Splinter Cell: Double Agent (Xbox 360)
…Double Crossing Terrorism
So here we are with yet another sequel to a popular franchise, and you’d think I’d be getting tired of playing these things again and again but luckily I’ve been treated to good sequels this year to play through and Splinter Cell is no exception. What needs to be said however is that this isn’t the best I’ve experienced from the series nor is it a series that I’m entirely convinced about or enjoy as much as others but nonetheless, Double Agent was a good way to waste away the weekend.
The story kicks off not that long after the events of Chaos Theory, where Sam is flown to Iceland to take part in a kind of prologue mission to the main story that introduces the game’s main ‘villain’: Emile Dufraisne, the leader of a terrorist group named the JBA (John Brown’s Army) which seeks to rid America of it’s corrupt leaders and ‘set things right’. As the story continues Sam eventually agrees to go undercover as a employee of the JBA after he helps one of the member’s convicts escape jail. It is then up to you to work for both the JBA and the NSA according to your own will, sometimes making massive decisions such as killing members of either groups in order to gain the trust of each. Overall the story is one of the best parts of the game and has a whole lot more of a personal and emotional touch that the previous games lacked. So instead of making the decision whether or not to kill some random threat to the country, you will constantly have to gauge your own reservations and views, deciding in your own right, where you stand in the battle between the two groups that are developed fully throughout the game.
An important thing to note also is that you really don’t have to play the prequels to enjoy this story, it pretty much stands up for itself offering newcomers a great experience as well as veterans of the series. Truth be told, I haven’t actually gotten through any of the previous games but have started each of them so even though I had only basic ideas of who the characters were and what the situation was, Double Agent managed to keep me interested without getting too bogged down in back-story.
So now we move onto the core of the game: what you do, how you do things and does doing them actually make a good play experience? Well as you may or may not know, pretty much everything you do in Splinter Cell is based around espionage: Your goals will usually involve seeking out information or carrying out similar tasks under the protection of shadows, trying to remain undetected as you try to nail some terrorists. So yes, it takes a little more brainpower than Unreal Tournament in order to win the game.
There’s a lot of great reasons why this style of gameplay works and how Double Agent manages to pull it off. The main point of interest however is the non-linear style of player interaction that is permitted throughout, essentially leaving the user on their own t connect points A, B and C. So whilst I say that the game is non-linear, there are of course solid foundations that the game follows in order for it to progress otherwise it would turn into a mess and for to the game’s advantage, Double Agent manages to balance the two styles seamlessly letting the player control key moments in the game whilst still retaining it’s pre-established background.
Though the game manages to create a lot routes to completing a mission, what it does lack is any real sense of creativity in how you take out enemies and progress through your chosen routes. What I like about the Hitman series, which shares its genre with Splinter Cell, is that you can do so much to your enemies, steal their clothes and interact more with the environment. With Splinter Cell however this isn’t so accessible. In fact all you really can do is sneak up behind NPC’s and knock them out or kill them either through the same method or simply by shooting them with either of your two guns. Sure there are also mines, grenades and other handy tools which you’ll probably use once or twice but most of the time it’s usually easier just to do one of the other options and so it renders all that extra option obsolete. Furthermore, I found even less reasons to use Sam’s special goggles that you would use in previous games in order to see things more clearly. I don’t know, maybe my television was too bright but I didn’t feel the need to use any of them once throughout the entire campaign mode. So even though all these things look nice and add a ‘cool’ factor to the game, what they lack therein, is any substance and relevance to the core gameplay.
Double Agent takes place over around 8 or so missions, half of which are in the JBA HQ. Whilst the missions that you are sent on by the JBA and NSA are entertaining and well thought out, the majority of the JBA HQ missions are dull and uninspired time-wasters that get boring and repetitive after the 2 time you visit. Take into consideration that you have to do the missions it sets out to you in under 25 minutes and you have yet another tedious gameplay mechanic that hinders the game entirely, taking away from the real sense of espionage that the other ‘outside’ missions enforce. Essentially, if you enjoyed all the previous games mission design, you probably won’t like half the missions in Double Agent as they all follow the same old repetitive style that isn’t even that good in the first place.
When you’re not sneaking around and climbing drain pipes however, you’ll have to carry out some mini-puzzle game things that act as a mechanic representing the cracking of safes, hacking and dealing with mines. To be honest, none of them were appealing and most of the time simply distracting from the focus of the action going on around you.
