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Endless Ramblings On Splinter Cell 360 - Double Agent
Posted by Diggler - 24/10/2006 1:31

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Splinter Cell 4 is here. I'm playing on the 360 as always, but PC and last gen ports will hit stores soon as well
Even before this game was officially announced, the promise of a next-gen Splinter Cell was pretty much one of my primary reasons in picking up a 360. The Dig is totally gay for Sam Fisher.

Although hardly for everyone, the first Splinter Cell was a fab, innovative title back in its day. Its sequel, Pandora Tomorrow, then ramped things up a notch, while casually invented a brand new multiplayer genre to boot. And let us not forget last year's Chaos Theory either, an even more monumental sequel that gave the series a stunning visual upgrade, while simultaneously elevated the gameplay into about as perfect as a video game's ever been. That's a title I still play regularly - both on and offline - and my love grows fonder for it with each passing day.

So yeah, Double Agent - the latest Splinter Cell outing, released last week on 360 - has a lot to live up to I guess.

So Did it?

Before we get into whether it did or not, let's talk storylines. You see, glancing back at my gushings on Chaos Theory from last year (preview here, review here), the one single gripe I had with that bad boy was the plot. Convoluted, confusing and un-involving, there just seemed very little in the way of actual story driving the damn thing forward. A shame, considering the amazing, tense and captivating gameplay firing off all around it like a demented Catherine Wheel.

Well that my friends, is where Double Agent comes in. Sam Fisher is back for more stealthy spy shenanigans, but with a nice twist this time. Now he's brought a plot. No longer simply the NSA's one dimensional tool - slitting throats under the cover of night then heading home at the end of his shift - this time he's going deep under cover. Big shit be goin' down.

In a twist worryingly close to home, a terrorist organisation known as the John Brown's Army (JBA) are planning something nasty in New York city you see, and it's up to Sam to infiltrate the suckers, find out what the deal is, then take 'em down from the inside. It's a fab concept in its own right - one that opens up a world of potential for an involving, entertaining storyline - while providing ample room for some additional variety within the standard Splinter Cell gameplay mechanics on top.

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Ubi have been hyping for months how much more involving the storyline would be in Double Agent
Let's be honest. As good as this series has been so far, variation hasn't been its strong point has it? Bathed in relentless shades of night time, Sam's objectives have forever been the same when all's said and done; break into a building, take out some dudes from the shadows, then slip away without being seen. That's how it's been for three years, really. Double Agent is here to tip that whole idea on its head though.

With Sam now part of a terror cell, the game reacts accordingly. He has to constantly track and collect information on its members, while smiling as he passes them in the corridor. He has to figure out what their overarching plans are, while continually reporting them back to Lambert when no-one's looking. Perhaps most importantly of all though, he has to maintain his cover at all times by carrying out evil, nasty deeds for his new found terror buddies...without, well, turning into one of them. The result? A crazy mish-mash of conflicting objectives and branching plot twists, where not only your skills as a gamer are called into play, but your morals and inner conflict as a double crossing super spy as well.

No one ever said saving the world would be easy...but man, it certainly sets up the potential for one kick arse tale.

Enter: Storytelling

Sadly - and this is really my one single gripe with Double Agent - that storyline never really fulfils its potential. Having just come off playing all three Metal Gear Solid games these past few months - wowed by the depth of the story and character work those games displayed - I was hoping for similar things this time around from Sam and company. There's a problem though. Ubi-Soft just aren't the genius story tellers Kojima is. Not by a long bloody shot.

Let me give you an example. Early on, Sam's daughter is hit by a drunk driver and instantly killed. As one of the few bright spots in his life, he takes the loss hard, hitting rock bottom, and becoming a shell of a man in the process. According to Ubi-Soft, this is what ultimately culminates in him accepting the ridiculous suicide mission of working as a double agent. That's frickin' cool, no?

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One small bonus with this revamped storyline is the fact Sam is forced out into daylight for a change. Thus marks the first Splinter Cell game with - gasp - sun
You'd never know any of this from what you actually see in the game though. CGI cut-scenes are brief, ugly and generally lacking. The presentation is poor. There's massive jumps in the story. It just all feels rushed and sloppy I'm afraid. If I hadn't followed this game for months in mag previews and developer interviews, I would have had no real idea what the hell was going on to be frank.

There's plot holes too. To get Sam positioned in the JBA, he's sent down to prison to befriend a fellow member, break him out, and get in the terrorist's good books. We actually play this prison break out in the game's second level...yet hilariously, it begins with Sam tooled out with special ops knife and cutting edge light sensor equipment. Right there in his cell. Smuggle 'em up his arse did he? These sorts of important details and much-needed fleshing out of the story are regularly glossed over (or flat-out ignored), and it's all just a pity really. A wasted opportunity.

