An unfortunate misstep for the series...
Playing Splinter Cell: Double Agent is a frustrating experience, but for all the wrong reasons.
Let me elaborate.
Splinter Cell: Double Agent is the fourth game in a series where the sole focus is on stealth, silent take downs, sneaking around, hiding from enemies and rappelling from roof tops. In the course of all this you are bound to trip a few alarms, alert a few enemy sentries and generally die a lot. However, the only reason you do die in this game is because you as the player weren’t smart enough, weren’t patient enough or just not quick enough to make the precision manoeuvres required to stay alive. Rarely do you die because the controls failed you — although they do feel a little imprecise at times. The fundamental gameplay of the Splinter Cell series works and has worked from day one; hence, this is why very little has changed in the gameplay department between sequels. Sure, there have been a few small details changed — for instance, in this iteration you regenerate health over time instead of picking up medpacks all over the place — but the core gameplay of sneaking, coming around behind someone and sticking a dagger in their belly is still done the same way as it has always been. Whether it’s such a good thing or not that Ubisoft has stuck with the same, general formula over four games is up for debate. I personally think it’s getting a little stale, but it’s hard to criticise what works so well. So let me just say then: the gameplay is as good or as bad as you remember it, and, for my ears, that means it’s still pretty damn good.
Unfortunately what is not so good, and what leads me to the words ‘incomplete review’, are the horrific number of bugs which ruin the experience to such a level that I don’t want to play anymore. This game, quite frankly, is a bug-filled mess. Ubisoft Shanghai should be ashamed of themselves for releasing a game in this state; it is very clearly in dire need of more thorough testing. What’s even worse is that in two years, Ubisoft still haven’t issued a patch to fix problems which have been present right from release. And this leads me to the multiplayer which has been virtually all but abandoned, in part, because of the appalling lack of support from Ubisoft in fixing certain issues. Hence, this is another reason for the ‘incomplete review’ in the brackets above. After all, if nobody is even around to play the multiplayer version of the game then how can I give you, the reader, a full and complete review of this game as a package?
As such, this review is limited to the post-patch single-player campaign up to and including level five — the infamous Shanghai level (we’ll get to the ‘why I stopped there’ later). Okay, so ignoring all the bugs and other issues, and just talking about the game itself here, I have to say it’s not half bad. The levels themselves, while not particularly original, are well designed and exciting to play through. There are some quite breath-taking set-pieces in a couple of missions. If you’re not jumping from a plane with your parachute failing you mid-flight then you’re wrenching the controls out of a dead pilot’s hands. The Shanghai level actually has one of the best moments where you have to repel down the side of a huge skyscraper. There is also a ship level (cliched, I know) as well as one level where you have to disarm a missile before it launches, and another where you have to help a fellow inmate stage a prison-break.
Stage a prison-break? Well, one of the things they have added in this game is this double agent concept. You see, after the death of his daughter. Sam Fisher goes a little off-the-rails (as you do) and decides he wants to throw his life away. Luckily Colonel Lambert, Fisher’s long-time superior and friend, is ready and waiting to give him the most dangerous assignment of his spy-career so far: an undercover mission to infiltrate and expose the ‘John Brown’s Army’, some kind of terror movement. Along the way, Fisher manages to ingratiate himself into the organisation and, as the game progresses, you are faced with choices of how far you are willing to go to earn respect with the JBA at the expense of losing the NSA’s trust and vice versa.
It seems like an interesting concept in theory but in practice it’s not. What this actually amounts to is a couple of status bars on the bottom-left corner of your HUD displaying the amount of ‘trust’ each organisation holds in you. For most of the game I had both bars maxed out and at no point during the game did I feel I had to make a hard choice. It’s not like there’s some balancing act you have to follow because the situations where you have to make a real choice are either rare, or they don’t hold enough of a consequence. As a result, this aspect of the game is pretty weak. Most of the time the separate objectives given to you by each organisation don’t even conflict, and I genuinely found myself doing both just for the challenge.
The graphics in the game are fairly decent but a little underdeveloped compared to the level of graphical detail we are used to seeing now. I do bare in mind that the game is two years old, and produced in the early period of the Xbox 360 and PS3’s lifespan. I have heard that when the game came out it was fairly demanding despite peoples’ computers overtaking the recommended system requirements. I have no idea whether there is any truth to this so I’ll just let it lie. What I can tell you is that with all settings maxed out the game ran at least 30 fps and occassionally dropped in the larger levels, but that was when there was a lot of stuff going on.
Of small mention is the sound design which is adequate, and the usual quality of voice acting which is as good as it ever was in the last few games; and that is my way of saying that it’s par for the course. The story, not that I had much time of it, is pretty dull — terrorists up to no good, it’s up to you to stop them, blah blah blah — and so I never really felt much connection to the Sam Fisher character, or any of the characters for that matter. The Tom Clancy world is on the whole pretty cut-and-dry, and so the game is rather confined to a set-number of typical real-world scenarios. Interestingly, Sam Fisher’s closest rival is Solid Snake of the Metal Gear Solid series, another stealth-em-up which enjoys popularity. Conversely though, while Sam Fisher is confined to the rather straight-laced world of the Clancy universe, Solid Snake is only confined by the fiction Hideo Kojima wrote in, and that basically means that anything goes. Cyborg ninjas, huge-ass battle-mechs, existential philosophy, psychokinesis, vampires - you name it, it’s there. And I think that’s my main issue with the Splinter Cell series as a whole: that it’s a little too realistic for its own good. Splinter Cell has zero personality, just like it’s protagonist, and as a result its always a very shallow and forgettable experience. I couldn’t tell you what the storyline was, or even what a lot of the missions were like in Pandora Tomorrow, but I can sure as hell talk about the first two Metal Gear Solid games. It has so many more ‘do you remember the bit when? Oh man, that was awesome…I didn’t even see that coming’ type moments. Splinter Cell just can’t compete on that level.
Now, onto the infamous Shanghai level that I referred to earlier. Basically, there’s a bug in the level where the game won’t allow you to crack a safe (a key primary objective in that particular level of the game). In the same level, graphics settings I had saved decided to revert back to the defaults so while in-game I changed them back. I resumed the game from the pause menu only to find that the screen had been totally graphically corrupted — unplayable. So I figured, “ok, I’ll just go back to the main menu, reload my quick save and start again”. I looked for my saved game; it wasn’t there. The game had deleted it! I look up the next closest quick save to see if I can start from there; I load the game up, and the game crashes to desktop. So I go back to the main menu — again — and I see if I can try loading from the same file. And what has happened? You guessed it — that file has also now disappeared, gone, kaput. It was at this point I decided enough was enough and gave up on the game. It seems that a lot of other players thought the same thing. I came across the euphemism ‘Shanghai’ed’ a couple of times in the Ubisoft forums, much to my amusement, referring to the point at which a player is prevented from continuing his or her game as a result of a bug.
One final note: The copy being reviewed here in the above post is the PC version of Double Agent, created by Ubisoft Shanghai and also released for the PS3 and 360. This version is apparently vastly different from the PS2, Xbox and GameCube version which was produced by Ubisoft Montreal — the studio behind Chaos Theory and the original Splinter Cell, I believe.