IGN Review of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Double Agent
In the age of September 11 paranoia, an era that has engendered TV hits like 24 and created political and religious forces to separate and clash, Ubisoft may have found a strange conduit into the core of it all. Ubisoft's Shanghai Studio felt its five-year-old stealth game should explore the moral ambiguity of the professional spy and, by giving Sam Fisher a dual role as a mole in a radical organization while still serving the National Security Agency (NSA), it's changed the course of the long-standing Tom Clancy-themed series.
The game design is still familiar on the surface. Double Agent is still by and large a traditional stealth game. You'll sneak around, break necks, stab thugs in the chest, snipe, explode, pummel, and beat them. It's all in a good day's work for Sam Fisher. But by giving gamers choices eventually leading to multiple outcomes in a branching story, not only does Ubisoft solve the biggest problem embedded in all previous Splinter Cell games -- which was its empty, worthless stories -- it went one better. Double Agent digs down into the very role of duality by giving gamers hard choices to make. Whether that means confronting the option of nuking innocents on a cruise ship or betraying Fisher's associates with a gunshot to the head, it's now possible. Splinter Cell forges a path into the messy core of managing two extreme organizations without losing the trust of either one and the results are subtle and complex, engaging and even a little thought provoking.
First Time For Everything
Unlike all other Tom Clancy games (save Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter), Splinter Cell: Double Agent follows a story that's more than a series of random missions strung together. The Shanghai studio has brought to life the newly angst-ridden Sam Fisher with great voice acting by Michael Ironside, telling cinematics directed by Andy Davis, and an edgy soundtrack by Michael McCann. The first mission, essentially a trial run/training mission, quickly fills you in with all the crucial details: Sam loses his young hireling in Iceland, then loses his daughter in a car accident. It all sends him spiraling to rock bottom.
The first two levels are really set-up missions, established to prep the stage. You're hurled into prison because there is little left to live for and you befriend Jamie Washington. The young rebel belongs to John Brown's Army, a homegrown American terrorist organization with powerful allies and Red Mercury-powered weaponry. Once you break out of jail, you've started down the dark path of the JBA. You arrive at the JBA's headquarters and are given a series of tests, which, throughout the game, help leader Emile to decide how trustworthy you really are.
For a guy who loves stealth games (Metal Gear Solid, Tenchu, and Hitman to name a few), I felt the first two levels, the Finland and Prison missions, kicked off with little fanfare. The game doesn't really start getting good until the third and fourth levels. But the first levels explain Sam's dual role and set up the premise that is fleshed out through the remaining eight levels. What compels you to like or dislike the characters? What reels you in?
Choices do. Double Agent comprises six traditional levels and four very different, JBA-style missions. Every two levels or so you find yourself hanging out with the other working class radicals in the six-story JBA HQ. These are open-designed levels comprising a handful of primary, secondary and tertiary goals, the first of which need to be completed to progress, while the others are gravy. You're given tasks: complete a training course, crack a safe, build mines, or hack encrypted emails. You're given a time limit, which always exceeds the amount of time necessary to complete the task, and you're left alone to explore. What should you do first? The first task is to pass through a training course and crack a safe. With time left over you can train in the shooting range, sneak into offices and complete tertiary tasks by gaining intel, or wander around to get a feel for the environment. All you have to do is return to the original spot before the timer is up. The trick here is that you have no weapons, gadgets, nor tools, and you can't attack or hurt JBA members. Otherwise you'd blow your cover. It's real stealth -- hiding, timing your moves, and sneaking -- and it's solid.
The first time you're in the JBA HQ, you'll generally have enough time to beat the missions. Each succeeding time you return, the old missions return along with new ones tagged on. Also, each new visit you'll explore more of the territory because you'll gain access to new levels of security. Not only are these levels interesting because they're new to the series, they're intriguing on their own. They're intelligence gathering missions that compel you to explore, test boundaries and form relationships with the other JBA characters, be they good, bad or disingenuous. You'll get to listen to the asshole Moss, the JBA's strongman, and hear Jamie Washington sound like a little weasel bitch. You'll get to ogle the smart and sassy Erica, and watch the shrewd Emile run his operation. And if you play your cards right, you may find yourself in a very close encounter with Erica.
The game's "Directed Moments" are another way to pull you deeper into its emotional turbulence, and, for the most part, they do the job. "Directed Moments" are interactive situations that force you to make a tough choice in a horrible situation. The first comes when you have to decide whether to kill a young helicopter pilot. If you kill him you gain JBA trust and you kill an innocent man. If not, you lose JBA trust, gain NSA trust and save a life. Most gamers will be like, "F*&^ it! I've shot millions of virtual dudes in games before. Who cares?" You will if you want the most from Double Agent. You'll find yourself with a single gun and a single bullet a handful of times in the "interrogation room" and be forced to make tougher and tougher choices.
