Splinter Cell: Double Agent
2006 has already seen one longstanding gaming series revitalised successfully, and Eidos Interactive's Tomb Raider: Legend was indeed a welcome breath of fresh air to an otherwise stale franchise sagging beneath a top-heavy 'stinker count'. Now, that's not to suggest the Splinter Cell series is in any way exhibiting signs of stinking, although Pandora Tomorrow was certainly a relative low point, but some would suggest that its core 'sneak through the shadows on tiptoes' gameplay is perhaps in need of an overhaul where a creeping lack of originality is concerned. Bearing that in mind, allow me to introduce you to the veritable delights of Double Agent.
First and foremost, let's address those aspects that we've all come to know and love since the very first Splinter Cell appeared in 2002. The familiar shadow-hugging gameplay is still in attendance, still intensely satisfying, and still beautifully designed; the wealth of believable cutting edge techno gadgets are still available to aid Sam Fisher's covert shenanigans; the performances of Fisher, NSA boss Lambert, and all other peripheral characters are excellent; and the overall presentation structured around the in-game action is absolutely faultless - Double Agent is an in-house Ubisoft game, its quality was never likely to be in doubt in that respect. Okay, that suitably deals with what we would have expected from Splinter Cell. Now let's deal with the unexpected.
Most notably, Double Agent literally sees greying stalwart Sam Fisher working deep undercover for the NSA's Third Echelon, while also earning the trust of the JBA (John Brown's Army), an infamous terrorist group intent on exploding devastating bombs across select international targets. This in itself is a huge departure from the series' usual missions that involve 'just' the beloved use of calmly executed infiltration, sabotage, and espionage. From the moment Fisher is planted into Ellsworth prison (as an inmate) to bust out a JBA member, whereupon he's cautiously accepted into the terrorist organisation, the player's mission objectives instantly double up, with progressively more taxing orders issued by both Lambert and the merciless terrorist boss Emile Dufraisne. The true attraction of Double Agent exists in this displacement of loyalties and/or priorities that the player must make throughout the game, especially as decisions can prove monumental and affect the trust attributed to Fisher on both sides as well as the content of ensuing levels.
For example, when Fisher is tasked by the JBA to assassinate a CIA agent in war-torn Kinshasa, Lambert orders him not to pull the sniper rifle's trigger at the critical moment (via an orally hidden communicator). By carrying out the hit, Fisher's NSA trust meter drops significantly and he returns to the JBA hideout. Conversely, if the player wants to be the consummate good guy and not kill the CIA agent, then his JBA trust similarly plummets and the mission continues with Fisher seeking out the fleeing agent in order to rescue him, although Emile believes he's merely attempting to complete the failed hit. It's those kind of gameplay decisions that dictate the game's flow and truly define Double Agent as a standalone title that creatively transcends the series' own established blueprint.
Also, beyond the varied decision-led campaign levels, which unfold through the sweeping vistas of Shanghai, the sprawling luxury of a Mexican cruise liner, and the aggressively frosty climes of Iceland, it's the segue missions based in the JBA's New York headquarters that again reach beyond that which we already know. During these segments, which open up and grow increasingly more involved as the player moves through the game, Fisher is unable to run for want of arousing suspicion, and he's also largely stripped of vital equipment. Furthermore, the few pieces of NSA kit he does have access to must only be used out of sight of JBA members - being spotted will render a swift end to the game as the trust bar instantly empties. Yet, what little gadgetry Fisher carries is imperative for securing later JBA HQ progress, including a retinal eye scanner, finger print scanner, and laser microphone - all of which are necessary to get into restricted areas (where running and shadow hugging quickly come back into play). It's during the HQ missions where the game's tension really starts to grate on player composure through the hacking of digital keypads, manual lock picking, rolling of safe tumblers, and hurried fingering of personnel files, all in plain sight, and all while eagle-eyed JBA members are wandering in close proximity. Being caught doing any of these things results in the emptying of Fisher's trust meter, whereas getting rumbled in restricted areas will only see a slight depletion as long as Fisher beats a hasty retreat.
Fisher's mission objectives during his time in the JBA headquarters again involve a conflict of interest between the terrorists and NSA as both set him assignments that must be tackled within a certain time period as outlined by the primary JBA mission. Initially, that mission involves completing a trip-laser obstacle course, after which the player can explore any outstanding secondary objectives during the remaining time. The timed central missions evolve into an infuriating 3D Sudoku email decryption, the careful production of explosive mines, and practice on the firing range; whereas Third Echelon's own mission requirements generally see Fisher seeking out sensitive JBA information while not compromising his cover. It's all extremely involving and thoroughly good fun.
However, all the sneaking around and covert 'Mission Impossible' inverted winch dangling, skyscraper abseiling, air duct crawling, and shadow-play hide and seek does eventually take its toll. Not because the gameplay becomes dull or repetitive - the superbly creative level design renders that all-but an impossibility - but because the player will likely experience a growing need to exploit the NSA's fifth freedom. Or, in short, safely kill someone. Of course, as a JBA member, using live rounds is not a no-no, but the player's stealth performance will be almost non-existent as a result and the NSA trust meter won't appreciate a trigger-happy approach.
But with Double Agent's relentlessly nerve-jangling pace, player patience is indeed a beautifully repaying virtue. Towards the game's climax, Fisher's trusty armament will be unleashed through an explosive urban warfare mission that smacks heavily of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, and sees the player caught in the middle of vicious sunlit gun battles and destructive tank encounters - all while executing NSA and JBA assignments in tandem. And, when the game finally takes Fisher's shackles off at the JBA headquarters... well, let's just say that the joyous stream of deadly punishment doled out across an environment which by that point you know like the back of your hand, is certainly well worth waiting for.
There's little need to hark on about the game's aesthetics, they're convincingly next-generation and exude a weight of class that Ubisoft seemingly has no trouble in creating time and time again. Michael Ironside's Sam Fisher is as gruffly appealing as ever, and the animation is excellent, as is the overall detailing and the musical atmospherics and often ear shattering sound effects. But, more importantly, it's the branching gameplay that catapults Double Agent above its predecessors and marks the series as striding forward into a wealth of possibilities. Indeed, while the game's narrative does wrap itself up nicely (at around 12 hours), proceedings finish with a teasing 'to be continued' amid explosions and flailing bodies. Couple all of the above with the usual wealth of quality multiplayer goodness (Spy vs. Spy, Spy vs. Upsilon Mercenary) and Ubisoft has, without a shadow of a doubt, created a standout series title that adds a whole new dimension to Sam Fisher through the influential decisions of the player, while Double Agent also elevates Splinter Cell beyond the likes of Thief and Metal Gear Solid as the single best stealth/action hybrid that retail shelves have to offer.