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Here In the underground secret headquarters of, we often ramble on about the greatness of No One Lives Forever 2, extolling the virtues of Cate Archer's silky scrambles through the underground late into the night. Not that it made a jot of difference, mind, as hardly anyone went out and bought a copy. Tsk.
This didn't go unnoticed in the ivory towers of Monolith and, we can only presume, a marketing man with a big stick hovered over the employees when they were looking for a way to make the NOLF universe more saleable to the masses. How do we make the kids buy a game that stars a sexy woman who sneaks around, solves problems and eliminates targets coolly and calmly? they asked each other. Erm. Have a gruff man who blows shit up instead?" said the quivering voice of the tea lady. Genius. Have a banana. And so Contract J.A.C.K. was born.
Contract J.A.C.K. is essentially a standalone expansion pack to NOLF 2, albeit one with a significantly different style of gameplay. Playing as a mean and moody bad guy. the game sees you being tested and hired by the moustache-twirling head honcho of evil-doing conglomerate H.A.R.M., one Dmitri Volkov. A rival gang of leather-clad, skull-emblazoned hoodlums known as Danger Danger are weaselling their way up the cat-stroking ladder, and Volkov needs someone to find out what they're up to.
Neatly dovetailing the goody-two-shoes exploits of Cate Archer, Contract J.A.C.K. takes place between the two NOLF games; providing some great in jokes for fans, as well as an interesting counter-story to the machinations at UNITY HQ.
We're still firmly in NOLF territory here; a lot of the camper Avengers-styled humour has been scaled down, but it still looks and sounds much the same - and it's still fairly funny. Disembodied voices boom along the laser-blasted corridors complaining: It's times like these I wish that I'd built that army of killer robots instead of finishing the East Wing!" This causes you to raise one or two wry smiles while you crack open the heads of the opposing forces.
Weapons, meanwhile, are essentially those from the meatier end of Cate Archer's arsenal: most of the gadgets have been cut out, perhaps because burly contract killers generally don't carry hairpins and make-up. The awesome Bacalov Corrector, the little gun with the big bang, makes a welcome return, while a collection of C4, flashbangs, grenades and incendiaries help in clearing out the enclosed spaces and corridors of Italy, Czechoslovakia and various military encampments.
Fight For Your Rights
The major difference you'll notice if you played NOLF is the style of combat. Quite simply, it's mental. Bad guys don't sidle and snipe, they sprint over the level at breakneck speeds in some sort of evil gun-toting swarm. Appearing from a multitude of alleys, rooms and henchmen-backwaters, the omnipresence of snarling black leather makes for some extremely frenetic shooting sessions.
What's more, the Al is pretty good. At any point the multiple enemies on-screen will be diving, crouching, ducking behind walls and firing over them, charging at you or demonstrating a disturbing penchant for tumbling over balconies. The old FPS chestnut of a group of grunts just watching comrades getting bullet-riddled and not reacting rarely happens here, and in an age where so many good games are released with brain-dead automatons for villains, it's really quite refreshing.
Gameplay revolves around getting to a new area of a map, diving behind the street furniture and trying to blow the merry hell out of a legion of baddies until they stop appearing. When that happens, you can move on to the next meanie-packed bottleneck - all of which is great fun, at least to begin with. However, in one of Contract J.A.C.K.'s greatest strengths, we also find its greatest weakness. And as the proud holder of an English degree, I can reliably inform you this is an example of irony.
Contract J.A.C.K. never lets up, never allows you to draw a breath. Levels, like in the Italian towns you find yourself fighting in, go on for too long, and you find yourself getting bored of the action and wanting something a little less intense. Games like Call Of Duty, and indeed NOLF 2, have demonstrated the benefits of periods of slower-paced combat, but Jack's exploits never slip out of top gear, despite the fact your brain probably will. You can't help but think back to the skill points, stealth and tension of Cate Archer's forays in espionage and wipe away a tear for its demise.
