We've already established that the 2000 spy game No One Lives Forever starred gaming's great unsung heroine. But as I finished it last weekend, I was struck anew by the excellent bad-guy fakeouts and surprise reveals at the end.
Spoilers, if you care, coming up for the entire ending of the first No One Lives Forever.
As you play the game, your main antagonist appears to be a bald, eyepatched killer named Dimitry Volkov. Volkov is an executive officer at H.A.R.M., the organisation that stands in opposition to agent Archer's UNITY. (They're basically the COBRA to UNITY's G.I. Joe.)
But as the story progresses, it's hinted that there's more going on. Against the better judgment of her superiors, Archer follows her hunch about Baroness Felicity Dumas, wife of the hapless Baron Dumas. As it turns out, Archer's hunch was correct: H.A.R.M.'s entire plot has been set in motion by Baroness Dumas, who is striking back at the blue bloods who ostracized her after her father's disgrace (and the rest of the world, as well).
So: That's already pretty great. Here we've got a game that's already uncommonly lady-centric, and as it turns out, the mastermind behind the world-domination scheme is also a woman. Dumas and Archer even do a classic "We're not so different, you and I" scene:
Which may include the most well-incorporated, stinging "bitch" I've seen in a video game cutscene.
Archer, of course, manages to escape. She foils Dumas' plan, getting the list of targets to UNITY and escaping the chateau by surviving the Most Annoying Gondola vs. Helicopter Fight in Video Game History.
(Side note: While very fun for the most part, No One Lives Forever takes a real gameplay nose-dive over the last hour or two. The boss fights are mostly disasters, and that gondola/helicopter fight is an entirely unfun war of attrition hampered by horribly misbehaving physics.)
The reveals don't stop there. Archer then goes to her mentor Bruno's grave to tell him she got the job done, only to find that Agent Goodman is actually alive and was a double-agent the entire time. Then agent SMITH turns up, and he's evil too, but then kindly agent Jones turns up and shoots him before we learn that Bruno didn't die but then he almost does when a dying smith grabs for his gun but then Archer shoots him and they all live happily ever after. Oh! And Goodman wasn't actually Goodman, the real Goodman was dead and the guy pretending to be Goodman was actually a vacuum salesman. It more or less plays out like a parody of every Spy-movie closing-scene reveal ever.
But then comes the best twist of all. After the credits (which are remarkably short, if you've gotten used to the hilariously lengthy credits sequences that run with modern-day games), we get one more big reveal: Not only is Volkov still alive, there was someone else behind the scenes, running H.A.R.M. the entire time.
Who was it? It was this guy:
If you've been paying attention over the course of the game, that guy turns up in every single bar you pass through. He appears to be a fat, bald, incredibly drunk guy who eventually passes out on the floor.
Turns out he wasn't so drunk after all — he was the director of H.A.R.M.!
I'd remembered most of the twists and turns of NOLF's story, but I'd forgotten that one. In fact, I'm not sure if I really caught it the first time I played the game 13 years ago. On this recent playthrough, I was much more attuned to the game's smaller details, and I took the "drunken guy in the bar" to be a running gag, nothing more.
The fact that he turns out to be the big bad — and, amazingly, begins the sequel as the main bad guy, hunting Cate Archer — is just so outstanding. Here he is in the much-prettier-looking No One Lives Forever 2:
So, not only did No One Lives Forever manage to surprise players by pitting its heroine against a villainess, it threw in a drunken, disguised double-whammy. Not bad, Monolith.
Of course, it's an open question which game has the gaming's actual best surprise villain. Video games have had some pretty great villain reveals over the years. Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire both come to mind, as does Heavy Rain, even if it was a bit predictable. And the list goes on.
This seems like a job for the comments. No One Lives Forever had not one but two of the best surprise villains I've seen, but I'm curious what you think. With appropriate spoiler warnings, who are your favourite surprise villains in video games?
Bond image template via Shutterstock.