A prequel to the swinging-'60s shooter No One Lives Forever 2, Contract J.A.C.K. has players working for the opposite side of the intelligence game. Cast in the role of John Jack, an assassin working for the criminal association known as H.A.R.M., players must prevent a rival Italian organization from moving in on H.A.R.M.'s territory. Contract J.A.C.K. includes ten levels of 1960s-style espionage and gun-toting action, with an assortment of weapons and gadgets available to complete missions. While the 3D graphic engine is the same as in previous titles in the series, gameplay has been reworked to offer more shootouts instead of stealth sequences and the storyline features a darker tone. Once the single-player levels are complete, experienced agents can participate in different multiplayer modes across 15 maps, including Doomsday, Deathmatch, and Team Deathmatch options. New maps and mods can also be created to keep the action from ending prematurely using the game's built-in editor and design tools.
There are certain things I expect from first-person shooters. Take sniping, for example. In most games, when I pop an enemy squarely in the cranium, he's usually...toast. Depending on the game, he might survive and shoot back, or duck for cover, or call for help. In any case, there's almost always some sort of reaction; you never expect an enemy to take a bullet to the noggin and then mindlessly return to doing whatever he was doing before as if it never happened.
This is one of several oddities present in Contract J.A.C.K., the new expansion pack for 2002's superlative No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way (aka "NOLF 2"). While the game is set in the NOLF universe and shares NOLF 2's tech and basic look, the powers that be at Monolith decided to make it a pure action title. It's a decent enough run, but it's hard to say who'll enjoy it: NOLF fans will likely find it lacking most of the series' charm, and as an action title, it feels strangely unpolished, falling victim to any number of basic problems.
Although Contact J.A.C.K. is a standalone title, it's technically labeled an "expansion" because of its use of the NOLF 2 tech and its size (15 missions over 7 chapters). In fact, if you watched over someone's shoulder, it would be easy to mistake the game for NOLF 2, recycling many of the same sounds, music, weapons, items, enemies, interface, etc. Inside, however, beats the heart of a very different game.
The first big change is that you don't play Cate Archer this time around; now you're filling the shoes of John Jack, killer-for-hire. (The "J.A.C.K." in the title stands for "Just Another Contract Killer.") Set a few months before No One Lives Forever 2, the game starts with Jack about to be ventilated by a rival hit man's goon squad. While making his escape, Jack is contacted by Dmitrij Volkov and the bad guys from H.A.R.M., who have a special job lined up for the resourceful hired gun.
Once you've passed a series of tests laid out for you by Volkov, the main plot surrounds a rival criminal organization named Danger! Danger! who have hatched a plot to hijack a Czechoslovakian rocket. Along the way, Jack infiltrates the rocket base, heads to the moon in hopes of rescuing the loony H.A.R.M. scientist who's marooned there, and eventually returns to Italy to take on the head of Danger! Danger! himself. In typical NOLF style, the story is purposefully goofy and doesn't take itself that seriously, although the ending may have you scratching your head a few times.
The second major change is that, unlike the previous NOLF games, Contract J.A.C.K. is pure action from start to finish. There's no sneaking around, no lockpicking, no searching dead bodies for ammo, no skill-building, no side objectives, not even any hidden notes to find. It's all extremely straightforward: start the level, kill all the bad guys, and get to the finish line (in fact, one mission takes the "finish line" concept quite literally).
Unfortunately, the action in Contract J.A.C.K. simply isn't as compelling as it was in NOLF 2. In that game, enemies felt like they were alive and intelligent, the combat tactical and open-ended. Here, enemies are simply thrown at you in bigger waves when you cross invisible triggers in each level. There's rarely a chance to surprise the enemy, as they burst from behind locked doors or are somehow alerted to your presence when you're completely out of sight. Getting caught in the open will usually get you killed, so despite the game's clear focus on action, it quickly becomes an exercise in moving cautiously, waiting for the next batch of enemies to jump out at you.
Complicating matters is the fact that most enemies tend to run straight at you once you're spotted, and most of the guns in your stripped-down arsenal (you'll lean on 3 or 4 automatic weapons from NOLF 2) need to be reloaded constantly. The result is that you'll often be swarmed over by enemies while in mid-reload, forcing you to retreat constantly and further slowing down the pace of the game.
The worst part is that there's never an illusion that you're fighting intelligent enemies. Bad guys run straight at you and dance around in predictable patterns, sometimes in unison with each other as if auditioning for a spot with the Pussycat Dolls. Snipe one enemy on a balcony, and an identical goon will likely run out to the same exact spot to take his place, cycle through the same animations and get killed in the same exact manner. At some point, you're simply running forward, "waking up" enemies, and waiting for the fools to rush into your stream of gunfire.
The NOLF games have always done a good job of presenting unique set pieces, such as NOLF 1's skydiving episode or NOLF 2's boss battle set in a house swept into the air by a tornado. There are a few attempts at this in Contract J.A.C.K., but they rarely amount to anything that special. One mission late in the game has you floating around in the vacuum of space, but it's basically a rotating shooting gallery that stops being fun about halfway through. Particularly disappointing are the vehicle-based levels, which involve driving a snowmobile or a machinegun-fitted Vespa: the vehicles are so awkward to control that you'll consider ditching them altogether, and it's hard to understand since the vehicles in NOLF 2 were fairly easy to maneuver.
Contract J.A.C.K. also offers multiplayer support for deathmatch and a few other modes. One of them is "Doomsday," in which two teams fight over three parts of a device which, when assembled, blows up the other team. There's also "Demolition," a Counter-Strike-like mode in which one team attempts to plant C4 charges on two out of three objectives. Most of the maps I saw were recycled areas from NOLF 2, and while the multiplayer is fun and the core combat solid, there's really nothing that innovative that justifies buying the expansion on its own.
The Final Word
I thought NOLF 2 had some excellent combat, so I was really excited when I first heard about the idea of the action-focused Contract J.A.C.K. Sadly, the expansion feels like it's going through the motions most of the time. It's worth noting that when we previewed the game earlier this year, we were told that it would start with Jack hurtling towards the sun and much of the game would be told through flashback. Obviously, that idea was scrapped at some point, and indeed most of the game feels like there were bigger and better ideas lurking in the background, never quite brought to life.
Contract J.A.C.K. is a competent shooter, but NOLF fans will almost certainly be disappointed with it and there are plenty of better action games available these days. There's still been no official word on the future of the No One Lives Forever series, but we can only hope that if John Jack appears again, he'll be given something much more interesting to do.
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