Review: Sam Fisher has his back to the wall once again
What was it that guy in Scream 2 said about horror movie sequels? The exact quote must be out there somewhere on the Internet, but what it boiled down to was that the sequel has to top the original on all fronts (ed. note: I love Scream, so from memory I know the quote you're looking for is ?More blood, more gore, carnage candy
.?), that it has to give the viewer the experience of the first movie, and then some. Video game sequels certainly face the same problem. The industry can try and exploit past successes by repackaging old characters, situations, and gameplay, but the play for a guaranteed sale only ends up raising the bar of player expectations.
About four years ago, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell came out of nowhere and knocked players head-over-heels. The last stealth games we had seen for the PC were Thief and Deus Ex, and super agent Sam Fisher took their brand of stealth gameplay and brought it into the twenty-first century with improved visuals based on the Unreal 2 engine and a high-tech espionage storyline, not to mention a few gadgets that made stealth feel brand new again. In short, it was exactly what stealth gamers needed, whether they knew it or not. And when Pandora Tomorrow was released a year later, it added another element that stealth gamers had been looking for since the first Thief release 7 years earlier: multiplayer. While the single player campaign was largely a rehash of the original, the addition of head-to-head stealth gave enthusiasts a whole lot to love. Two more sequels later, Ubisoft is at it again with Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent.
In Double Agent, the legendary Sam Fisher returns in his role as a high-speed, low-drag NSA agent out to make the world safe from a terrorist threat. His job is to surveil an underground organization called John Brown's Army, a group hell-bent on making some kind of political statement using a deadly bomb, lots of guns, and a team of very intense men and women. While their exact politics are unclear, Fisher's boss, Lambert and the other folks at Third Echelon are convinced that the U.S. is in danger, so this time, they task Fisher with infiltrating the terrorists from within. He poses as a criminal, spends some time in the big house, and helps one of the terrorists escape, winning their trust in the process. The ensuing missions have Fisher carrying out JBA tasks while secretly collecting information on the group, reporting back to Lambert, and generally throwing a monkey wrench into things.
The problem is, Fisher's personal life is in turmoil. In one of the early missions, a green NSA agent too eager for his own good gets himself killed needlessly. And on top of that, Fisher's daughter is killed by a drunk driver, throwing the top agent into a spiral of disillusionment and turmoil that ends in his casting aside his signature night vision goggles. From that point on, it's up to the player to decide who will be Sam's new master: the NSA or the JBA.
And it's that choice that adds the main new gameplay mechanic to Double Agent. Each organization, the NSA and the JBA, monitors a trust level for Fisher. Successfully completing a mission raises that organization's confidence in Sam, while failure . . . well, you get the picture. Trust serves as an alternative to a health bar: if either organization's trust in Fisher drops to zero, it's game over. In fact, trust is more important in Double Agent than health, since just a few shots can easily kill Sam. Getting discovered and then taking fire from more than one opponent almost guarantees a quick death, so it's imperative to keep out of the enemies' line of sight. The HUD doesn't even include a traditional health bar?instead, a small shield icon flashes black when th player is gravely wounded. That won't last for long, though. Double Agent does away with health packs in favor of an automatic regeneration feature like the one used in Call of Duty 2. It's one of a few concessions to gameplay in this latest version of Splinter Cell that trump realism.
Although it isn't too tough to maintain the trust of both organizations, the game does offer several key choices that up the trust with one group at the expense of the other, and these key moments determine which ending the player will see. Playing for the NSA ending gives the player a bonus mission that runs after the credits. It should be noted that Ubisoft released two very different versions of this game, a next-gen version for the PC, PS3 and the 360, and a standard version for the Xbox, PS2, Wii and GameCube. While the overall stories are very similar, the engine (and therefore the graphics) are different for the two versions, as is the layout of each individual level and the multiplayer experience.
