Splinter Cell: Double Agent Review
When the first Splinter Cell exploded onto the scene back in 2002 for the Xbox, it was taking on the reigning king of stealth franchises, Metal Gear Solid. However, as fans of the genre understand, it wasn't a direct attack. In other words, Ubisoft decided for a different approach to the sneaky style of play; a bigger focus on gameplay and realism was the order of the day. While none of the SCs could even begin to approach the amazing storytelling or boss battles found in the MGS games, SC offered a new level of control fluidity and true-to-life stealth missions that provided a singular challenge. Since then, each new title in the series has progressively gotten better, so we were - to say the least - completely stoked to tackle Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Released last year for the Xbox 360 and PC, it has finally arrived on the PS3, so let's take a look-see.
Obviously, given the new hardware, it's no surprise that this is the prettiest Splinter Cell ever. The franchise has always excelled when it came to detail and clarity, and Double Agent takes it up yet another notch. The environments are meticulously designed from top to bottom, character detail is outstanding (Sam Fisher has never looked better!), and the overall polish gives the visual presentation a very glossy veneer. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions look mostly identical, although the PS3 version suffers from a few very minor and inconsistent glitches. However, we would like to clear something up- it's been erroneously reported in some reviews that the 360 version doesn't have the same glitches (i.e., occasional camera craziness, clipping, weird collision detection, etc.), and that's certainly not the case. Unfortunately, both versions have these problems. But all in all, Double Agent is a very pretty game.
The sound is key, but with an admittedly larger emphasis on effects. Of course, it makes little sense to install kickin' rock tracks in a stealth game; our adventure relies on silence and secrecy, so therefore, we're relegated to mostly downplayed and muted orchestral tracks. They hold the correct atmosphere, though, and they complement the solid effects very well. There is some inconsistency with the combat and movement effects, as there has been in every Splinter Cell. For whatever reason, the volume will be erratic at times, and the sound of an alternate fire from your SC-20k tends to be...well, off. Throwing a bottle can sound like a gunshot or barely make a tapping sound, for example. But it's not often, and it's not a crippling defect. The sound is great, for the most part.
The formula may have been devised with the original, but Ubisoft has worked to expand on that formula ever since. And to their credit, every single new Splinter Cell has included visible and appreciated upgrades and enhancements to the gameplay. We always get new gadgets, sometimes we get some new physical moves, and we always feel in full control of Sam Fisher. And where all this is concerned, Double Agent doesn't disappoint in the slightest. We do get new gadgets, they are indeed quite useful, everything we were able to do in the past has returned, and the control scheme is as beautifully instituted as ever. Really, considering all the tiny movements we have to make, and all Sam's abilities, the control we have is simply amazing.
But the biggest new addition is, as you might've guessed, the inclusion of another side. It's not called "Double Agent" for nothing, as Sam assumes a very, very undercover role in a terrorist organization, which means you have two sets of objectives in each and every mission: some for the JBA (the terrorist group) and some for the NSA. Now, you do have two bars of trust, and depending on which objectives you fulfill, those bars will increase and decrease accordingly. This is a good idea in principle, but if you wish to unlock all the hidden gadgets, and if you want to play the "completionist" role and achieve every objective, you'll keep both bars maxed all the time, anyway. And unless you do something really stupid, like get caught pointing an NSA gadget at a JBA member in their headquarters, neither bar should ever get low enough to end the story.
Speaking of headquarters, you'll find yourself in the terrorist HQ several times, and each time, you'll have 25 minutes to complete a variety of objectives. The only one you really have to complete is the primary objective assigned to you, but there are plenty of other things to do, and most require you to access restricted areas. This is particularly tricky, because it's pure stealth; you don't have any of the fun toys you would normally have in the field. This is okay to do once, but three times? It just gets very tedious, especially when you can't be seen even once and your only option is sneak Ďn hide. The HQ isn't all that well designed, either, and for that matter, the levels themselves are kinda repetitive. Two large levels on boats? One is awesome - missions on boats are cool and all - but did we really need two?
In this way, Double Agent's structure isn't as good as what we find in its predecessors. However, it should be mentioned that the level design itself, and not the locations, is wonderful. You'll find multiple opportunities to use everything in your repertoire, from the basics like the Optic Cable and EMP alternate fire on your handgun, to fresh goodies, like two additional types of Wall Mines (Stun and Flash) and new and improved tools like a faster hacking device and a multi-functional sticky camera. Sam also has several new capabilities himself; he can crack safes, swim, and even break through ice from below to yank enemies down and drown them. Throughout it all, you'll always have numerous ways of conquering obstacles; it all depends on your playing style and what you wish to accomplish in each mission.
One shortcoming that is a little frustrating is the increased enemy AI. Normally, that's not a bad thing, but it seems Ubisoft went a touch too far when enhancing the sensory skills of your foes. Before, they weren't as sensitive to sound and movement as they should've been, but now, they're borderline inhuman. How exactly did that lone guard see me from his post, a hundred feet away through the driving wind and snow, especially when I'm wearing white? And what exactly is a noise that's too loud; a noise that will alert the guards? These questions will plague your missions all too often, but at the same time, we have to admit it's better than the watered-down AI in previous Splinter Cells. We just hope Ubisoft can strike a happy medium with the next installment (which we're sure is on the way).
As mentioned before, while there is usually a pretty decent story in these games, it's not always a major focus. The storyline in Double Agent is probably the best of all the SCs, but only by a slim margin, and the player likely won't remember it for very long after completing the game. As usual, the emphasis is on the gameplay, which will prompt you to think as often as you act. You will probably reload and try again about a gazillion times, but that's the nature of this trial-and-error style; some love it while others can't stand it. The less anal player won't be reloading checkpoints and save progress as often as the one who wants to complete the mission with every objective completed and a 100% stealth score. And that's half the fun of the game: choosing your plan of attack.
In the end, we have to conclude that Splinter Cell: Double Agent is the deepest SC yet, but unfortunately, not the best. That honor stays with Chaos Theory, in our opinion, simply because there are a few too many problems here. The camera is nowhere near as good as it once was, for example (it has the annoying tendency to get much too close to Sam), and as previously mentioned, your dual life isn't quite as invigorating as you might think. It's a well-conceived concept, but it's simply not as implemented as well as we would've liked. There are some of those sound and visual inconsistencies, the AI goes a bit too far sometimes, and there are a few gameplay glitches. For example, we saw a guard stuck against a wall, walking quickly back and forth, and we've had a flashlight trained directly on us, but the guard freezes and does nothing.
But on the other hand, if you like these types of games, it remains a blast to play. And the good vastly outstrips the bad: it looks great, it sounds great, it controls great, the experience is solid, the depth is outstanding, the intricacy of the abilities, gadgets, and level design is stellar, and yes, there is online multiplayer. It's a little anemic, but the PS3 version does have the benefit of a few added maps. Other than that, the PS3 and 360 versions are mostly identical. In truth, it's a can't-miss for any Splinter Cell or stealth fan. This is Splinter Cell, no doubt about it, and Splinter Cell is always extraordinary.
4/13/2007 Ben Dutka