First Impressions: Sam on the lam...
Sam Fisher?how do I love thee? Let me count the ways?
Splinter Cell, Splinter Cell 2: Pandora Tomorrow, Splinter Cell 3: Chaos Theory and now, at last, and just in time for the new generation ? Splinter Cell 4: Double Agent. Yes, I've certainly made no secret of my love for the SC series, as I've previewed and reviewed (and wrote a couple of specialty articles on) all but the first title (damn you Gavin). Sam Fisher is ? in the humble opinion of this journalist ? a consummate hero and a deeply involving character that represents the best of what the ?art-form? that videogames may - or may not ? be, has to offer.
Back for more in Double Agent, Sam's gone off the deep-end after the tragic death of his daughter Sarah in a car accident ? made all the more painful by the fact that he was off on a mission when it happened. Sinking into deep depression, Fisher is so tortured that he's become useless to his superiors as he is unable to perform at his usually super-human level. In response, he's pulled off active duty. Languishing in despair, Lambert allows Fisher a distraction ? work as a NOC agent. Non-commissioned, this means that if Sam is caught while working undercover, the U.S. government will disavow all knowledge of him ? not the usual level of support he enjoys on a normal work day. Of course, this isn't a normal work day as Sam is tasked with infiltrating a radical left wing militia known as the JBA - John Brown's Army. After a carefully staged series of bank robberies, Sam is on top of the FBI's most wanted list and lands right where Lambert wants him ? federal prison. Not only that, but sharing a cell with a high lieutenant in the JBA. From there the adventure is on?.
Splinter Cell 4 looks to take the series along a natural evolutionary path of emotional ? and mechanical ? growth. You'll take Fisher through standard SC missions that take the stealth espionage gameplay of the initial titles into overdrive (with incredible 360 specific features such as a fully controllable skydive mission insertion and a prison break featuring a ton of onscreen characters rioting in 720p) and also spend 5 levels of the game in the headquarters of John Brown's Army. In fact, your actions during the stealth missions directly affects how Sam's story unfolds during the JBA segments ? certain areas of the stronghold will be accessible, or possibly off limits depending on the course of events played out prior to your arrival and you'll have to earn the trust of key JBA members. You'll have the ability to free-roam the compound during your time at HQ, and since you'll be conducting your business in full view of your ?fellow? soldiers, a new aspect of play is introduced - distraction. Using his gadgets, Sam can cause appliances to suddenly turn on and off, or mess with other electronic devices so he can achieve his goals undetected, even though he won't have the cover of darkness to aid him as usual. During the course of the adventure, your moral choices will loom large, as you'll have to constantly balance the objectives of the NSA against your immediate goals in the JBA. Sam may also have to face the choice of murdering an innocent or risk destroying his cover ? hard decisions that the development team have implemented with an eye toward driving a particularly emotional point home, and adding a real sense of resonant weight to the story arc of the SC series.
The 360 version of Double Agent features all the graphical bells and whistles you'd expect, and then some. Dozens of onscreen NPCs, photo-realistic environments and character animations that are second to none, Splinter Cell 4 looks to redefine next gen graphics ? not surprising considering the high bar set by the visuals of past installments. Enemy character models are loaded with polygons and polished to a fine sheen, while every detail in the environment is lovingly and realistically rendered.
While the single player campaign promises to be epic, it's the return of the Spies vs. Mercenaries multiplayer for Double Agent that really ups the ante for the series. This time it's a full 3 on 3 and both sides have improved moves and gadgets, including a drone that the mercs can send out hunting and even more acrobatic moves for the spies. A new ranking system will be in place that pits players of equal skill against each other, and gamers can move up in rank and eventually become instructors, taking fledgling agents under their wing and molding their abilities. Once again mercs will control from a first person perspective while spies remain in third, and a new series of challenge missions will allow friends to tackle objectives co-op style over Live. Overall, the multiplayer of Double Agents is shaping up to be absolutely stellar.