In general, the gameplay of this sequel will be very familiar to anyone who has played any earlier Splinter Cell incarnation. The ?rules of stealth? haven't changed at all: quiet and invisible are always the goal. Walking at a crouch is quieter than walking upright, and moving slower is quieter than moving quickly. Crouching in a deep shadow renders Fisher invisible while leaning with his back to the wall lowers visibility in less ideal situations. The player controls Fisher's pace using the mouse wheel, therefore maintaining the first Splinter Cell's unique contribution to the stealth genre. By now, the Splinter Cell stealth gameplay falls into the ?if it ain't broke, don't fix it? category. The controls handle well, making it easy to get Sam where you want him with a minimum of fuss. It's also very easy to get him to interact with certain elements of the environment. When he's near something that he can use, like a computer, a door, or a lock, a bell rings and a large icon appears in the center of the screen. It's easy, but perhaps a bit too much so, since it gives the game something of a dumbed-down feel as the icons and sound effects scream for player attention. It can also be a bit annoying sometimes if you don't hit your mark properly to activate the trigger or if two triggers happen to overlap, which can occur if someone is knocked out or killed near a trigger location.
This version keeps up the always entertaining lockpicking, safecracking and hacking minigames from earlier versions. They get the players involved in the action rather than just having them wait for a status bar to fill. They also leave a hazy view of the game world visible behind the minigame, so things can get tense as you're trying to solve the puzzle quickly while watching someone approach your position. Some players have reported a glitch that occasionally causes the safecracking minigame to ignore keyboard input, but the simple fix is to use the mouse wheel to make sure Sam's walking speed is cranked up above the minimum. One odd minigame has the player solving a sudoku-like 3D puzzle in order to decrypt a coded message. Luckily, though, failing that one only results in a bit of lost trust. The nice thing about all of these puzzles is that they integrate well into the overall context of the game, and the player must accomplish them while life in the game world continues.
Along these lines, Double Agent offers several timed levels in which the player receives a set of objectives and then is cut loose to accomplish them however he or she chooses. In the first of these missions, Sam is tasked with running a short obstacle course in the JBA HQ in order to prove his skills to the terrorists. At the same time, Fisher receives several tasks from the NSA that ask him to gather information on the JBA operatives. It's up to the player to figure out how to satisfy both the JBA and NSA goals in the 25 minutes that the level allots. These timed levels offer a bit of variety from the usual ?move from point A to point B? type missions that characterize most of the Splinter Cell catalog, while also giving the sense of life to the JBA organization: they're doing stuff, Sam's doing his thing, and life goes on.
Like Chaos Theory before it, Double Agent tries to for more open-ended level design by offering multiple paths to mission success. For instance, an early level has Fisher swimming underneath an ice shelf where an enemy encampment is located and gives him the choice of entering the camp by either climbing out of the water at the edge of the ice or breaking through the ice at several locations. There's also the option of playing the game more stealthily and avoiding all contacts, or by making one's way through the level by killing and knocking out guards along the way, though it's probably not enough variation to make the single-player campaign interesting enough for multiple play-throughs. The game responds with a stealth score, a percentage that gets knocked down for actions it considers less stealthy, e.g. you'll lose points for killing a guard. The score feels somewhat tacked on, though, since it doesn't affect play at all. It's quite possible to receive a negative score while successfully completing all mission objectives. Despite these attempts at nonlinear play and multiple options, Double Agent plays a whole lot like the earlier Splinter Cell installments, with the usual slow-paced hiding and missions that take place in the shadows. It isn't until near the end of the game that things change drastically, when the JBA drops Fisher in the middle of a coup in Kinshasa in the middle of the day. Being in the caught up in other people's firefights really changes the game's dynamic and ramps up the excitement level as you sneak behind, between and across the front lines.
While those final levels are as much about action and excitement as they are about stealth, the rest of Double Agent works hard to target an adult audience. It means that we lose Crystal Method's ?Name of the Game? mood in favor of more cinematic, orchestral theme music. Everything in the game, from the menus to the music to the storyline suggests a respect for the gamer and creates an aura of seriousness. For instance, the game's training level doesn't walk the player through every single step that the player must take. Instead, it's more like a sandbox where the player can try out the controls and get a feel for some of the basics. The game itself doesn't offer a minimap or objective pointers to handhold the player guiding Fisher to his goals. The closest it comes is a very general 3D map that's tough to use and a bit buggy but does give the general layout of the area of operations. The only real concession in this area is the context-sensitive use key already mentioned. It's just a little too easy to hit the space bar and watch Sam grab a guy, spin him around, and then hold him in a wrist lock while pumping him for information, and it stands out in a game that doesn't coddle its players.
