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.