Billed as an indirect prequel to No One Lives Forever, Contract J.A.C.K. features a male protagonist, a brute force contrast to Cate Archer's finesse. John Jack serves as the antithesis of UNITY's star agent by becoming a contract killer for the criminal organization HARM, which basically means he doesn't give a hoot about who he works for as long as he gets paid. This attitude apparently takes you quite far in the criminal world.
Contract begins with Jack slumped over a chair about to be taken out by two well-dressed bad guys. The start looks promising as it reminds me a lot of what happened in Max Payne. The Italian syndicate Danger! Danger! is moving in on HARM's territory. Volkov, the faux Russian guy with the one-eyed patch, offers you one of those deals you can't refuse. However, to take up on it, you'll need to lay waste to dozens of guys in suits. And after a prolonged interview segment, which involves laying waste to HARM agents (who aren't as goofy looking as they used to be), you will be dispatched to infiltrate Danger! Danger!'s operations to find out what they're looking for and what HARM can do to fight off this usurper in the international crime scene.
On paper, it sounds like a pretty good game to throw our pal Jack in, but Contract features none of the quick wit that peppered No One Lives Forever. Jack's speech is kept to a minimum. His panache for commenting on the obvious is about as insightful as the grunts we get from Sylvester Stallone. To make it worse, the bad guys have lost their charm too with entire lines copied out of other movies. In the Malta 'interview' where you try to land a job with HARM, Volkov says over the loudspeakers, "On my command, unleash hell" to his 'gladiator' goons. Has the inkwell really run that dry there?
The action is ferocious in Contract and the levels are designed such that you'll walk straight into it whether you want to or not. Quite often, six guys will suddenly jump out of trucks with their guns blazing. Take another few steps and another four or five will burst out of an inaccessible door to join their funeral party. This influences the level designs too. Archer's world was constructed with meticulous tunnels, air vents, nooks and crannies that you could use to crawl through undetected. Jack's world has none of that so the only way to get through areas is to slog through the dozens of enemy agents standing in your way.
Another poignant difference between No One Lives Forever and Contract: their approach to overcoming obstacles. Archer might sneak into position and use a funky 1960s contraption to unleash an explosive pet robot or something. Jack's approach to getting between two impassable buildings is planting C4 against a boiler attached to a wall, blowing a hole in the wall and going through guns blazing.
Many times, Jack can end up wandering aimlessly throughout levels. Somewhat like the respawning features in No One Lives Forever, if you start to backtrack, you'll encounter randomly generated enemy reinforcements. This doesn't help when the objectives state something along the lines of go to this place with a snowmobile. In reality, you'll have to blow up a boiler to open up the door to another building (starting to see a pattern here?), climb on to a crane and dislodge the snowmobile and then (walking all the way back again) take the snowmobile and jump on to a train.
Perhaps the vague objectives were needed to make the game lengthier. Jack's escapade eventually takes him face to face with Archer, although she makes a fleeting cameo appearance towards the end of the game; definitely not enough to justify buying the game and shooting all the people between you and Archer to see her again.
Like No One Lives Forever, Contract's engine guarantees it will have multiplayer capabilities. There are some interesting ones: a race to arm three demolitions packages throughout a map. Unfortunately, the co-operative mode that made the news and had critics raving is completely absent from Contract. The last edition of No One Lives Forever featured a co-operative mode where you don't play many Archers but instead, you played some generic UNITY operatives who helped Archer out in her missions. Some of them were quite innovative, like one part where Archer is knocked out and one UNITY agent must carry her on his back while the other is fending off oncoming enemies. Alas, none of that creativity is exhibited here.
I'm sure the developer and publisher were hoping to turn a new leaf for the No One Lives Forever franchise. Perhaps they wanted to expand the game to embrace the macho first person shooter genre - Will Rock, Serious Sam and Co. Action never was the forte for No One Lives Forever. It just wasn't that type of game. The great thing was the engine's agreement, which seemed more suitable to the original style of play than the one found in Contract. The highlights for No One Lives Forever were the creative objectives you got, the fantastic screenplay that made the heroine glow and the humorous parodies and situations you found yourself in: spraying a mist of perfume to knock out someone or using your feminine accessories as a lockpick.
Give the same game to Jack and he'd probably want to blow down that door with a rocket launcher. But that's another game, possibly belonging to another franchise. Contract really stays true to the spirit of its protagonist. Like Jack and the many villains in the game, it simply uses and discards the No One Lives Forever theme like a piece of clothing. If you wanted to play a bounty hunter character, you'd best try your luck at Eidos' excellent Hitman series or wait for the upcoming Hitman: Contracts.
Jack may have all the guns and firepower, but he lacks finesse. And he reminds us of why we like to watch heroes like James Bond. It's not all about the big bangs and fiery explosions. It's the martinis, women and one-liners that keep us coming back for more. Hopefully the next iteration of No One Lives Forever will remember this part of its identity.