Version tested: Xbox 360
After the 'difficult' third album, the cathartic change of direction?
As much as the Splinter Cell series has been a model of consistency since it burst onto the stealth-action scene in 2002, you can only play the same tunes for so long before familiarity breeds contempt.
The third Splinter Cell outing, Chaos Theory, suffered from Oasis' 'Be Here Now' syndrome - high on hype and expectations (and various other things), but light on ideas that hadn't already been used before. Sure, Ubi made Chaos Theory a little more accessible than before and threw in a few more moves, but the team was evidently running out of ideas. Time for a change.
The big question is whether Ubisoft would take the opportunity to pull a 'Kid A' on us and make a true next generation Splinter Cell, or end up facing Standing on the Shoulder of Giants-esque indifference by trying to appease its large audience. It's a gamble.
But the timing of Double Agent's release is excellent, coming just as the 360's getting into its stride on a technical level. Also, coming 18 months after the last one, and with the next Metal Gear some way down the line, any feeling of genre fatigue has been replaced with a real hunger for where Ubi can take the series. All signs point to it being the definitive Splinter Cell title.
Even the premise is more interesting than usual. Rather than fighting generic bad guys across the globe that we get a glimpse of between cut-scenes, you end up working for them. This, as it turns out, is the game's master-stroke because for the first time in the entire series you have a real grip on what's going on, who's behind it and why. But more of that later.
In the run-up to launch, Ubisoft's been busily focusing on the sexier 'dark side' element of Sam Fisher's character - but there's more to it than meets the eye. After easing us back into night-time stealth with a fairly typical infiltration mission, things don't quite work out for Third Echelon's finest (to put it mildly). Worse still, Colonel Lambert and the NSA have the hare-brained idea of putting Sam in prison for six months so he can gain the trust of a band of terrorists known, unexcitingly, as John Brown's Army or the JBA. Risking everything "for the greater good", you help engineer a jailbreak and begin an ongoing balancing act that lasts for the entire game.
On the one hand, you have to maintain the trust of your JBA cohorts such as Emile Dufraisne and Enrica Villablanca, but also make sure that you're staying onside with the NSA wherever possible. During the last eight of the 10 missions in the solo mode you have to keep a watchful eye on the two 'trust' meters that occupy the bottom left of the screen. Failure to carry out primary or secondary objectives reduces trust, while succeeding does the opposite. On a few notable occasions you have to choose which way your allegiance lies, putting you right in the middle of the kind of moral dilemmas that might give you bad dreams. Or have you cackling at the evilness of it all.
Faith and devotion
This 'trust' mechanic single-handedly tightens up on so many areas of the game that Double Agent instantly feels like a massive improvement on any previous Splinter Cell game. Most crucially, there's now a genuine incentive to play the game in a stealthy manner - a decision which transforms the enjoyment of the game no end.
In previous titles in the series - particularly Chaos Theory - all you really had to do was make sure you killed everyone, and sneaking around was by far the toughest way of doing things. Your mission rating at the end might have been screwed, but it made no actual difference to your ability to progress. As a result, you'd inevitably take the path of least resistance most of the time instead of being the stealthy spy that leaves no trace. With most of the tension stripped away, and a general reliance on good aiming and persistent quick-save abuse, you ended up missing out on a lot of the good stuff - the fantastic gadgets, the deadly silent manoeuvres and, above all, the possibilities within the level. Not so in Double Agent.
The thing that matters most to you in Double Agent is avoiding losing trust, because doing so will not only strip you of a whole host of highly desirable unlockables, but may well spell the end of your mission - or at the very least make it much harder for you in subsequent levels. And with so many ways to cock up, you very quickly learn to gingerly creep around, hide in the shadows, watch where the sentries go, pick your moment to grab them, silently take them out, hide their bodies effectively, dodge the cameras and disable security. These are all things that, of course, have been in the game all along, but with two sets of trust at stake you won't feel like letting anyone down.
Some great reward
For example, the JBA might not give two hoots about how many civilians you murder, but with the NSA to keep in mind you're forced to consider your moves from both sides. This particularly comes into play during the superb JBA HQ levels, which may well be some of the finest examples of stealth gaming ever devised. With much of the complex completely off limits to you, you're left to your own devices to figure out a means to bypass their security and given no easy way out. With no weapons and just a few gadgets on your person, your only choice is to act as the wily spy, paying close attention to several key personnel and circumventing numerous challenging obstacles.
As frustratingly tough as the four JBA HQ levels feel when you first encounter them, the sense of satisfaction you get out of figuring out the solution is well worth the hours you'll spend experimenting and getting busted. Set against a 25-minute time limit, you end up making every second count as you slowly built up a collection of voice samples, finger prints, key codes and eventually retinal scans to get you deeper into the labyrinthine complex that houses their dastardly plans. With the NSA on your back to uncover exactly what they're up to, you'll find yourself engaging in daring safe-cracking and server-hacking sorties while risking your own life in the process. It's real palm-sweating stuff.
The addition of little one-off mini-game puzzles like the buzz-bar-style mine assembly test, or the cube number puzzle near the climax are superb in their own right, too, as are the wheel-twizzling safe-cracking and nervy decrypting tests. Lock-picking makes a comeback too, but you can soon, ahem, unlock an upgrade to bypass all the thumb twiddling, so fear not.