…Shadows are your friend
Well at least the AI is a different story and while it may not be perfect, it does its job well, often surpassing the series’ predecessors: Leave a door open or turn a light off and a guard will be sure to get suspicious. Make the slightest sound whilst approaching or being anywhere near an enemy will get you caught and even though they still follow rather short routines that can be worked out fairly easily and manipulated accordingly, you will often be surprised with just how cunning they can be. Bear in mind however that you do have to play the game on the hardest difficulty setting to notice how intelligent the NPCs can be, as they can be as dumb as ever even on the normal difficulty. There’s still a certain amount of stupid AI that goes on however, which is expected I guess such as when a guard finds a body, goes on search for the killer then after about 2-3 minutes, gives up obviously thinking it’s not that important and returns to his patrol. Is it realistic? Not really but I suppose you’d have to be pretty demanding to expect such complex intelligence algorithms.
And herein lies where the game’s difficulty balance comes into play. For the most part Double Agent will provide you with a challenging experience, which each level requiring quite a few –to even hundreds- of retries typical to the series up to this point. Levels are designed specifically with the balance in mind, with cameras and security access panels blocking your way after you get by that one guard that’s been bothering you for half an hour. Yes it can be quite frustrating but I felt that for the most part, the game balances things pretty evenly as you and your skills progress. The only problem I did have was that at times, certain levels were like child-play even late on in the game and left me with little challenge at all. Then again, you could always just crank up the difficulty level (which you can do for each separate mission) to sort out that problem as the hardest difficulty smoothes out all creases.
…Beware of the high polygon clone army!
Splinter Cell not only plays well but it looks great too, showcasing some of the most realistic character models and environment designs seen in modern gaming to date. Most specifically, I enjoyed the facial expressions that characters made during certain situations, often showcasing fear and/or confusion perfectly. What the facial animation does well, the supporting NPC animation sometimes doesn’t do so well however. Often I found the animations during cut-scenes to be clunky and unfinished looking, which is more than evident when you’re using a more or less flawless Sam Fisher, flowing between key-frames seamlessly. The animation isn’t all bad though, for the majority of the time during real-time gameplay NPCs will walk around doing their patrol routes or such without much problems.
Even though the models used in Double Agent are brilliantly detailed and full of life, what does hinder it slightly is that there is a whole lot duplication that takes place in order to save memory and money. So even though you take out guard #5 in hallway #1, you’ll probably find his twin somewhere in room #27 or even halfway across the globe. Sure it is to be expected, as it’s been going on since the dawn of gaming but it just seems sort of over-used in Double Agent. The same goes for the dialogue spoken by NPCs, which often repeats itself, just like the models, even if it is a totally different character that speaks them. On a whole, there isn’t actually that much spoken dialogue that takes place during the course of the game. You will occasionally get a mission briefing, and a short reply by Sam here and there but aside from that and the odd interrogations with guards taken capture.
The music is as generic as always with Splinter Cell, but that’s a good thing in my opinion. I don’t want any distracting music playing in the background while I’m trying to focus all my effort on being silent and invisible. The music in Double Agent you probably won’t even consciously notice unless you try and hear it but it sets the mood appropriately, creating further tension to such situations where it’s needed. What also works subtlety but effectively are the sound effects made by almost everything from gunfire to windows breaking and sound of footsteps on a soaked carpet.
A major plus to Double Agent’s aesthetical side lies in the level design and overall tone of the game. For the most part levels are fantastically laid out, offering lots of creative gameplay possibilities from the user and also creating an interesting and realistic set of environments for you to engage with. Although the variety of places you’ll visit is more harshly restricted than any of the previous games, what is there really shows off the art department’s work superbly.
…Saving the country doesn’t take that long
Perhaps the greatest flaw with Double Agent is that it isn’t long before it’s over: depending on your skills level, how perfectly you want to complete the game and what difficulty setting you play it on, on average you should probably get through the game in under 20 hours, give or take 5 hours. I can see Splinter Cell enthusiasts probably getting 3 or 4 replays out of the game but for the average gamer, there’s room for one play through again if you want to perfect your missions. Once you’re finished with that however, there is always the multiplayer mode to play around with but ultimately, it’s not all that great and hasn’t improved much since the series’ last outing. So on average I’d give the game a 50 hour lifeline if you really want 50 hour after the first 20 because to be honest you’ll probably get the majority of Double Agent during that period.
While the newest game in Tom Clancy’s now famous espionage series isn’t exactly the best to come out since the original, it is nevertheless an enjoyable game that continues the story of Sam Fisher. Don’t be expecting many original or new features in Double Agent, but as they sometimes say: quality over quantity. Definitely worth a rental for all serious gamers, SCDA will give you a nice breathe of fresh air if you own a Xbox 360 and entertain you for a short but well spent time.
Story & Game Modes… 9
Gameplay & Control… 7
Graphics & Design… 8