Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent Review
Written : Sunday, June 24, 2007
By: Tom Cutler (GT: highpass)
Double Agent is the fourth installment of the widely-acclaimed Tom Clancy series of Splinter Cell games from Ubisoft; the developers responsible for Clancy's other hit series', Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon. Whilst the other titles are focused more on outright action, the third person shooter Splinter games are based around stealth. You'll take the role of Sam Fisher; a Black Ops agent from the NSA's "Third Echelon" division.
"Gut that slippery fish, Sammy!"
Those of you that have previously dabbled in the Splinter Cell world can expect more of the same sneaking around in the shadows and evading security cameras, but this time a few new elements come into play; firstly, Double Agent actually follows a story; something previously lacking in the series, although it's basically still based around stopping a bomb from going off. Secondly, the "trust" scale. This scale reflects the choices you make in the game and alters the outcome of certain points in the story, hence the Double Agent title. Do you attempt to save those hostages or leave them for dead? Each choice you make may raise or lower favour with your NSA employers or your new found terrorist "friends", John Brown's Army.
Without wanting to spoil too much of the story, you're basically thrown knee deep into a terrorist organisation's campaign to set off a bomb in New York. It's up to you to save the day, again.
During your missions, you'll sometimes have to complete various mini-games as objectives. These may range from building mines to hacking protected email; something that at times seems fairly tedious but adds a little spice to things. Other new additions to the single player campaign are the JBA headquarters missions. In these, you are required to sneak around without your terrorist "friends" becoming aware of your devious intentions in attempts to recover information about them, or perhaps bug their communications for example. You cannot kill or hurt any of them, and if you're spotted you'll lose some of their trust. Annoying at times, but it does add something new to an age-old formulae.
It should also be noted that unlike previous games in the series, health kits no longer exist. Instead, you have a Call of Duty/Gears of War-style health system wherein you can take a certain amount of damage before having to retreat or take cover, allowing yourself to heal, er, naturally. This makes the game slightly less tense on the most part, and considerably easier, especially when you consider the AI, in Normal mode at least, hasn't had much of an overhaul from the Chaos Theory days of old. If they hear you, they'll snoop around for a while in hopes of catching you hiding in the shadows, and, assuming they do, will either take cover or attempt to pursue you. Funnily enough, though, if you manage to escape them after they've spotted you and manage to hide, they'll simply forget you were there and return to their positions. You just can't get good help these days.
The single player missions vary in setting, from a hotel in Shanghai, to a supertanker in the icy waters of Siberia, to the run-down sun-soaked city of Kinshasa. There's a nice surprise at the beginning of a certain mission that I won't spoil, but it is indeed breathtaking the first time around. Overall the missions are nicely varied and offer different routes to complete your goal.
When talking about the multiplayer aspect of Double Agent there are two perspectives one can view from. The first is that of a newcomer to the series; someone who has not experienced any previous romps into the versus modes included in earlier installments.
From this perspective, Double Agent is a fun, thrilling, and at times heart pounding rendition of infiltration and recovery. There are two Live! enabled versus modes included, the first of which involves playing with and against friends, the other against computer-controlled bots that vary in difficulty as you venture through the various echelons.
When playing the standard human vs. human mode, up to 6 players (3 vs 3) can assume either the role of a ninja-like Spy or the gun-toting Mercs. Spies have no weapons, but can carry any one of the available gadgets at any one time. These include smoke grenades, flashbangs, healing syringes, or jammers. Most are self-explanatory except the jammers; a handy gizmo that can fool any nearby Merc's proximity detector - a device that begins to beep whenever a spy gets within a certain range. Mercs, on the other hand, carry a machine gun/grenade launcher combo weapon that doubles as a sniper rifle. Nice, and how could we forget the Merc's new "drone"; a devastatingly scary addition to the game from the Spy's viewpoint. These manually-controlled hovering harbingers of death are absolutely deadly in the right hands, although do leave the Merc open to attack. Vent crawlers beware.
Both roles also have their own types of vision modes. The Mercs have Motion, and EMF - a mode that allows you to see any Spy (even through thin walls) that either has a vision mode turned on or is using their newly introduced hi-tech wristband (used to hack terminals, turn off lights, or temporarily scramble a Merc's view). Spies on the other hand have Night and Thermal vision, both of which can prove to be a lifesaver. As mentioned previously the Spies are unarmed, but are able to take out Mercs by either jumping on their head, pulling them off a balcony, or by sneaking up behind them and snapping their necks; the latter of which allows you to momentarily whisper via the microphone into the Merc's ear, a final taunt before placing them on their death bed. Spies are also now blessed with newly introduced "escape moves", whereby one can tap a button whilst running towards a balcony, window, or low-level opening, forcing the Spy into a parkour-like movement and possibly saving their behind from a firm whooping by a Merc.
Both game types are based around the same objective; infiltrate the enemy base, steal a file, and return said file to your starting position two times over. When playing the cooperative mode against bots however, this objective varies as you advance through the missions. Some missions only allow you to recover 25% of a file from any one terminal, thus forcing you into working out strategies for each. Others are not file-based, but more around a total percentage gained at the end of the match. The bots' difficulty level ranges from ridiculously easy to out-and-out evil. You might find yourself sneaking along a vent only to suddenly find a Merc's grenade landing straight into your lap. The AI could be considered cheap at times, but overall I found it a welcome challenge that somehow seemed to adapt to my movements.