So like I say, the corner cutting with the storyline was my biggest disappointment in Double Agent. For a plot that deals with friendship, betrayal, sex, death, deception and terrorism on an epic scale...it is surprisingly un-involving. There's just little emotional impact really. One shot early on, where a drunk and delirious Sam - having seemingly gone off the deep-end - gets his arse kicked while picking a fight down some dark alley one night, hints at the sort of gritty, involving tale I think we all wanted here. But sadly it's literally one split second shot that's never matched again.

It ain't all bad news. There's certainly some nice ideas at play here and there, don't get me wrong, and as far as storytelling goes, it is most definitely a step in the right direction next to previous Splinter Cells. Comparisons with the likes of Metal Gear though? Not really worth bothering with. Not in this department at least.

The Important Stuff

That's the plot though, let's chat gameplay shall we? 'Cos here things get far more interesting. Double Agent is developed by Ubi-Soft Shanghai in case you didn't know, those behind Pandora Tomorrow. Pandora had some minor issues, but I'd argue that in terms of pure level design, it also boasted some of the flat-out coolest single player missions the series has seen yet. The Paris train level stands out - as does the submarine infiltration - both inventive and different takes on the stealth genre, choc-full of wow moments that have stuck with me ever since. Thankfully I'm pleased to say that Double Agent offers up a similar quality collection of these more daring and unique missions in its wake.

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Ubi-Soft's ambition and talent on full display in one of the game's better levels. Those with vertigo need not apply
The abseiling sequence set in the company's home city of Shanghai is simply incredible for one, with Sam rappelling down the side of an 80-story skyscraper amidst a beautifully stunning night sky in 100% real-time. Not only do the views and vertigo assault your senses like nothing else, but hiding from evil-doers against a gorgeous fireworks display randomly illuminating your silhouette against the windows proves ridiculously tense too. By the end, you're literally hanging hands-free outside, recording a terrorist meeting with a portable mic 60 stories up. Sam, you mentalist. Without doubt one of the better levels in the series, it's graphically and conceptually stunning...and there's plenty more where that came from.

The ice-covered tanker level's another true beaut. By approaching your objective underwater (for the first time, no less), the environment proves gloriously interactive here as you start punching your way through ice, while shooting dudes into the freezing cold water to hide their bodies. Mucho fun to be had. And I have to plug the sickly twist in the latter half of the mission in which the JBA task you with literally massacring an entire ship full of mercs for 'em. Just like that, Sam's forced to turn mass murderer in order to protect his cover, whacking dudes like Hitman 47 crossed with Jack Bauer. Fuckin' sweet.

Sure, not every mission's perfect. The tutorial levels are absolute rubbish for one, and the opening missions proper (including the aforementioned prison break) aren't all that either. I think it's fair to say that Double Agent takes a good hour or so to really kick in in that regard.

Social Stealth

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DA features a bunch of fully interactive movie moments...flashy cut-scenes which you get to control. Tough choices await
Bizarrely, the most interesting segments of the entire game come in the form of the JBA centred sub-missions for me. What are these exactly? Well between "operations", the terrorists like to retreat back to their New York hideout, where they continue to plan their evil deeds, while enjoying the odd bit of R&R. These moments come fully interactive however, so they might for instance, task you with constructing some bombs for your next mission, or perhaps disposing of, well, some dead bodies by dragging 'em down to the furnace.

You can follow these orders to earn some additional trust from 'em...but far more interestingly you're free to completely ignore 'em and go off "exploring" the compound instead. Getting on down with why you're actually here in the first place; to snare these mother fuckers. And just like that? You're off snooping around their sleeping quarters, scanning for fingerprints, and breaking into their filing cabinets to see what dirt you can uncover. It's awesome detective-style stuff, more in common with the investigative portions of something like Condemned than a Splinter Cell game...with the added bonus of you crapping your pants the entire time in case someone walks in and catches you. I love it.

There's tons of stuff to do in these mini-levels, but you're continually up against the clock you see (where terrorists are concerned, time is slaughter after all), hence it becomes a case of prioritising which people and factions you want to appease, while seeing how much of your overarching mission you can progress at the same time. Amazing stuff.

The Dark Side

This see-sawing between working for your two competing organisations extends to when you're out in the field too. I don't really want to give too much away as far as this stuff goes, as experiencing it all first hand is the only way to go, but Sam finds himself having to make some stressful, far-reaching decisions on the spur of the moment throughout the course of the game, each with their own consequences and repercussions. Even small things like being spotted, setting off alarms, and killing dudes versus knocking 'em out can affect your ratings with each faction depending on the situation at hand, and it becomes a tough juggling act that's genuinely interesting and different. The game's wonderfully interactive in that regard though. Of course, a truly shit hot agent will balance both sides perfectly without pissing anyone off...but I tell you now, it won't be easy.