Gimme A Break
What's more is that Monolith has clearly done its best to make the game as non-episodic as possible. One environment merges seamlessly into another: in the time it takes to drive from Milton Keynes to Doncaster, Jack has left a bullet-strewn Czechoslovakia on a rocket, had a big scrap on the moon and landed in the middle of an Italian baddie outpost on the return journey. What's more, in all this time your only stated objective is to rescue a scientist.
The lack of natural breaks is not only exhausting, but also limits any emotional attachment to proceedings. Gone are the hidden notes, the sideobjectives and the lock-picking of previous NOLF outings. Jack is a walking killing machine and very little else. A lack of cutscenes and precise objectives mean that Jack's antics only ever feel skin deep.
However, just when the sameyness of your gunplay is really beginning to bite. Monolith, eternal innovators of the FPS genre, pulls something shiny out of the bag. Every now and then a stroke of gameplay genius enters the fray and re-ignites your flagging imaginative juices - like Jack's bazooka-toting skidoo. Charging over the Czech mountain-tops blasting baddies over ledges and out of poorly built huts has never been so much fun.
In addition, the turning circle and controls make it a sheer joy to drive; helicopters swoop overhead while you career through border-posts and leap over trains while giggling like a maniac. It's true to say that the later Scooter-with-a-Machine-Gun section doesn't supply the same amount of giddy thrills as this, but it still makes a welcome change from the crazed on-foot action around you.
Elsewhere, you find yourself torturing a Danger Danger goon on a giant machine with cooking options such as Rare' and 'Well Done', which isn't quite as nasty as it sounds. The poor guy is really quite polite about the situation, but it's a nice little sub-game nevertheless.
Other nice touches include Jack's interloping on a battle between Danger Danger and the Czech military, both of whom are hell-bent on filling you with bullets, as well as each other. This creates some rather nice Half-Life-esque moments, where you hide behind a barrel and wait for enemies to fire off their bullets so you don't have to.
Cheesy references, meanwhile, are deliberately kept to a minimum this time round. However, Bond fans are still well catered for in the moon-base, and the Czech rocket silo tucked inside a mountain. In this reviewer's 007-hazed eyes, the latter is more than a little bit like Blofeld's volcanic lair in You Only Live Twice. In essence, the game is a series of peaks and troughs: neat little touches like these don't happen often, but they do perk you up when you've shot your fill of identikit villains.
Too Little, Too Late
It's the turn of the tide for the FPS and people are starting to expect more and more from their shooters: in six months time people will be treating Havok-free shooters without a decent physics engine like lepers at a finger buffet. I started playing Contract J.A.C.K. fresh from the mean and moody streets of Max Payne 2's New York, and the yawning chasm between them made it feel like I'd gone back in time two or three years. This may have meant that my clothes were back in style, but it still wasn't a great experience.
Thankfully, the fun and frenetic gameplay took my mind off this, but the fact that Contract J.A.C.K. is far from cutting-edge is certainly something to keep in mind. Little things, like the engine not enabling you to jump on the bonnet of your car really niggle at you more than they should.
It's also short -1 estimate it at five or six hours - and you should undoubtedly keep this in mind before spending 20 crisp notes on it. It's fun to play, but would you rather have six hours in the NOLF universe that occasionally drag, or six hours of pure Max Payne 2 class for a few pounds extra? To Monolith's credit, it has included some well-designed multiplayer maps and released some pretty nifty modding tools, but Contract J.A.C.K. only just scrapes home in the value-for-money stakes.
It remains, however, a fun experience; a dumbed-down NOLF adventure that hasn't aged that well, but still walks with a spring in its step and a tongue in its cheek. It won't live forever, but nothing ever does.
Who's A Naughty Boy?
Jack is a killer who works for an evil organisation, but he never really does anything hugely bad (Apart from massacre people wherever he goes - Ed). He only ever kills soldiers and other bad guys, but it would have been really good if he actually got to murder some of the goodies. Games like Jedi Academy give you the chance to taste the dark side, so why can't we run through UNITY HQ with all guns blazing and put some bullets in some do-gooders, godammit?
Download Contract J.A.C.K.
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP