I knew five minutes into the original Splinter Cell that I was playing what would soon become a mega franchise. It had all the right ingredients: a compelling story, stealthy gameplay, cool gadgets and weapons, and a badass main character. What more could you ask for? Unfortunately the sequel, Pandora Tomorrow, was a letdown. While it added multiplayer to the mix, the single player story was weak. It felt like Ubisoft rushed the title to capitalize on the success of the original. They took their time before releasing the third title, Chaos Theory. Arguably the best in the series, Chaos Theory fine-tuned the multiplayer experience and offered another great single player story. Now Sam Fisher is about to undertake his most dangerous mission yet. For the first time he'll have to play both sides of the field and for the first time, he'll do so on a next-generation console. Join us as we go undercover with Splinter Cell: Double Agent.
Without spoiling too much of the plot, the main twist in the fourth installment of the Splinter Cell series is that Sam Fisher must become a Double Agent. To do so, Fisher has landed himself in prison and in one of the earlier missions of the game, must break himself and Jamie Washington, a known JBA terrorist, out. Doing so gains the trust of Washington, who then brings Sam back to the JBA headquarters in New York. It's here where players will meet Emile Dufraisne, the head of the JBA, and begin to juggle their duties both as a new JBA recruit and an undercover NSA agent.
At JBA HQ, the first task Emile will ask of you is to complete their training course. You'll have 30 minutes to do so but it'll only take 5, if you're adept with Sam's moves. What do you do with the remaining 25 minutes? That's entirely up to you, as long as you return to the training course when the time's up. The NSA demands that one, you hack into the JBA's main server, and two you plant a bug on the JBA's communications tower. Both of these NSA tasks are considered primary objectives, as is the JBA task of completing the training course. Primary objectives have a direct effect on the trust meters for both the NSA and JBA. If you fail to complete any of the primaries before the clock runs out, you'll lose trust with said organization. There are also secondary objectives to achieve, such as practicing your sniper skills at the JBA shooting range, but failure to complete secondary objectives will not have a negative effect on the trust meters, only a positive effect if you finish them. Secondary objectives are essentially a way to slightly improve the trust level with one of the organizations without the risk associated with a primary objective.
Sam doesn't have access to the restricted areas of the JBA compound, such as the roof where the communications tower stands. You'll have to sneak your way into these areas in order to complete such an objective. If Sam is spotted in a restricted area, he'll receive a warning and be asked to leave. A second warning will result in the JBA losing trust in their new recruit. If at any time your trust meter for either organization reaches zero, the mission will be a failure. That's the challenge associated with primary objectives because if you get caught hacking into a computer, picking a lock or using any NSA gadget within the JBA HQ, the JBA will instantly lose all trust in you. Ultimately you want to achieve a high level of trust for both the JBA and NSA by completing tasks for both organizations, without jeopardizing your cover.
As the game progresses, you'll be asked to perform tougher tasks by the JBA within their HQ, such as building mines and decrypting an e-mail, a tough puzzle in itself, as well as complete more and more dangerous tasks for the NSA, such as breaking into Emile's safe in his room, confirming the presence of a potentially dangerous weapon, obtaining a retinal scan of one of the JBA members, and gathering intelligence on each of the JBA members. You won't spend all of your time in the JBA HQ, though, Emile will send you out on various missions to further advance the JBA's cause. Sam will have to hijack a frozen oil tanker in Siberia, escort Emile to Shanghai for an important rendezvous, and plant a bomb on a cruise ship in Mexico, among other assignments. Each time you're sent on a mission by the JBA, the NSA will ask that you complete some tasks for them as well. Again, the trust meter will come into play as you juggle your duties. For example, at the same time you're planting the bomb on the Mexican cruise ship, you'll have to record the deactivation code for the NSA so they can eventually disarm it. The missions outside the JBA HQ aren't quite as intense, mainly because they're not timed. You can basically complete objectives for both organizations without worrying too much. In fact, not to toot my own horn but I was able to keep a full level of trust with both the NSA and JBA outside the JBA HQ without much difficulty at all.
