While checking out the trailer for Double Agent months before the game was eventually released, I was a little concerned when I saw Sam Fisher, the master of gadgets, remove his trademark night vision goggles and toss them into the sea. I asked myself, "How can Sam lose the goggles? They’re the source of much of his power."
As it turns out, Double Agent’s single player game does frequently strip Sam of his wonderful toys, requiring players to rely more on the environment in order to evade detection. Although this limitation takes the series in a new direction, I can’t help but feel like Ubisoft Shanghai tried to fix that which was not broken just for the sake of being innovative. Chaos Theory was the pinnacle of stealth action, and instead of building upon the pedigree, Ubisoft Shanghai chose to tear it down by crippling the player somewhat, at least in the single player department. The trade off is that players are now allowed to kick it with his enemies like a good double agent should, and the resulting moral ambiguity adds some flavor to a series traditionally weak in the story department.
For the 1st time in a Splinter Cell game, Sam Fisher will be tackling missions without some of his trademark stealth gear.
Players are given objectives from both the NSA and the terrorists, (called John Brown’s Army,) and the player is tasked with maintaining the trust of both of his masters. The player is given some freedom to choose which side’s orders to follow, but is penalized via the game’s new trust meter for failure to comply. Loose the trust of either the NSA or JBA, and it’s game over, man. Double Agent is a balancing act, as Sam attempts to navigate the numerous, occasionally conflicting orders in an effort to remain a trusted operative and keep up the appearance that he is in fact working for the bad guys. Although players have the option of ignoring some of the requests of either side, the true challenge lies in completing all the objectives.
While he is chillin’ at the JBA’s crib, agent Fisher has practically none of his tried and true tools. He can’t even run or crouch much of the time! The developers compensate for these restrictions by allowing him to hide in lockers and under desks, and he does have his hacking and lock picking gadgets throughout the entire game, even at the JBA HQ, but it is a drastic change for the series, and conveys a sense of powerlessness in a series which traditionally instills players with feelings of power.
Sam gets access to unlockable equipment for playing missions stealthily, and many of these unlockables are new and rather powerful (like the new sticky cam that’s loaded with explosives instead of gas,) but they are only available some of the time and are largely just slight twists on the old mainstays. A new favorite gadget is a gun that emits a whistle on any surface Sam can see and shoot. This item is essential for completing some of the tougher NSA missions while surrounded by JBA terrorists, and is the most welcome edition to his array of tools.
Double Agents developer, Ubisoft Shanghai, was the team responsible for the revolutionary multi player component found in the past 3 Splinter Cell games, whereas team Montreal has always displayed a talent for pushing the limits of the single player experience. Given Ubisoft Shanghai’s track record, these changes to the campaign should come as no surprise. With Pandora tomorrow, the team created some of the best multi player around while offering up a ’more of the same’ single player experience that felt more like an expansion than a true sequel. It appears that the developer was conscious of their shortcoming regarding the single player experience in their last game, and I applaud them for attempting to innovate in an area that they have had trouble with in the past. They succeeded to an extent, but failed in other ways… kind of a ’two steps forward and one step back’ affair. So although Double Agent’s story has become significantly more interesting than past games in the series, this radical improvement to the narrative experience is at the expense of the single player game play. The story satisfies, and humanizes agent Fisher in ways unimaginable in earlier Splinter Cell games.
From a graphical standpoint, Double Agent is pretty and brings many welcome next-gen enhancements to the series, but much like Pandora Tomorrow, Double Agent isn’t as breathtaking as the Ubisoft Montreal titles. The fact that much of the game takes place in the daytime is interesting and often beautiful, but the JBA HQ portions of the game are unattractive at times and nowhere near as impressive as some of the other titles available on the system. This is noteworthy only because of the fact that Chaos Theory was possibly the best looking game on Microsoft’s last console, and players hoping to have that next-gen sense of awe and wonder may be slightly disappointed. Not an ugly game, just not the best the 360 has to offer.
Audio is solid, as always is the case for Splinter Cell games. The music adapts to the action perfectly, informing players when their cover is about to become compromised, the voice acting is exceptional throughout, and the sound effects convey a sense of muted power as the master of shadows takes down unaware guards on patrol. One glaring omission from Double Agent is the absence of the sound meter prevelent in the previous title. I found myself wishing on more than one occasion that the feature hadn’t been omitted, as I inadvertetly alerted guards to my presence with the sound of Sam’s foot falls numerous times, forcing a reload. This omission cleans up the HUD, which is almost completely bare this time around, but without a visible indicator of sound, Double Agent’s beefed up AI (the guards seem to hear a lot better than ever before,) will detect veterans of the series with almost superhuman auditory prowess.
AI is critical in stealth games, and as mentioned above, the AI seems more robust in Double Agent. This is not a bad thing… next-gen console owners expect a more realistic portrayal of patrolling guards, and Double Agent delivers in this respect. The result is a more challenging single player experience that will probably only frustrate newcomers to the genre. Thankfully, the game’s ’Save Anywhere’ feature takes the sting off of this difficult aspect of game play.
One of Double Agent’s new additions to the series is the inclusion of interactive cutscenes. In this scene players are required to open Sam’s parachute before he plummets to his death, for example.
Now that just leaves us with Double Agent’s multi player mode. As mentioned earlier, if it’s one thing Ubisoft Shanghai understands, it’s innovative multiplay. And just as with the single player portion of Double Agent, the
The spies are fast, stealthy, have some defensive maneuvers and tools, and are capable of accessing parts of the maps that their merc opposition cannot enter. The mercs conversely are offensive, yet slow. Gone are many of the gadgets afforded to both spies and mercs in earlier Splinter Cell multi player modes. What’s left is a purer form of the original game play that is more accessible and player friendly. Each side plays totally differently; spies attempt to (slowly) hack one of the data terminals using their wrist mounted hacking devices, leaving them vulnerable, and mercs use their machine guns, grenades, and drones to hunt them as they attempt to flee the scene with data in hand. Player number is kept small… 3 on 3 maximum, and the well designed maps reflect this intimacy. This is an experience not to be missed, as FPS fans will feel right at home with the mercs, whereas stealth action fans will appreciate the finesse style of play granted to the spies.
There is a co-op mode, but it seems tacked on and simplistic. The vs mode is where this game truly shines. Both mercs and spies will give players very different, yet uniformly satisfying online experiences. So in the end, Double Agent reminds me of Halo 2. In an effort to innovate (Arbiter, I’m looking at you) the single player game, Double Agent breaks some of the rules it so successfully concretized in the past, resulting in a solid, yet somewhat underwhelming experience.
Double Agent’s single player component is the most challenging outing yet, (Hard settings prohibit Sam from entering missions with any ammo!) which is either good or bad depending on your familiarity with the conventions of the series. As was the case with Halo 2, the real reason to play this game is not for the twists and turns offered by the new single player mode, but rather the amazing multi player component that truly highlights the online strengths of the Xbox 360. This is the kind of multi player game one keeps in their collection throughout the entire life of the console because there’s nothing else quite like it. Players hoping to have their minds blown in the single player department will unfortunately have to wait if Ubisoft Montreal serves up another genre defining outing for Microsoft’s stealth action’s poster child, but if it’s unique online play you are looking for, Double Agent has your back.