, chipping you down through sheer masses.
Nice-assed heroine Cate is still more than a match for them (with her body armor on) until they get machine guns about halfway through the (far too goddamn long) opening level. Once they have the heavier weaponry, it only takes one or two of these sucidial jihad warriors to charge you out of nowhere and blast your health down to nothing, but the levels keep throwing absolute scads at you that seemingly can't be avoided thanks to a combination of Doom-esque level design and broken stealth mechanics. If you've ever played the original Max Payne, the enemies behave EXACTLY like the ones in that game do -- they take ridiculous amounts of shots to the head and face without even slowing down, they never flinch or stumble, they can apparently see through multiple walls and solid objects, and they're always waiting in perfect position to ambush you when you encounter them. In other words, the programmers couldn't handle good AI, so they implement challenge by making the enemies cheap as balls instead.
The game also doesn't give you a lot of reason to put up with its janky FPS engine. The characters are flat and uninteresting. They're stuck in some odd spot between "dramatic" and "comedic" where they aren't doing either one well at all. As is the whole story, really. The parody and wit misses as often as it hits; this game is far from hilarious. The levels are largely a linear, scripted experience, and the only hidden goodies to go back for are boring "intel" dossiers, half of which are some dry, unfunny and plot-irrelevant joke. There is literally nothing to care about here.
If you look at a site like Gamerankings or Metacritic, you'll notice the game has an overall orgasmic 88-90% in its original PC incarnation, but mysteriously drops to 67% for the PS2 port. Look a little more closely and you'll see the central complaint cited about the PS2 version is that it has lost the quicksave/quickload option of the PC version, which makes the game unbearable to play. If you think about it, that really says it all about this game; it's in the outdated 1990s quicksave/quickload Romero School Of Level Design mentality of constantly funneling you into cheap ambushes and death traps that you have to learn about by dying, then reload. Over and over and over. With this overall framework, the relevance of the stealth and conversation aspects necessarily falls by the wayside. You're left playing Duke Nukem 3D with a poorly-armored character who is unsuited for it, and it's a turgid and frustrating experience.
* How to get the game running on Windows 7
* Gameplay Video