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Living in the future as we do, it's easy to forget that Splinter Cell practically invented the over-the-shoulder viewpoint now so prevalent in shooters
This double agent mechanic is the game's prime new addition to the age old Splinter Cell formula, and it affects the rest of the experience from the ground up rather nicely. There are one or two smaller new addendums worth mentioning though; Sam now has an awesome new wall take-down manoeuvre for instance, one where he karate chops dudes in the neck, then slams 'em face-first into the wall, proving ridiculously useful against seeking guards who come wondering around corners. He also has a crazy new glass cutter for climbing through windows that is particularly awesome...despite the fact it's oddly never really needed. At all. I stumbled upon it purely by accident in fact.

Gadgets in general have seen an overhaul though, with sticky cameras now detonate-able (oh yes), and a super useful sound manipulator joining Fisher's load-out among others. This lets you "shoot" distracting sounds to lure guards away, and it's pretty bloody invaluable when you run out of ammo.

Double Agent doesn't give you all this stuff up front though, you have to earn all your new gadgets out in the field by completing certain side objectives...some for the NSA, others for the terrorists. It further emphasises the concept of choice and freedom as you pick and choose who to help as you progress.

Finally there's a ton of mini-games built directly into the story worth a mention. Many of Sam's activities - like safe cracking and decoding e-mails - have been revamped into reflex tests and Sudoku rip-offs now, and they provide even more pleasing variety to the proceedings.

Throw all this shit in a pot and it adds some really rather nice new depth. At the end of the day, the double agent system, the upgraded gadgets, the new day-time levels and the cutesy little mini-games don't alter the fact that this is still ultimately a Splinter Cell game at heart. Sticking to cover, sliding against walls, whacking on vision modes and grabbing dudes from behind...but I'd argue it plays slightly differently than it has in the past though, while still staying close enough to what we know and love at the same time. And I must say? It works.

It's great to be back in Splinter Cell land again, picking out headshots and hacking computer terminals but in a brand new setting. The tightness of the stealth and the sheer satisfaction of the combat have reminded me just why this series towers above your Hitmans and your Metal Gears when all's said and done. Pure, undiluted playability.

I'm Too Old For This Shit

Downers? Sure. Most glaringly, the camera's buggered. I dunno what happened here - especially considering how absolutely flawless Chaos Theory's one worked - but it's way too close to Sam and constantly gets in the way now. True, it shows off how ridiculously detailed his new model is (complete with real-time sweat, crazy realistic stubble and even individual scars from missions long-past), but perving over Sam isn't always top of your priorities when you're taking fire from all angles and can't see an effin' thing. It ain't a deal breaker, but it is sure as hell noticeable.

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There sure are some fab missions to check out in Double Agent. Sadly this sun-drenched cruiser ain't one of them
Also, Double Agent it hard. Real hard in fact. The AI is particularly fiendish now; they won't simply patrol along a straight line anymore, they'll investigate the slightest sound, they'll constantly whip out flashlights to check darker corners, and there'll regularly notice you sneaking up behind 'em unless you're especially light on your feet.

This difficulty extends itself to the mission objectives too. In keeping with the game's concept of cutting the cord and going deep under cover, you really don't get much help when you're out on assignment anymore. Lambert rarely makes contact, so you're essentially thrown into the deep-end and forced to fend for yourself. This does afford the game with a strong sense of exploration and sheer size as you delve into and explore your surroundings in search of the way forward, but it can be a little tough to know just where the hell to head at times and what to do when you get there.

I always thought of myself as a bit of a SC expert up until now, but this game constantly kicked my arse. As a result, I'd say Double Agent ain't anywhere near as accessible as Chaos Theory was, and it takes a good fair while to really find your stride. Unless you enjoy the pain, I'd consider playing it on "Easy" until you get your bearings sorted.

Next Gen Vision Modes

In terms of visuals, some of the graphics are truly astonishing. The aforementioned tanker level in the snow looks like some kinda CGI movie, with the most amazing water effects you may well ever see. The detail on the textures, the size of the levels, and the sheer amount of effects thrown in result in quite a looker when the game's at its best, and viewing it on HD there were specific moments where my jaw hit the floor like a slack-jawed yokel.

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For the most part, Double Agent looks mind-blowing here on 360. Framerate ain't what it could be, mind
At other times though, it looks vaguely comparable to Chaos Theory and not a whole lot better, while displaying minor frame-rate lapses on top. Then again, Chaos Theory could have practically been a next-gen game in itself, so this is no big whine.

Michael Ironside provides voice acting duties again thankfully, and the newcomers playing the terrorists do a fine job too. Although sadly scarce, the dynamic music impressed me more than anything though, ramping up and altering on the fly depending on your on-screen actions. As you stalk someone from behind, it'll elevate in tension right up 'til you make that all-important takedown, while a lone guard spotting you across a hallway will also remix the music accordingly. Very cool, this.

