Review: Deep Cover...
Sam Fisher's first sortie into next gen mission territory goes off with a big bang ? no, not that kind you filthy pervert, but a serious bang nonetheless. With a killer single player campaign, insane graphics and a revamped multiplayer mode that works better than you should expect it to, Splinter Cell: Double Agent does the 360 proud.
Sam's off on a mission in Iceland working with a new Third Echelon Splinter Cell agent when things go sour (poor rookie). By the time Lambert picks him up at the extraction point Sam learns a terrible truth. His daughter Sarah has been killed by a drunk driver. With nothing left to live for, Sam takes the most dangerous assignment possible. Arrested after a series of carefully staged bank robberies (how cool would that be to play? Fisher going all out, knocking over high tech banks) Sam is thrown into Ellsworth State Penitentiary where he befriends a domestic terrorist by the name of Jamie Washington. Jamie's a member of The JBA (John Brown's Army; named for the infamous 1800's American abolitionist who advocated insurrection as the way to abolish slavery) and once Sam helps him to escape the prison, he's introduced to the leader of the terrorists, Emile Dufraisne and gets a quick invite to join. After that it's a careful balancing act to complete standard SC style missions for both sides and gather information at the JBA headquarters, all the while cautiously maintaining both the trust of The NSA, and John Brown's Army.
So Splinter Cell is back in its fourth iteration, and while it definitely represents well for the series, in many ways it's simply Chaos Theory with a fresh coat of paint. Don't take that the wrong way though. The team has obviously gone to great lengths to add all the shaders and textures they could, not to mention the beautiful bloom lighting and soft cloth physics that round out the eye candy with spectacular results. Sam's visage looks utterly real when you zoom in close with the camera - his skin, hair, and the scars on his face presenting an image that's quite close to photo-realism. In fact, all of the character models look excellent, with fine detail applied to uniforms and weaponry and nicely realistic animations. The environments are gorgeous, with soft shadowing, all manner of sweet particle effects and subtle detailing on every surface. From an incredible infiltration onto an ice-bound tanker in the Sea of Okhotsk to an insane adrenaline rush rappelling down the face of a skyscraper in Shanghai during a fireworks show, there's no shortage of globe hopping this time around.
The missions are nicely designed for the most part, though there are frustrating occasions where the objective isn't presented quite as clearly as it ought to be. The AI is generally solid, but still suffers from the same disease the other games did; where-in a guard may stand right next to you and not notice at all, or suddenly pinpoint you from 30 yards away with ridiculous ease. As well, a few glitchy animations result in characters floating above steps as they traverse them, but these instances are pretty few and far between, and don't detract from gameplay much, if at all. The load times in single player are excruciatingly long the first time you load up your game though, so bring something to read. Double Agent features checkpoints, but also sports a save anywhere feature that helps cut down on frustrating re-tries.
Sam's equipped with his usual array of gadgets ? pistol with microwave emitter for disrupting lights, OPSAT, rifle microphone, optic cable and the famous SC-20K assault rifle complete with zoomed scope and alternate firing modes featuring air foil rings and sticky shockers, not to mention my old favorite, the sticky cam. He's also got his night/heat and wave vision modes ? these allow him to see in the dark, pick up body heat signatures and instantly spot electrical devices respectively. Sam also retains all of his cool moves, including his ability to take human shields (and interrogate) move bodies, duck against a wall, roll, wall-hang, zip-line, jump, rappel, swim, split jump and shoot while hanging upside down. He can also break down doors, whistle to attract guards, break and pick locks, crack a safe or snap an enemy's neck from above while inverted. In addition, a few very sweet new moves have been added to Sam's arsenal such as the corner grab, water stealth kill and ice smash kill. To answer your question: yes, they're as cool as they sound. The first time you swim under ice and break your way through to grab a thug and drag him down, you'll be hooked. While there are still plenty of dark industrial complexes where Sam can sneak around in the shadows, much of the single player campaign saddles you with wide open territory and broad daylight. The Kinasha mission in Africa is a prime example, as Sam must make his way towards his objectives through the dusty streets while full scale warfare erupts all around him. The tanker infiltration on the Sea of Okhotsk takes place during the day, but the harsh environment is blanketed with a thick, vision obscuring blizzard that makes things both easier, and more difficult for Sam.
Each mission tasks you with objectives from The JBA and Third Echelon, so you'll need to be careful in balancing your allegiances. During the open-ended stages which take place at JBA headquarters, you're given a time limit in which to perform a function for the terrorists, all the while having ulterior motives in the form of NSA objectives. For example, the first time you wind up at headquarters, you're asked to run an obstacle course and crack a safe, for which you have about 30 minutes. You're left alone to complete the task, so you can essentially do what you want during that time (though you will have to be careful so as not to get caught snooping) but come a half hour and you'd better be back at the starting point where Carson Moss (one of Dufraisne's henchmen) expects you to be. In this instance Lambert wants you to plant a bug on the rooftop antennae of the complex and introduce a virus to the JBA servers. In my first run through I only completed the safe cracking and antennae breach; I never got to the server room. I lost NSA trust but gained JBA trust (represented by two meters which appear onscreen during crucial decisions). Had I accomplished everything I would have gained trust from both sides, but as it was my reputation with both groups was still comfortable enough. Trust is also a factor at the end of this level, as you're taken into a back room and asked to execute the news-copter pilot you jacked escaping from Ellsworth. It's an intense scene, and it really immerses you into the game world as everything is focused on the struggling prisoner and his pitiful cries?.strong stuff for sure, and a real emotional involvement.
Sound wise the game fires on all cylinders, with great music, excellent voice acting (particularly Ironside, who is
Sam Fisher, he owns the role) and the digital sounds of warfare and espionage (what the hell does espionage sound like anyway?) rocking your surround sound system throughout the adventure. Technically the game is solid, with a few glitches and slight lag issues during multiplayer (which Ubi Soft has already addressed with a patch at the time of this writing).
Speaking of the multiplayer, while the online experience is somewhat different this time around, many veteran SC players will find the streamlined game more fun with a better flow, though admittedly there will be some strong hatred from hardcore fans of aggro-spying. The online portion now features 3 vs 3 action ? 3 Upsilon mercenaries against 3 Shadownet spies. Gone are most of the spy gadgets, merc mines and other standard gear from Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory. In fact, it's now pretty difficult for a spy to openly take on a merc at all, and this has been addressed by balancing the spies with faster, much more nimble moves. Through a combination of the right bumper and face buttons, a spy can now fly through a level, rolling under cover, diving through windows and other small openings, and quickly pulling themselves up and into the rafters to narrowly escape danger.
The levels are designed extremely well, with lots of vertical climbing space and tons of hiding spots. The mercs now have a remote drone that can chase spies into tight spaces like heating ducts and other claustrophobic areas, and they're powerfully armed and protected with body armor, grenades and a muscular assault rifle. The maps are great, with a nice variety right out of the box and certainly more to come through downloadable content. The spies can now hack terminals from a distance (though the further away they are the slower the hacking goes) and must eventually make it back to their extraction point with the captured data. Co-op makes a return, and while it's fun, it's far less mission based than last time, but still worth checking out. As a huge fan of the multi in the last two games, I have to say I'm extremely impressed by the evolution shown here, and I've been having a blast on Live ducking mercs and killing spies.