The old man and the CIA.
Let’s face it, to most people, “Next-Gen” means better graphics. But what do better graphics really mean to most next-gen games? So far, the answer has been one that most people spend money trying to avoid in real life: sweat. Since the Xbox 360 launched, your average video game character has started perspiring like a nerd on a date. Yet aside from taking us ever deeper into the uncanny valley, the next generation’s literally slick visuals haven’t done much other than say “Damn, it’s hot in here.”
That’s why we’ve been so excited about Splinter Cell: Double Agent, the latest entry in a series where deep shadows and bright lights do more than set a mood. Whether it’s the green glow of an ‘Exit’ lamp, or the beam shooting from a guard’s lantern, the lighting is actually an important part of the game. So we assumed that, with the 360's extra wattage, Double Agent would be the brightest entry yet. Instead, it's as good as its predecessors, but not better.
[image1]As the game begins, you’re babysitting a new agent through a routine recon mission, when things predictably go wrong. The rookie gets killed (he dies with his hands up, for shame) but then is immediately forgotten when you learn that your daughter has been hit by a car. This somehow leads to an undercover mission in a prison, and begins a spy story with about as many holes as the dead rookie. But just like always, the constant flow of well-written dialog within the missions keeps you interested and engaged in spite of the seemingly random twists.
Since you’re undercover, half of the missions take place in the terrorists’ compound. There, you’ll be given jobs fit for an extremist (craft some mines, dispose of a body) and objectives from Lambert (load a trojan into their servers, copy documents), with about twenty five minutes to complete everything you can.
I’m pleased with Ubisoft for taking this unique, open-ended approach, but a time limit keeps you from having as much fun as you could. Instead of freely exploring the terrorist compound and becoming enmeshed in its comings and goings, you’re forced to save and reload constantly just to give yourself enough time to complete the primary objectives. This actually becomes a game in and of itself, because where and when you save is as crucial as where and when you sneak. Still, we’d like to see less saving and loading, not more.
A new trust system gives you more leeway in the regular missions. Since you’re working for the government and the terrorists, you need both of them to believe in you. This is represented by two meters, which, in a lot of cases, give you more room for error than you had in the previous games. If you mess up and stab a cop, for instance, Lambert won't freak out. If you mess up and stab five, well, maybe it's time to retire.
[image2]The meters also play into the morally ambiguous decisions Double Agent places before you. The irony is that, in existing, they pretty much undermine any sense of morality. For example, at one point the terrorists ask you to ice a hostage. If you point the gun at him, you can see exactly how much of Lambert’s trust a kill will cost, and if you aim at the wall, how much less the terrorists will trust you should you decline. This causes you to weigh your choice pragmatically, not morally, and takes the suspense out of what’s supposed to be a life and death decision.
While Ubisoft’s moral landscapes could use some work, their physical environments are second to none. The levels are well designed, and Sam has a ton of tools at his fingertips, although there aren’t many new noteworthy weapons or gadgets. Instead, the designers focused on placing Sam in new settings. You’ll rappel down the side of an awesome Hong Kong skyscraper, swim underneath gorgeous sheets of ice, and sneak through a harrowing, war-torn African village.
Sam may not be getting any younger, but Splinter Cell’s three-on-three online versus play is as fresh and violent as a young radical. Gone are the esoteric gadgets and tools that made life as a noob short and confusing, replaced by standard, easy to grasp victory conditions, clear-cut roles, and a greater emphasis on light and vision. Spies remotely turn out the lights, so mercs turn on flashlights. Spies then see mercs coming, so mercs get sneaky and turn on electro-vision, and so on and so forth. This is an apt dynamic for a series whose symbol is a pair of night vision goggles.
[image3]Vision may be at the forefront of the Versus mode, but it’s cosmetic details that distinguish the next generation of stealth gameplay from the last. That means, you guessed it, Sam Fisher sweats a whole lot while wearing accurately hemmed spy pants. Water and glass look breathtakingly realistic, but other textures, like a few of the game’s walls, actually look bad. This agent is a little out of shape. Maybe that's why he sweats so much.
But he sounds as suave and convincing as ever, thanks to more Michael Ironside. The voice acting is outstanding, and the random conversations between guards and other NPCs make you forget you’re playing a game.
Like a reliable spy, Splinter Cell: Double Agent gets the job done. We love the immersive gameplay and cool visuals, although we’re starting to get tired of constantly saving and reloading because some guard spotted us picking a lock. Ubisoft did a great job of streamlining their versus game, and we hope they put Sam on the same diet for Splinter Cell 5. In the meantime, we can confidently say this Double Agent works for us.