Double Agent will also present you with choice objectives every now and then. For example, the first choice you'll have to make comes early in the game when Emile asks you to kill a hostage brought back from the jailbreak. Whether you choose to kill the hostage or not will have an adverse effect on one of the organizations' trust meters. You can't play both sides of the field on these objectives. As such, choice objectives can turn the game around. For example, there's a choice objective during a mission in Congo that may or may not prolong that mission for an additional 30 minutes. Towards the end of the game, there's a choice objective that could change how the final level is played out entirely. Overall I was very impressed with how the development team implemented the trust meters, the countering objectives, and the entire double agent theme in general.
Stealth gameplay in Double Agent remains your standard Splinter Cell fare, which is a good thing of course. The stealth and noise meter bars from previous Splinter Cell titles have been replaced with a single visibility indicator on Sam's shoulder that shows how well-hidden he is, using a colored system of green, yellow and red. Some of the missions in the game take place during the day, such as the aforementioned Congo level, so you'll have to learn to use environmental objects as cover as opposed to shadows. In the moves department, Sam has a new water stealth kill, where he can pull unsuspecting enemies from a shoreline; and ice smash kill, in which he can punch through the ice, pull an enemy down and stab him. Both new kills are very situation specific, but still cool none the less.
The hacking system has been redesigned for the better and a new safe-cracking system has been added. The OPSAT has received a makeover as well with a new feature, the Quick OPSAT. By pressing in on the right thumbstick, a small map will present itself in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. The map shows the location of nearby enemies and indicates their level of awareness based on the aforementioned color system. Sam is equipped with his usual arsenal of weapons, gadgets and items with one new twist. Some of the objectives during the missions are marked with a star. When players complete these tasks they'll receive upgrades to their existing equipment, including additions to the assault rifle, improvements to the hacking device that speeds up the hacking process, and enhancements to the vision modes, such as the ability to see color while using night vision.
When Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory came out for the Xbox, it gave us a visual taste of what the Unreal Engine would be capable of delivering heading into the next generation. Splinter Cell: Double Agent for the Xbox 360 presents us with the full menu. The mission in Siberia presents an amazing frozen wasteland while the mission in Congo is absolutely insane, as players negotiate the streets and rooftops while a war rages not a few feet away. The missions in the JBA HQ are equally impressive, with an incredible level of detail. With that said, I did come across a number of glitches during the game. I must have gotten stuck kneeling in a corner at least a half dozen times and there were a few other odd moments, such as the time I knocked a guard out in Shanghai only to see the cigarette he was smoking left floating in the air. There was another moment involving a man in Shanghai counting money but that glitch was simply too weird to describe. The audio is equally brilliant, with great voice acting from Michael Ironside and co., realistic weapon effects, detailed sound effects and an appropriate soundtrack.
Multiplayer in Splinter Cell: Double Agent has undergone a bit of an unfortunate change. You still have the usual Versus mode, pitting up to three human Spies against up to three human or bot Upsilon Mercenaries. The spies have a few new moves up their sleeve and the mercenaries a few new weapons, but otherwise this competitive battle remains in tact. The same can't be said for cooperative play. If you played Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, you likely remember the mini-campaign players could run through cooperatively. There's no campaign this time around. Instead, up to two players can team up as spies against AI mercenaries in a variety of challenges similar to the competitive mode. When you consider that the Xbox version of Splinter Cell: Double Agent boasts a hefty cooperative campaign, one can't help but wonder why the same effort wasn't made for the Xbox 360 version. Disappointing to say the least.
When you've got a franchise as popular as Splinter Cell, it's easy to fall into the trap of releasing sequel after sequel without making any real effort to bring innovation to the genre. Ubisoft has avoided that pitfall with Double Agent. The story jumps around a little bit at the start but quickly pulls itself together as Sam reaches the terrorists' headquarters for the first time. At that point, the developers do an admirable job implementing the double agent theme, utilizing trust meters and countering objectives to deliver a unique twist to the series. The only real disappointing aspect of the game is multiplayer. The exclusion of a cooperative campaign is a step backwards in my opinion. Still, Splinter Cell fans are sure to enjoy one of Sam Fisher's best assignments yet.