So you think life as a classified government black ops agent is tough enough? Try pulling off the same missions while straddling the thin divide between the people you’re trying to protect, and the people intent on destroying them. Sam Fisher is back, and this time his journey isn’t quite as straightforward as it usually is.
Sometime in the not too distant future, things are looking grim for our favourite Splinter Cell. With the death of his daughter, Sam’s world begins to crumble – along with his ability to follow orders. After botched missions and questioned loyalty, Sam and his remaining ally in the NSA, Lambert, hatch a cunning and desperate plan. In a shamefully public display, Sam is sent to prison, accused of going rogue. To all but a select few, it appears the high and mighty Sam Fisher has finally succumbed to the dark side. The real reason behind his incarceration? With enough smoke, mirrors and bravado Sam is told to infiltrate the terrorist group know as JBA, or John Brown’s Army – the very group the NSA is working so hard to take down.
After a hauntingly sombre introduction level in Iceland, you’re taken inside the Ellsworth Penitentiary where Sam is being held. Just as you sense the natives are getting restless, you’re thrust into Sam’s shoes and have to escape amidst a full scale prison riot. Did anybody remember to bake a file into that cake?
The ensuing escape is a short but brilliant mission designed to have you way out of your comfort zone. Decked out in a bright orange jumpsuit and with none of the usual spy tools and weapons at your disposal, the tone is markedly different. Angry riot police and homicidal prisoners fling themselves around the place, trashing everything and everyone who stumbles across their path. If you enjoyed Escape From Butcher Bay, the gritty penitentiary level is likely to have you experiencing fond flashbacks. After escaping with a fellow prisoner, you’re given a green card entry pass into the notorious JBA and then the real fun begins.
As you’re sent to various exotic locations around the globe the story twists and turns, giving a surprisingly interesting and dark look into the conflicts real double agents face. At times the plot can seem a little haphazard and patchy, keeping you well aware this is just a game, but a strong emotional current flows throughout – an element that was sorely missing from the previous Splinter Cell titles. The first three games stayed focused on events and missions. Double Agent strays from the path and spends a lot of energy focusing on the reactions characters have to the events happening around them, to the overall benefit of the game.
Each mission you’ll be given opposing objectives, so like it or not, you will have to disobey one side on almost every mission. Panic not, gentle readers. While this warning sounds dire enough to kill any actual enjoyment of the game, the survival technique is not nearly as scary or hard as you’d imagine it to be, thanks to the handy “trust meter” you’ll be able to reference from time to time. Just how it sounds, you’ll be provided with a small meter, bearing the symbols JBA on one side, and NSA on the other. Each objective you complete will shift a marker slightly one way or the other. Gaining the trust of the NSA will leave the JBA paranoid and twitchy and vice versa.
The trick to getting through Double Agent is alarmingly obvious. It’s written in the title for Pete’s sake. Being a double agent isn’t about swaying dramatically from to one side to the other, but walking a fine line between the two agencies. Performing an even balance of opposing objectives will keep your loyalties in question. Neither side will trust you, but neither side will be willing to throw you out. A little senseless violence here, a quick hostage rescue there and you’re set.
Aside from generating massive amounts of suspicion and confusion, letting your loyalties shift will result in the rather interesting pattern of being assigned different weapons and gadgets. If JBA is pretty sure you’ve gone rogue, you’ll be kitted out with an assortment of nasty and rather fatal weapons. On the other hand, when you’re in the NSA good books, you’re more likely to receive an array of non-lethal weapons (including some nifty new rubber bullets and tranquiliser darts). The most flexible option seems again to be ensuring your trust levels are neutral on both sides, giving you a happy healthy mix of deadly and not-quite-so-deadly weapons. Another new addition to your Bat-belt is the stylish and portable fingerprint detector. Equipped with the power of UV, Sam can now scan surfaces for fingerprints. Once a full fingerprint is found, it only takes a few seconds for the information to be sent back to the NSA, and for a handy profile to then appear on your PDA.
The controls, although potentially daunting to newcomers at first, are still pretty easy to master. Sure there’ll be times when you accidentally throw a soda can at an oncoming guard instead of performing an evasive split jump, but hey, it happens. The levels are pretty linear in design but manage to stay just on the side of “Thank god I’m not getting lost every three seconds” rather than “How come my little brother is pointing at the screen and telling me where to go next”. On the off chance you do get stuck however, a handy new 3D map is available to you. Since you’ve been kitted out with a new high tech tracker-mabob, your objectives, allies and enemies all appear as moving coloured blips on your map. Handy. All in all, the title remains reasonably newcomer friendly.
The only obvious disappointment throughout Splinter Cell: Double Agent is the lacklustre current generation graphics. This is an explainable flaw, given that games were coming out two years ago that pushed the graphical limits of the PS2 and Xbox. So to see such detailed and realistic scenery through slightly grainy PS2 eyes was a let down. Sure, the graphics look pretty tasty compared to some of the tripe that’s still being released – but knowing how much better they could potentially look is what spoilt the mood. This is one game you’ll definitely want to see on the next generation consoles. Either ask for a 360 for Christmas, or hold out for a PS3. If you’ve waited this long for the game to arrive, you can hold out a tad longer to get your hands on a next gen console. And if Santa’s feeling in a super generous mood, ask the old guy to throw a high def TV into the sack too. I mean, it can’t hurt to ask, right?
The sound, as proven in the last 3 titles, remains top of the class. Which is lucky when you consider how important the ambient music and sound effects are to a stealth game. The eerily quiet percussion tracks not only enhance the stealth aspects of the game, but also the emotional and often dark twists the storyline takes. When the lead composer Michael McCaan said in a recent interview with music4games.com “The story is very strong and absolutely needs a score that can adapt, in real time, to the choices a player may make” he wasn’t mincing his words. The score does just that, adapting to in-game decisions that players make, while still managing to stay cohesive throughout each level. Not to be outdone, the sound effects are immaculate. With not much room for improvement from Chaos Theory, we could only hope the sound effects would stay as accurate in Double Agent and for once, our gaming prayers have been answered. While it remains an overlooked and underappreciated area of games, Splinter Cell Double Agent sets an impossibly high standard for sound. Other games ought to feel ashamed.
Once you’ve played the single-player mode to death, there’s still plenty of multiplayer fun to be had. As in the previous titles, the multiplayer games step away from Sam Fisher, and let you play with others online as spies and mercenaries. In a myriad of dark settings, you can spend the game sneaking around in a third person view as a spy, attempting to download computer files without being detected, or blundering around in a first person view as a heavily armed mercenary, trying to terminate the spies. In Double Agent, the spies have been given a few new agile abilities leaving them sneakier than ever, while the mercs have unlimited ammo at their disposal. As a result, with up to two people on your team (vs. another two), the games are faster and tougher than ever. Using essentially the same recipe but with a few subtle tweaks, the multiplayer mode complements the single player storyline, leaving you with the feeling that your money was well spent (and valuable study time well wasted).
As the fourth title in the Splinter Cell series, Double Agent is obviously going to appeal more to the established fan base, however the game is good enough as a stand alone title to convert the uninitiated. If at all possible though, pick this game up as a next-generation version.