Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent Reader Review
Splinter Cell, the Marmite of the stealth gaming world. Love and hated in equal amounts around the world, has the latest in series made enough changes to bring those haters in from the cold? Or is it just business as usual for Sam Fisher in his latest excursion?
The Story So Far
As an avid fan of the Splinter Cell series, (I have owned each one from day of release) I would be the first to admit that the stories in the previous games were not particularly emotionally engaging, and were for the most part lacking the drama present in other similar stealth games. In Double Agent, Ubisoft has gone to great lengths to tackle this problem by creating a back story that has a much wider scope than any of the other games in the series.
Sam is a broken man; after the death of his daughter he finally looses the ice cool fašade we have seen in the other games and breaks down. At the same time, he is given the task of infiltrating a terrorist organisation by the name of 'John Browns Army'. He must make them believe he is one of them, by any means necessary. He has nothing to loose, and every choice from then onwards is down to the player.
In game terms, this means multiple sets of objectives for each mission. What makes this so interesting is often the objectives are conflicting and you must decide on your own which choice to take. Usually it is possible to do both sets of objectives, and completing all objectives on a level for both sides really feels like an achievement.
While some significant changes have been made to some of Sam's abilities, the core mechanics of the game have remained largely unchanged throughout the previous games. Sure, the mission structure was made more forgiving in Chaos Theory, and Sam learned a few new tricks in Pandora Tomorrow, but by and large not much has changed.
Double Agent is no different in this regard; Sam will still spend the majority of the game sneaking from cover to cover, carrying out objectives as they are given to him. Where things have changed however is the new trust system, and the multiple sets of objectives. While Splinter Cell has always given players the tools to complete the mission, it has rarely given them the motivation. Double Agent finally addresses that problem. Double Agent is full of choices, choices that do actually carry an emotional weight to them.
The choices are executed perfectly - the player should rarely see them coming, and when they are finally forced to decide, are only given a few seconds. In an instant, the player must decide - weighing up the pro's and cons (Can I risk losing more trust in the JBA faction? If I kill this person, will it make it easier to cross the organisation later?) and making their choice. The quick flurry of mental activity and that rush you get from having to make a decision you care about in short order - that's when you know they've got it right and they milk the significance with both substance and style. Those who were worried that Splinter Cell had gone 'gangster' or 'underground' need not worry - these are adult decisions with consequence, not the usual cookie cutter illusions we have come to loathe.
The JBA HQ Missions
The biggest diversion from the previous games comes in the JBA HQ missions where Sam will be taken back to the very belly of the beast. The player is given a set time limit, some objectives he can choose to complete, and other than that they are free to look around and explore and tackle the objectives in any order.
The HQ missions are another successful attempt to shake up the standard Splinter Cell faire. Not only do you have no offensive weapons, but also you can't knock anyone out or be seen in the restricted areas at all. There is nothing more satisfying than managing to sneak all the way through a restricted area, get the files, get all the way back and greet the member you just betrayed with a smile as you return.
What really makes these sections is the attention to detail. As you walk around the base, it feels like a living and breathing environment. Fellow members sit back and relax and have private conversations, others work at setting up the equipment for the next mission, geeks argue in the server room. Sam's expressions during these missions are perfect. Walking around the unrestricted parts of the base he gives the trademark cold, dead stare. While hacking away at a computer terminal as someone approaches from the other room - we see genuine fear. The dry smile when he manages to record someone's voice to use on a locked door is judged perfectly. And by far the most intense expression - the look on his face when he has been caught using NSA gear and it's game over. All these little touches could have easily been left out, but by their inclusion they bump up these sections to the next level of immersion.
While sneaking around the hidden areas of the base are very similar to any other level in Splinter Cell, you feel much more invested in the situation than in the previous games.
This is the first Splinter Cell game to grace the 360 natively, but the title was still developed for multiple platforms. As we've come to expect recently this means a few things in practice. We get high resolution 720p graphics throughout, but in some areas the game still feels weighed down by multi-platform development. The models all look very good, and the texture quality is fantastic, but in terms of actual poly count you still get that feeling that they could have looked a lot better if it was a 360/pc only title. As for the frame rate, while solid for the majority of the game, does have it's ups and downs, and this can be distracting. Sadly, this is another 360 game with some tearing - it's rarely distracting, but it certainly is present. I suppose we must wait for Splinter Cell 5 to see the next big graphical leap.
Little oddities still linger from the earlier games - enemies hands are always in the position of holding a gun, even when they don't have one (find any screen shot where Sam is holding someone hostage - this has been the same since SC1), but on the whole the game looks very nice graphically, and each character and level has clearly received the level of polish you'd expect from a title such as this. The facial expressions are generally excellent, and the quality of the texture and lighting is most certainly AAA.
Sonically, Double Agent has a lot to live up to as the bar was set sky high by the previous title in the series. Chaos theory was a sonic delight from start to finish; amazing soundtrack courtesy of Amon Tobin, and really punchy weapon and combat sound effects. Double Agent delivers the same level of quality again on all fronts.
Musically, the game is more understated than the 'in-you-face' attitude of the previous offering. While perhaps not quite as exciting in isolation, when combined with the excellent context sensitivity the music fits perfectly. The gradual increase in the intensity of the music as Sam moves ever closer to the back of an unsuspecting enemy is perfectly judged, and really adds to the atmosphere.
After Ubi announced that it was going to attempt to make the online Multiplayer more accessible to new players many feared that the massive dumbing down of the gameplay would ruin it. While perhaps it has lost a little complexity, it is still just as fun as Multiplayer in the earlier games ever was. The premise is still the same - spies vs mercenaries. With spies attempting to download files from locations on the map, and mercenaries attempting to stop them. The spies must hide in the shadows and hack the terminals, and slowly download the file which they then take back to their starting location.
So called 'aggro spies' who, in the previous games could wreak havoc and ruin a match are no longer able to exploit the game as before. Lots of tweaks, large and small have been made to the Multiplayer. Spies no longer have any offensive weaponry at all, and so must play smart to survive. Mercs can no longer place traps, and vision modes have been streamlined as well. One of the larger changes is that spies can now hack remotely - they no longer need to be standing right on top of the terminal. This changes the tactics needed somewhat, as now part of the spies challenge is playing hide and seek with the Merc as they desperately try to find where they are hacking from.
The changes made to game have certainly made is more accessible, but the feeling you get from playing it has changed very little; nothing is quite as tense as hiding mere inches from a Merc as he tries to hunt you down, and nothing is more satisfying than tracking down and head butting a spy to death as a mercenary. Simply put, if you enjoyed the Multiplayer in the old games, you should like this - just go into it with an open mind.
So is the latest Splinter Cell better than the last, and worth the price of admission? Certainly. This is another solid single player adventure, with world class multiplayer as well. I have never been back to a Splinter Cell game for a second play through as fast as this one. You will want to see where all the choices lead, you will want to unlock all the other gadgets, you will want to complete this game. The drive to do so seems much stronger than the other games.
However, allow me to address those of you who got this far who are not long term Splinter Cell fans; you will still get frustrated with this game. On hard especially you may end up loading the same section over and over again, and at it's worst some parts can devolve into trial and error. But don't let it put you off. Completing a difficult mission without being seen is still a thrill everyone should at least try to experience.
8 / 10