However, when looking at Double Agent's multiplayer aspect from the perspective of a seasoned fan of Chaos Theory, it really does fall short. Chaos Theory's versus mode is still played by many to this very day, and was far more intricate. Ubisoft, I assume, were intent on making the game more appealing to the masses - and that they have done. The removal of alarm systems, trip mines, and so forth have left the multiplayer side feeling almost barren after the initial buzz of playing a new Splinter Cell. Another fatal mistake in the opinion of many is the complete omission of "proper" cooperative missions; Chaos Theory allowed two players to team up over Live! and take on evil terrorists together, but not so with Double Agent. This element alone provided hours upon hours of extra replay time, despite there only being a handful of maps. This, is sorely missed.
Graphically, it's not the prettiest girl at the ball, but is definitely no ugly duckling. Using a heavily modified version of the Unreal 2 engine (previously used for Chaos Theory), textures are superior to it's predecessor as would be expected, and HDR lighting is put to good use throughout the entire single player campaign, which incidentally is outright beautiful at times. That said, and whilst it does live up to the usual quality of the series in terms of graphics it obviously makes little effort to surpass them; Chaos Theory was a milestone in terms of graphics for it's time and this appears to be little more than a slightly spruced up version. Aside from the Siberia and Kinshasa missions it feels fairly lackluster and cumbersome most of the time, and apart from Sam getting a bit of a touch up there's nothing screaming "next gen" about it, especially when talking about it's multiplayer counterpart. Here is where it really fails to impress, the shadows are - for want of a better word - pathetic. When playing as a Merc this is most notable in the office-type areas where a player can shine their torchlight across the dividing cubicle walls, where it becomes apparent the shadows are little more than a clever outline. Character models are fairly adequate but at foundation level it's merely Chaos Theory's versus engine with a smudge of lipstick. Character animations for both aspects of the game have generally been reused, although the new abilities such as the aforementioned escape moves and those allowing you to pull an enemy over a balcony or through a floor of ice are welcome additions.
"You know the drill, dirty Spy scum, pucker up"
The same could be said for the audio side of Double Agent. There are a few welcome additions in this department such as the tension-building music that begins to play if an enemy is suspicious, but the removal of the once-loved sound monitor (a bar from Chaos Theory that relayed how much noise you were making) makes it seem a tad less sophisticated than it's older brother. One should also note that a lot of the terrorist voice work was simply copy/pasted from the previous installment, something that's almost deemed laughable by fans at times.
Achievement-wise, this game is more time consuming to gain the full 1000 than difficult. The single player portion offers a total of around 630 points, from a simple 30 points per mission complete to the not so obvious 10 and 20 point achievements for the decisions you make whilst playing. Depending on the choices you've made, you may find you need to play again to get certain achievements, such as "Save Lambert", "Save Hisham", and "The Collector". Assuming you play as a good guy from start to finish and complete all the starred secondary objectives (essential for "The Collector"), you'll attain these without any trouble. Completing the game on the hardest difficulty for "Professional Ninja" should be fairly easy after you've played through once and know where you're going.
The multiplayer aspect of this game's achievements require a lot more time however, and in the case of the Coop awards, some sweat and tears. As mentioned in the multiplayer section of this review the coop missions vary in difficulty as you progress, the last few of which are notably tough during the first few hundred thousand times you attempt them. Perhaps not that many, but you get the idea. For the Gold Trophy coop achievement you'll need one or two decent partners that have as much patience as they do ability.
Assuming you've completed the single player campaign's achievements and have attained all the coop trophies, you're still a good few hundred away from 1000. Playing the versus modes increases the stats (agility, and stealth for example) of your Spy and Merc characters, and as you reach certain ranks you'll be awarded; with perhaps one of four new suits (totalling three for Spies, three for Mercs including the suits you start with), or perhaps a short movie, as well as an achievement. Attaining the last one, Commander, will take some time - reaching 96% overall can take a while unlike the earlier characteristics-based ones such as gaining over 1%, 5%, 20%, 45% and 75%. Even after gaining these, you still have the "Expert" achievements to attain - worth a total of 20 points each. These basically consist of you winning a versus session on each map 10 times as each class, and playing a total of 25 times on each.
Re-used elements detract from the otherwise decent soundtrack and newly-introduced alert music. Otherwise fairly adequate.
Although lackluster at times, the single player campaigns visuals are on the most part quite pleasing. A step up from Chaos Theory, just not as much as most were expecting. Animations are reused on the most part, although the new additions of pulling terrorists through icy floors or over a balcony could be seen to make up for that.
Fairly easy to pick up and play, one could be fairly adept with the controls after little more than an hours play. There are a few points in the game that one might feel slightly lost, but that merely adds to the realism.
Taking everything into account, Double Agent is fairly well presented bar the loading times of missions and, whilst on the subject, the insane amount of time it takes to merely switch between single player and multiplayer modes.
Whilst not all featured are from an original school of thinking, SCDA's achievements, whilst hardly difficult are nicely varied and will ensure a lengthy (albeit tedious perhaps) amount of replay value. Veterans of the series may be disappointed.
More of a Splinter Cell 3.5 than a fully revamped 4, Double Agent could've been so much more. That said, and if viewed as if it was the first game in the series, it's an enjoyable experience that is definitely worth picking up whether you're a fan of the series or a newcomer - and especially if found at a price well below retail. A fairly easy 1000 if looked at simply from an achievement point of view. Here's hoping Splinter Cell 5: Conviction provides a more worthy contender to the franchise.