Directed moments appear at other times, too. While parachuting into the frozen landscape of Okhotsk, you'll have to make a quick decision, and while on the radio tower in Kinshasa, Congo, you'll have to make another biggy. While Double Agent forces you to choose a good or a bad outcome, you can switch off between the two depending on which faction requires more trust. Thus, you can get into the murky trenches of Fisher's world, burn with moral ambiguity; maybe even kill some innocent folks. If that's what it takes to get the job done.
(SPOILER ALERT!) Near the end of the game, you'll have to make three very weighty decisions. Two of them are Directed Moments, which propel you into one of three different endings. There is a great one, a decent one, and a rather non-plus ending. Each branched ending is based on the level of trust you have with each organization and who you kill or spare. These situations underscore the basic tenant of stealth games, which is to play through multiple times. When you play Hitman, don't you play the same level two or three times just to see the other way to do it? In Double Agent, your choices provide different endings, adding another reason to play the game again. This is also good because the 10-level single-player game is relatively short at nine to 12 hours (if you go straight through on Normal mode). If you're like me, you'll want to get all three of the branching endings. Then, after, you'll want to bump up the difficulty to hard and play it again. Luckily, there are nearly unlimited saves, so you can save anywhere.
I don't think any of the Directed Moments will make you cry. They probably won't make you laugh or cough up your breakfast in shock. But they do force direct engagement in new, unexplored ways. The choices you make invest you in Sam's character, the characters around you, and the outcome of the story.
Double The Intelligence?
Most games deliver a standard level of A.I. Enemy thugs provide you with enough time to shoot at them first. They reload a little slow. Their aim isn't all that good, and they don't take cover very well. Sadly, we're all instantly familiar with the pall bearer of mediocre AI when he raises his boxy head. Splinter Cell Chaos Theory on Xbox gave players a pretty easy deal when it came to AI. There weren't too many NPCs on screen and you could, more often than not, sprint through the levels shooting, stabbing, and punching enemy losers without much thought. (I can hear Ubisoft's developers crying right now, "But that's not how you're supposed to play the game.") On the whole, Double Agent draws a line in the sand. Shanghai Studios seems to be saying, if you run around and punch guys, you'll die. You'll also lose trust, and in some levels, heck, you're not even allowed to take a swing. Believe it or not, this is a good thing.
You'll notice a few improvements to the A.I. at first, while you may miss the other, subtler ones. On the surface, you'll face a half-dozen or so enemy AI in one location. You'll have to navigate six alert guards on the cruise chip to Cozumel, Mexico, dozens of randomly placed pissed off civilian gunners in Kinshasa, Congo, or a handful of thugs in Shanghai. In Double Agent's Normal mode, the enemy AI is tougher than it was in Chaos Theory. They're tougher because they aim better, their shots do more damage and they're usually alerted by one another, so they swarm.
For instance, I like to play the ultra stealthy game. I don't like to set off any alarms. Or be seen, if possible. While on a tanker in Okhotsk, I had to give that up. The first ship floor comprises about six guys, plus two or so on the second story. If you knock one out and another sees it or crosses the prone body, he'll wake the other up. In this situation, I had to take them all out. Admittedly, I wanted to puncture their faces with lead after the infuriating first half of the level, so shooting them was a nice release. Additionally, aiming in Double Agent is slightly different than it was in Chaos Theory. Successfully taking a head shot must be dead center to get the kill. If you're off center, you won't usually kill the enemy.
The A.I. isn't perfect by any means. The general rule in Double Agent is that if you're in the shadows, you can't be seen. The rule is enforced strictly as long as enemies aren't alerted, and the result is easily exploited with all sorts of silly examples. For instance, I once hid in a restricted area right beside the empty chair of a guard -- which, it just so happens, was in the shadows. I quickly realized he was walking toward me for a reason. I was inches from his chair. So I did nothing. He sat down inches from me, chilled out, got back up and walked away. He never noticed me. I might as well have been giving him a massage and he would have been oblivious. Another situation was designed to force the issue. In the third JBA HQ mission, you must check the monitor screen in a highly secure, tightly-quartered office packed with three guys. The game makes you sneak up to a computer terminal that's literally four feet from an enemy at the same terminal, hack it for a few minutes, and sneak away. This assumes the guy doesn't notice the obvious movement right next to him, the sound of a keyboard clicking away, or the beeping of cracked encryptions.
So the A.I. isn't perfect. But on a deeper level, it's a little more complicated than meets the eye. If you play through the same level multiple times, the enemy will adjust to your actions. It will take different paths to prevent you from repeating the same action over and over again. If you hide in one spot over and over again, it's likely to seek you out. This preventative design proves subtle, but in a stealth game where people tend to repeat themselves, Ubisoft is working hard to compel different behavior.