All in all then Sam's latest adventure boasts an interesting, if still flawed storyline, matched with that trademark Splinter Cell quality gameplay we know and love, along with some fab new additions that really help freshen it up at the same time. Although you'll clock it in about 10 to 15 hours on your first run through, the freedom and choice that the double agent system affords results in a ton of additional replay value further down the line, thanks to numerous branching twists and turns, multiple game endings and a hell of a lot of bonus goodies to unlock as well.

But that ain't all. In keeping with Chaos and Pandora, Ubi-Soft have an incredibly in-depth multiplayer mode on offer in Double, and it's one I'm a particularly big fan of...

Online Neck Snaps

The focus is a highly reworked take on the Spies vs. Mercs mode seen in the previous games. One team of spies - comprised of super fast Sam Fisher wannabes - are tasked with hacking computers and retrieving files, while the slower yet more powerful mercenaries must patrol the map and stop 'em.

The spies have speed, vision modes and the ability to fit into the tiniest of hidey holes, while the mercs, quite simply, get a gun. It all balances itself out nicely though, with FPS fans able to get their SMG on as the mercs, while more tactical and devious SOBs can get their fix as the slippery, slidey Alien-esque spies.

I never really played much of this mode in the past games (more of a co-op guy as ya'll know by now), but sensing many others had a similarly tricky time getting into it, Ubi have seemingly streamlined things here to make it a lot more open to newcomers. An awful lot of the fat has been sliced straight off essentially, and the player limit has been bumped up to 3v3, all resulting in a much more fast-paced, action packed take on the mode than seen previously, and one a fair bit simpler too. Levels are nicely laid out, gadget use is present but minimal, and the objectives are simple and straight forward enough for anyone to jump in and know what they're doing instantly.

Chaos Theory vets will no doubt scorn at the "dumbing down" of this mode as a result, and perhaps they're right. When all's said and done though? It's bloody brilliant fun I have to say. Tense, satisfying and very different to pretty much anything else out there in the online space right now. It'll also last you a good long while too, thanks to an endless stream of unlockable skins, multiplayer maps and gamerscore Achievements. I'm impressed.

That's a good thing too, as the work of utter brilliance known as the co-op campaign introduced in Chaos Theory is nowhere to be seen here I'm afraid. You and you're buddy may be hitting the online servers together and snapping the necks of America's youth, but you won't be setting off on your own in-depth co-op story missions this time around on the 360, and that's a huge downer.

There are some more basic co-op challenges built into the Spies vs. Mercs mode, but they ultimately just boil down to you and some buddies facing off against bots. Thankfully, the bot AI proves exceptionally (and perhaps worryingly) good in this mode, so there is some minor fun to be had never the less.

For the real co-op experience though, you'll have to check out the soon-to-be-released previous gen versions of Double Agent I'm afraid. Indeed, us 360 owners (not to mention PC players) may get our swishy HD graphics and a bunch of additional single player missions just not even vaguely possible on the older machines, but it's them who have the last laugh with a whopping great 15 mission long 2-player campaign conspicuously missing here. We'll have to wait and see how that ultimately turns out when it's released later this week, but I promise me and Tom'll put the sucker through its paces in a staggeringly unskilful manner just for you-hoo.

Next Stop: Conviction

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Ah yes. The day Sam Fisher infiltrated Saint's Row and murdered the pimp. How we laughed
As for Double Agent on the 360? It may have turned out as a bit more of a grower than I expected - as opposed to the instant love affair I would have hoped for as a Splinter Cell nut-job - but I'm glad to say that a good few hours into this game - both on and offline - adulation kicked in like nothing else.

It's not the all-out perfect experience Chaos Theory was - lacking some polish and that dedicated co-op mode - but Double Agent's probably my second fave of the series thus far, and Sam's most inventive and interesting adventure yet to boot. Crazy replayability and a brilliant online mode only help cement it as a bit of a must-have right now in 360 land.

Then again...are you a Splinter Cell hater? The kind that curse the stealth genre and can't get on board with the tip-toeing? This probably won't sway you. Chaos Theory is a far cooler intro to the series I'd say, and a game every single person reading this should pick up immediately. This one on the other hand is really just for the vets who wanna follow this series through to a new and exciting place.

Incidentally, I was hoping to see the Splinter Cell movie out by now, but word on the fabled interwebs speak of its delay stretching all the way back to 2008 unfortunately. In the meantime though, we do have the 360/PC exclusive sequel Splinter Cell: Conviction deep in development, a straight continuation of this storyline that's coming courtesy of Assassin's Creed development studio Ubi-Soft Montreal. In fact, there's already some oh so sweet leaked concept art out there in seedy town if you know where to look...

Needless to say? Dig can't wait.

(Pictures courtesy of Splinter Cell)

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The Polynomial. Like playing a rave

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