Policy of truth
The rest of the game does its usual tour of duty around the globe, taking in some excellent - and varied - missions in China, West Africa and Iceland among others, which all offer up hugely contrasting scenarios that the series die-hards will love - and if you've never played a Splinter Cell game before, you'll be downright astounded by the cinematic visual opulence on show - particularly the panoramic view over Shanghai and the Chinese New Year celebrations. It's ambitious stuff, and made all the more glorious by some of the most incredible character models yet seen in a game. Once again, Ubisoft delivers some delicious eye candy that - in high def - is wonderful to behold from start to thrilling finish.
But back on topic, these globe-trotting excursions provide important refreshment value between the punishing HQ levels, whilst each offering something unique to each and every one, and it's perhaps the acknowledgement of the consistent high quality throughout the game that's going to leave players with the same feel-good factor that I'm left with after completing it. Taking its cue from high-budget blockbuster movies, the fact that Ubisoft has packed in so many movie-esque moments while staying true to the stealth premise is a remarkable achievement. But as much as the game wows you with its ability to make you play like a spy without making it boring, don't for one moment think that Double Agent doesn't let you loose off a few rounds in anger. In fact, on the penultimate level you can put the trusty SC-20k rifle to good use without getting a slapped wrist for it. You can, of course, still play much of the game with the pistol or rifle if you want, but not only will you make it a lot harder for yourself (mainly by attracting attention more than anything), you'll risk losing more respect than you can afford - not to mention failing various conditions of your mission.
So, with the single-player refinements so apparent, it's no surprise to find that Ubisoft has really listened to the criticisms of the rather detached narrative that used to make previous versions feel like a disjointed collection of unrelated episodes. Having played all three previous adventures to completion, none of them had particularly memorable scenarios or characters, but Double Agent is a major improvement. By taking elements of The Chronicles of Riddick, your ability to wander around the confines of the JBA HQ (in first-person if you like) and repeatedly meet the various key players in the game makes a big difference when it comes to the between-mission briefings. You feel a connection with people, and given that you're playing a key part in the terrorists' activities, you know some of their motivations too. With Colonel 'the former president in 24' Lambert popping up from time to time, there's even more of a '24'-style feel to it. In fact, it's a shame Ubisoft didn't do the 24 videogame, come to think of it. It'd probably feel a bit like this.
A question of time
One absolutely mystifying downside of Double Agent is how long it takes to save and load your game. Given how fundamental saving is to the game, it's an absolute joke that it takes well over a minute between hitting 'save' and the completion of the process. And loading is a complete bore too - unless you choose to opt for the most recent save point or checkpoint (which takes seven seconds, to be precise). If you dare to want to load a different save point, it's just as tedious as the save process, and in the trickier sections of the game it's almost unforgivable. Wasn't next-gen gaming supposed to make things like this quicker? Goodness knows how much time was wasted faffing around with the save and load nonsense, but Ubi needs to make sure it never happens again.
But before we round off the review, who could forget the absolutely superb multiplayer element? Like a more action-focused evolution of the Chaos Theory's Spies Vs Upsilon Mercenaries face-offs that proved so popular, it's been ramped up in terms of pace and numbers. With far more athletic spies than before, the change of pace is bound to cause a massive amount of controversy with the existing fan base who prefer the tension of old, but it's a decision that will definitely attract a lot more players as a result.
As before, you're either the nimble gadget-laden ones doing the hacking, or the slightly lumbering gun-toting team trying to stop the meddling intruders from stealing the valuable data. Just as before, the spies play in third-person and have access to various sections of the map that the Mercs don't (such as ventilation shafts), but what the Mercs lack in agility they make up for with their high powered automatic weaponry, and you end up with one of the most finely balanced multiplayer games around.
Waiting for the night
It definitely takes a fair bit of getting used to in order to adjust to the super-speedy spies, but it's a good decision. The controls, especially on the spies, feel incredibly slick, giving you the chance to leap and roll around the maps with improbable grace. For newcomers, you even get the choice of whether to include ghost outlines next to contextual actions (such as which bits of the environment you can jump onto), and as such it feels a lot more accessible than previously. How it will fare over the long term is hard to say, but the early impressions are excellent. Lag, for example, was non-existent throughout our playtest, unlike several other Live games we've encountered of late.
And elsewhere, Ubi has polished the online offering enormously, with a stat-based online level-up system that encourages repeat play on both sides. You can even recruit players to join your own clan to take on all comers, which should prove enormously popular. The various co-op challenges should go down well, too, offering the chance to take on the AI to earn medals and build up your stats. Of course, in the main multiplayer matches for those who just want to dip in, the ranked matches and player matches are kept distinct, so its appeal should be pretty broad, and Double Agent could be dragging away GRAW and Halo 2's players very soon.
Unlike previous games in the series, scoring Splinter Cell Double Agent isn't a difficult task. On the basis of the solo mode alone it's worth a nine, not just because it's by far the best game in series to date, but because it's finally delivering on the rich potential that's been apparent since the beginning. By giving players a real incentive to be the stealthy super-spy, it's opening the game up to being what it should have been. And by wrapping it in a memorable narrative and giving Sam Fisher the ability to be evil, you actually start to care not only about your actions, but the characters in the game too. Throw in a hugely entertaining and evolving multiplayer component, and it's got the makings of a game you'll be playing for months to come.
It's not so much a question of trust anymore, but question of whether you trust stealth gaming to entertain you. If you're not sure, then maybe this is the place to start.
9 / 10