Double Agent is a pretty tough game, especially when it comes to the multiplayer offerings. The multiplayer game looks and plays somewhat differently from the single-player campaign?they were even designed by different studios (The next-gen single-player is out of Ubisoft Shanghai, while the multiplayer comes from Ubisoft Annecy). For instance, the multiplayer doesn't arm the spies at all?their only defense is to keep to the shadows or employ a few last-ditch defensive weapons like flash grenades and smoke grenades to help stay hidden. Also, they can choose to equip themselves with health kits in case of injury. Multiplayer looks a bit different, offering for instance an optional depth of field effect that blurs distant objects while keeping nearby ones sharp. It's a cool effect, but one that players might not choose to use, since it seems like it would make distant enemies harder to spot.
Like earlier Splinter Cell multiplayer incarnations, this one pits unarmed spies against armed mercenaries in huge levels that offer plenty of opportunity for hiding, sneaking, and hacking. There's one gametype here, and it requires the spies to infiltrate a building guarded by the mercenaries, although it can be played in both PvP mode and co-op against bots. Once inside, the spies must locate one of four computer terminals and download data files which they then must return to their extraction point. This is a challenging game, one that really requires players to know their maps, not to mention their own abilities and their enemies' weaknesses. The best strategy for the spies is simply to stay out of sight, which means they can't afford to wander around in search of terminals and risk going out into the open. Meanwhile, the mercenaries really need to know the danger areas on the map, the places where the spies can easily sneak close to a terminal, download part of a file, and sneak away. They also need to know how to get quickly from one terminal to another when a hacking alarm goes off.
Overall, Double Agent offers plenty for the multiplayer junkie, including unlockable skins, medals and stat tracking to record your progress. It also has a built-in ranking system that compares scores from players around the world. Unlike a lot of games in which the multiplayer feels like an afterthought, Double Agent's six-player head-to-head matches are well fleshed-out, and could easily be sold as a stand-alone game. It can be hard to find a game, though, so it might be a good idea to arrange games with friends until you can build a community. The game offers an extensive set of community controls, including friend tracking and the possibility of creating a squad for team play.
Splinter Cell has always pushed the boundaries in the graphics department, and Double Agent is no exception. Sam works his magic in an assortment of locations, ranging from cramped corridors to panoramic views from the tops of buildings, from war-torn streets to silent waters beneath Arctic ice and the sheer variety keeps things visually interesting. Double Agent uses some of the latest graphical effects like HDR lighting and the latest shaders to make things look good, and it certainly pays off by giving the environments a realistic feel with plenty of atmosphere. Graphics and design combine in this game to give the sense of being in a real place as opposed to a contrived ?level? with limited options and a proscribed path. There are a few annoying graphical bugs, however. The various characters, especially Sam, clip through environmental features frequently. One of the most distracting of these occurs when the light from enemy flashlights clip through doors, because it seems like they're able to locate Fisher even through the door. Other minor annoyances are things like the occasional enemy who gets hung up on something in the environment, yet keeps walking in place, and the audio glitches that cause stuttering and events without accompanying sounds. Still, these problems are infrequent enough that they don't ruin the overall experience.
Some of the best visual work is in the character models, so that details like a small scar on Fisher's forehead and creases around his mouth are clearly visible. Clothing and weapons details are all top-notch and really give the characters a life of their own. All this graphical goodness comes at a price, however, in the form of steep system requirements, long load times and occasional framerate hiccups. Minimum specs include a 3.0 GHz PIV processor, 1GB of RAM, and a DirectX 9.0C compatible video card with at least 128MB of RAM. Fortunately, the in-game menu offers a lot of options for dropping visual detail in order to improve performance. Lowering all shadow detail and antialiasing really improves game performance, though of course those are also the settings that help the game look its best. The multiplayer game seems much less prone to these problems, perhaps because it seems to include fewer of the graphical bells and whistles. The character models, for instance, don't seem nearly as detailed as the single-player version.