The level design in Double Agent is off the hook. I know; stupid trite phrase. But man, the variety of levels and wild situations are awesome. There are the traditional closed corridor locations that you know and love. These are found in parts of Shanghai, Iceland, and the large ships of Okhotsk and Cozumel. Then there are the open-level sections located in Kinshasa, the JBA HQ, or parts of Okhotsk. And Ubisoft often blends an open area between corridor sections. For instance, on the ship in Cozumel, you'll escape from your room, pass through a crowded dining hall, and then creep through vent shafts and hallways, only to re-appear in an open courtyard with a pool. Time for a swim!
You'll encounter vertical levels in Shanghai where you're rappelling off 100-story skyscrapers and recording conversations while being chased by helicopters. Crazy! Another great set of vertical missions takes place in the first section of Kinshasa. Here you're part of a knock-out Mission Impossible-esque mission. You'll infiltrate one of the most ridiculously armed rooms in the world, bug a tiny flower in the center of the room, and then hang on ceiling pipes for minutes while the meeting takes place below you. It's one of my favorites. The Okhotsk level shows off simple mechanics but superbly fun and imaginative design. You can swim underwater, under frozen ice, and pull off one-move drop kills. While underwater you'll spot shafts of light pouring into the ocean. These represent thin spots in the ice. Swim over to one and look up. If your timing is right, you'll see enemies walking above. When the action indicator flashes, which means an enemy is directly above, press a button and let the carnage begin. Sam bursts through the ice, yanks down an enemy, and knives him in the chest. Good God, it's fun.
The open-designed levels, especially the Kishasa level, are impressive. The Kinshasa level had the biggest affect on me. The sound effects of screaming innocents, constant gunfire, and chaos ensuing all around, are incredible. In levels like this you'll have tertiary missions such as gaining valuable info from a computer or saving a woman from a bus; these missions aren't necessary to beat the level, but they add depth to it. Also, while it's a bit of a spoiler, you'll face a directed moment on the radio tower in Kinshasa offering a bonus level -- if you pick the right choice.
At the end of each level, a percentage tally indicates your skills, removing points for being noticed, tripped alarms, found bodies, etc. Most Achievements reward you beating a level in the single-player mode, but a few select ones reward you for not being seen, knocking out 20 lights, and using a variety of gadgets. Of course, in the PC version there aren't any Achievements. So, if you're compelled to earn Achievements, you might want to try the Xbox 360 version.
The co-op modes in Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory created many a hardcore gamer. The few folks who played or still play the online co-op modes truly love those maps and missions. But the learning curve in both is steep and the cost of admission is just as harrowing. Entering a game with no knowledge of the maps against a seasoned player is just pure folly. It's a deathtrap a dozen times over. Ubisoft Shanghai wanted to make a more accessible online game and did so with Double Agent's new Mercs Vs. Spies. "Accessible?" That means the game is easy to pick up and play while still providing a good middle ground for both seasoned players and noobs to flourish in.
With the Xbox 360, the online interface is easy to use. On, PC, getting into an online match is rough. The interface is sketchy, difficult to use, and not nearly like the Xbox 360 version. You can jump into a Quickmatch, which partners you with a player of similar skills, map options and mode requests. There is Live Zone (a summary of your activities online), Custom Match, Co-op Challenges (with three levels, Onyx, Zircon, and Diamond), and Help Zone. Mercs Vs. Spies comprises about 10 maps in all.
This lone Versus game is a variation of capture the flag: Mercs must protect four terminals from spies, who are trying to retrieve data packets from said terminals. Mercs wield rifles, grenades, and flashlights, and can walk and run. When a spy is nearby, the controller will rumble, indicating some one is in your presence. The greater the rumble, the closer he or she is. Spies, which are unarmed, are lithe jackals of death, zipping through tunnels, air shafts, windows and ducts. Spies can perform stealth attacks, but only when directly behind a Merc and only when using precise timing. There are about 10 maps altogether, though only three are open from the beginning. All levels are riddled with multiple pathways, whether they're ziplines, underground ducts, rooftop vents, what have you.
Based on your exploration of your team's moves and abilities, new maps will open up. By encouraging you to try different moves, Ubisoft hands out rewards such as new skins and suits, each with slight modifications and advantages. You might unlock a suit that increases your health or stealth. You might get a Frag Doll spy-suit or even a Rainbow Six suit. It's all about experimenting and exploring.
The Co-op mode this time around is rather lackluster compared to the multiplayer games. For fans who loved SC: Chaos Theory's extensive cooperative missions, don't get your hopes up too high. The co-op missions can be played offline and online. They're designed for two players and bots are enabled for either off- or online play. Co-op consists of three mission-based levels created for two players to complete together. This scaled down mode is average at best, though worthwhile enough to play with a friend.
©2006-11-22, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved