My first experience with Splinter Cell: Double Agent was on the PS2. That was the only gaming system I had owned when the game had come out. At the time I was really excited to play it, especially after having been so impressed with the latest Splinter Cell title before it - Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Even though I'm more of a Metal Gear fanboy, Splinter Cell is a series I've respected a great deal. At least that was the case before I played Double Agent. Double Agent ended up being a Splinter Cell game that left me disappointed and wanting.
For the longest time I thought it was because I played the last-gen version. Maybe the developers Ubisoft Montreal gave all their focus and energy to the proper HD 360/PC/PS3 versions. Maybe that's why Double Agent was designed so poorly on the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube. Well, I've now played the PS3 version and I'm confident to claim that Splinter Cell: Double Agent - all versions - is not that great of a game, and in a number of instances, just badly designed.
I've also probably played the worst of the HD versions. It's something I expected, since Double Agent came out during PS3's infancy, a time when developers were either struggling to or not bothering to optimize the PS3 version of a game. It was before The Orange Box (PS3) debacle and even before F.E.A.R was ported to the PS3, boasting its ridiculously long loading times. So I expected Double Agent on the PS3 would have its problems, but even as I readied myself with those grim expectations, I still ended up shocked.
I don't know how Double Agent plays on the 360 or on the PC, but on the PS3, it's nearly unplayable. I was patient enough to weather through it and beat the game, but there were so many times during my playthrough of the game in which I wanted to just return it to Gamefly simply because of its abymally low frame rate. It's like the whole game is forever on a lag, not big enough to totally ruin the gameplay, but still always noticeable. Sam Fischer crouch walks and runs as if he's in slow motion but even more problematic is this feeling that I'm tugging on the string attached to the camera to make it pan around Sam. In the entire game, it never felt like I was in direct control. I kept playing to see if the performance of the game would get any better, or if it would be okay in sections that were smaller or had less things going on, but unfortunately, on the PS3 this is an issue I had to tolerate at all times during my playthrough.
That's enough rant about the game's poor performance on the PS3. Assuming the game ran perfectly at 30+ frames per second, I'm left with a Splinter Cell game that's as bare bones it can be, while introducing two new concepts that only make the main gameplay annoying.
This iteration of Splinter Cell is named Double Agent because Sam Fischer has to become one. After completing the very first mission on a terrorist base set in a snowy, icy location, there's a quick cutscene showing a car running over a woman in a dark alleyway and then cutting to Sam crouched in a cargo plane, visibly upset. Sam's daughter has been murdered. Now with nothing to lose, Sam decides to take the riskiest mission he's ever taken - joining a domestic terrorist faction to take it down from the inside.
This double agent premise means half of the missions in the game take place inside the terrorist base. I don't think this is necessarily a bad idea, and I'm not really that against backtracking in games, but the way it's executed in this Double Agent makes for a rather boring game. It's dull because unless he sneaks into a restricted area of the base, Sam can only walk around slowly. Getting to anywhere in the base thus feels like a chore and the base is made bigger and more complex than it actually is. Compounding this restriction is the fact that every mission in the terrorist base is timed. Granted, the game gives plenty of time to complete all objectives (usually 25 minutes), but it's awkward to timed for the missions in which Sam moves at a snail's pace.
Sam's inability to crouch or run or do the things Sam can normally do also makes it awkward to try to sneak into the base's restricted areas. One time I got stuck, as Sam was sandwiched between another NPC and the wall. The NPC Erica kept going, "You can't be here, Sam. Get out of here." I struggled with my controller, yelling, "Hey, I'm trying to get Sam out of your way, but He suddenly forgot how to crouch or put his back on the wall. Looks like he's stuck here unless you move out of the way!"
Each mission in the terrorist base presents its own mini-game task. In one mission Sam is tasked with putting the detonating triggers into explosives. The gameplay of doing this is controlling this syringe-looking thing to make it fit into a hole of the same shape. I hold down the R2 button to make the syringe thing head downwards toward the hole and move the analog stick left and right to make sure it stays in the center and fits perfectly into the hole. I'm tasked to do this successfully ten times, which - because of the way the thing jerks about erratically - isn't easy but not really fulfilling to complete either. Another notable mini-game is when the terrorist leader asks Sam to hack into his personal computer. That means arranging a set of numbers on a cube that has four tiles on each of its six surfaces. It's tricky because the same number can't be placed adjacent to each other. It's easy to get stumped on but like all the other mini-games, the difficulty curve is too artificial for the completion to feel rewarding. These mini-game tasks feel too out of place and way too tedious to be considered good diversions.
If there's a nice thing to be said about these aspects of the missions in the terrorist base, at least it's realistic. Like it would be in real life, the task of putting triggers in bombs is stressful and tedious. It makes sense that hacking into a computer doesn't mean a fun and involving mini-game. And Sam wouldn't crouch and run around in front of the terrorists he's comrades with. Realism aside though, it just makes for a really dull game.
The other concept introuced by Sam being a double agent is the concept of the loyalty meter. It's different than what's featured in the PS2 version. In the PS2 version, there is one meter. Sam usually has two optional objectives, one that would please the terrorists but would upset Sam's Third Echelon agency, and one that would do the opposite which would make Sam more loyal to his U.S superiors but make the terrorist group John Brown's Army become more suspicious of Sam. I liked it this way. This system made it so that completing an objective felt like a tough moral choice. There was always this underlying question- should I focus on proving loyalty to this terrorist group and perform this questionable act, or perform this task which would help Third Echelon bring down JBA but at the same time risk Sam blowing his cover?
In the PS3 Double Agent, there are two loyalty meters, one that increases after completing objectives for Third Echelon and the other that grows after completing objectives for the terrorists. In this system, as long as Sam completes all objectives, there's no need to worry about losing the loyalty of either group. Thus, except for once near the end of the game, I wasn't faced with any morally gray choice. It's just an illusory mechanic to motivate players to conplete all objectives in a mission. This loyalty meter is the feature that's supposed to distinguish this Splinter Cell from its previous iterations but that doesn't happen since the way this new feature works doesn't do much of anything.
In terms of mechanics, Double Agent takes some steps backward from its prequels. It's almost like playing the very first Splinter Cell, and in some ways, worse. The extremely helpful sound meter featured in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is absent, which I can accept, but the series' staple light meter is simplified into three color signs to watch out for, and it's hard to call this a Splinter Cell game. There's no customization of what gear Sam takes before starting a mission and instead you earn more advanced equipment by completing missions without triggering alarms.
Then there's the level design. I guess it'd be wrong to criticize the game for being extremely linear since the first Splinter Cell and its sequel Pandora Tomorrow weren't much better in that regard, and I'm not at all opposed to linearity in games, but the paths to take in Double Agent too often feel arbitrarily designed. The mission in Shanghai is a big culprit of this. In the beginning of that mission, Sam has to rappel down a skyscraper. As he moves about, sidestepping across the tall building's windows, a helicopter hovers behind, using its searchlight to spot any unusual activity on the building. Sam has to climb up or down as he moves to the left to avoid the searchlight. If Sam ends up on the searhlight, it's gameover. It's not a horrible sequence, and is in a way kind of cool, but it's a good example of how limited the gameplay often is in Double Agent. Another worse example is the mission in the Middle Eastern country in which Sam has to bug this huge room terrorist leaders are going to meet in. The room is protected by lasers and Sam has to pass by them undetected as he climbs and moves along the ceiling pipes. It's like a scene taken out of Mission Impossible but not as crazy or as dramatic. It's not much of a challenge to get past the lasers; you just have to patiently wait for some lasers to go offline and move forward along the pipes. Because of gameplay segments like these, almost no part of Double Agent encourages replaying.
At least the PS3 version is filled with wide open areas, instead of being mostly composed of narrow corridors and small empty rooms like the PS2 version, but still that Splinter Cell trademark feeling of open-endedness - the feel that I can stealthily approach the mission from multiple angles - is totally absent here.
What felt most awkward to me was that a lot of the missions in Double Agent are undertaken in broad daylight. This wouldn't be the first time for the series. After all, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow featured a mission in the jungle on a sunny afternoon. The jungle mission was a bit frustrating and felt out of place, but there was still that light meter and plenty of dark shadows to hide under. In Double Agent, largely because of the simplication of detection mechanics, it's hard to find shadows to hide in. Actually, shadows can't be relied upon. The stealth gameplay in Double Agent is more about sticking to covers, staying far from enemies, and following the stealthy paths - usually pipes or vents - that the levels have in place. The enemy AI is just as simple as in the previous Splinter Cell titles, and sometimes to me it felt more rudimentary, and so the overall stealth gameplay is an awkward type of trial-and-error gameplay.
The final part of the game (not the epilogue section but the final part of the last mission in the terrorist base) completely abandons the series' stealth roots. In the PS2 version, it's a boss fight. It's not spectacular but it's actually not that bad. In the PS3 version though, there are like six or so guys to take out. The moment Sam takes out one guy, all the enemies know exactly where you are at and will start to swarm you. Because of the horrible frame rate issue and the fact that Splinter Cell's over-the-shoulder shooting mechanics aren't designed to be fluid like regular third-person-shooters, it took me more than ten retries to complete the very final part of the game. I'm not opposed to Splinter Cell having action sequences and boss battles, but if they exist, they need to be engaging while at the same time staying true to the feel of the game. As it stands, it was a lazy design, being totally out of place in a Splinter Cell game.
Storytelling is usually the weakest aspect of any Splinter Cell game and Double Agent's story of course is one of its weakest parts. Cutscenes are extremely brief and the narrative tying the separate missions is just barely there. Like all other Splinter Cell games, the story is serviceable. There's the bare minimum to establish Sam working undercover to bring down a domestice terrorist group who believe that their actions will liberate them from the oppressive governments of the world. I'm not too bothered by Splinter Cell games having weak stories, but the storytelling of Double Agent PS3 version is too problematic for me.
The story is serviceable until the very end. It's the ending moments of the game that really bother me. I understand Ubisoft's ultimate aim is for Sam Fischer to end up as a fugitive who is being hunted by the U.S government. That's the premise of its later title Splinter Cell: Conviction. In the PS2 version, there's a brief cutscene showing a nuclear explosion and the U.S government believes Sam to be one of the people responsible for it. It's not that convincing that would happen but alright, I could sort of buy it. In the PS3 version though, there's not even a brief cutscene like that. Sam becomes a wanted man, for what reason the game doesn't explain at all. There's a part in which Sam can either kill another U.S operative or not, but no matter what he does, CIA designates him as a suspect. That's what the story dictates, logic and cohesion be damned.
I booted up the PS3 version of Double Agent having not so fond memories of its PS2 counterpart but now, after having gotten to the ending credits of both versions, I have a newfound appreciation for the PS2 version. The "next-gen" Double Agent has prettier and wider environments, but those are its only advantages. Everything else about the game reveals worse design choices, making it the worst Splinter Cell game I have ever played.
If this was the first Splinter Cell game I played, I probably wouldn't be as disappointed. But no one should expect that. This is the fourth entry in the series. It should not have mechanics more basic than the very first game in the franchise. I have no idea what Ubisoft was aiming for with this iteration. The only thing they accomplished was releasing just another Splinter Cell game with gameplay awkwardly similair to other previous games in the series, but without any improvements and storytelling that for the first time in the series' history is worse than being serviceable. It's not a horrible game, but thinking of the other Splinter Cell games in the series, it just feels like a pointless game.