This month we arrive at the 4 year anniversary of the critically acclaimed stealth series from Ubisoft, Tom Clancyâs Splinter Cell. Throughout the years, we saw hardened NSA spy Sam Fisher assist the Third Echelon in the on-going information war inside government infrastructures and we saw rise to the widely popular Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer, almost seeing Samâs adventures take a backseat to the action. With this latest entry in the popular spy series, Ubisoft is shaking things up a bit for the aging NSA agent, but is Mr. Fisherâs next-gen debut any different from his previous outing?
Letâs take a step back and see how the spy series developed with time. This first entry in the Splinter Cell series received awards aplenty with its almost flawless presentation of international espionage â from the AIASâs âInteractive Achievement Awardâ to a plethora of E3 awards. Back then, Splinter Cell only contained a linear 8-10 hour single player campaign, but many gamers were hooked. Using darkness and shadows to avoid detection from patrolling guards wasnât innovative but Ubisoft had delivered a highly polished title that showed promise. A sequel was a no-brainer for Ubisoft and of course playersâ expectations were high. Two years later, they released Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow to the masses. This new title was not just a successor with a brand new coat of paint but forged a revolutionary multiplayer that delivered a unique blend of FPS run-and-gun gameplay with strategic and stealth elements. For many gamers it was the ultimate game of Cat and Mouse over Xbox Live. Then came Chaos Theory, which made improvements to both the singleplayer and multiplayer portions of the game, refining the game with the knowledge of what worked and what didnât. So where does Ubisoft go for their next installment?
Prison. Sam Fisher dons the numbered orange jumpsuit as Ubisoft shakes up his life by bringing tragedy and in turn brings gamers to new locations and pits them in a struggle much different than what they had been accustomed to. Samâs life has been dealt a bad hand with the loss of his daughter. Overcome with depression, Samâs life and career begin to slip; Fisherâs Third Echelon boss, Irving Lambert, approaches the destroyed spy with a NOC (non-official cover) assignment that has him adopt the identity of a former NSA agent whoâs turned to a life of crime. Sent to Ellsworth prison, Sam must find a way to infiltrate the John Brownâs Army and gain their trust; the goal to uncover the sinister secrets the JBA is hiding.
Though the first Iceland level is very much a real-time training mission (in addition to the 2 training exercises players can try out), once Sam hits the pen players will follow him along a 10 mission campaign that is all about balance. Each mission is composed of many objectives; both mandatory and optional. Completing these objectives will increase your reputation with the specific faction. If you choose to skip them you may take a minor reputation loss. There will be moments during the campaign where your alliance will be put to the test; the JBA will request that you do some âchoresâ for them and your decisions will control your fate. Will you blow your cover or will you meet the JBAâs demands. Itâs a great concept, at least towards the end. The first of these moments will probably mean nothing to gamers â after all, killing a random (and unimportant) character wonât make much of a difference. That aside, these scripted climatic moments add a bit of much needed replay value to the game.
Apart from the reputation balancing and climatic decisions you must make throughout the story, much of the single player campaign is similar to the previous Splinter Cell games; players control Sam Fisher in attempt complete set objectives by using stealth and his assortment of gadgets (which you will continue to unlock by completing optional objectives). Just about every gadget that a spy could possibly want is available at your finger tips and all of Samâs stealth and assault maneuvers remain untouched from Chaos Theory. The level design is great as expected from the development team and gives you enough room to breathe in the environments without feeling too confined to the linear mission structure (finish the primary objective and they give you a new one). Some missions I enjoyed more than others, particularly the Okhotsk level â but overall a lot of them make the campaign worth playing.
My concerns with the campaign centered on the AI and the JBA headquarters levels. Regardless of your difficulty, the AI still feels a bit too clumsy. One perfect example of the inadequate AI was when I was floating under the ice at the beginning of the Okhotsk mission pulling one of the guards down into the water and killing him right in front of his cohort (as they were talking to each other nonetheless). His friend clearly saw me and was alerted to my presence, yet never did anything about it and I was free to climb out of the ice and walk to him and take him out without being touched. It was as if he saw what happened, couldnât find me in 2 seconds, and then ignored what happened and went about his business.
The JBA headquarters missions from what I understand have been receiving much flak from gamers who have been pounding their way through the campaign. I found these missions to be filled to the brim with diversions like the rifle training mini-game and the mine construction mini-game. Four out of ten missions over the course of the campaign take place in the New York headquarters for the JBA and some of them even share similar (or identical) objectives that would likely have been better served if they had been merged into 1 or 2 missions making it for a less repetitive experience.
Complaints aside, the campaign does bring something new to the table and at the same time freshens up something old. It wasnât as much of a departure as I had thought it would be. The repetitive JBA HQ missions and clumsy AI donât hurt the overall package too badly. In fact, I found the single player to be enjoyable and Iâm sure many players would. It may not have revolutionary story telling, but itâs still a very well done campaign.
Splinter Cellâs Multiplayer features have often been the legs for each of the entries in the series with the exception of the original game. While the multiplayer portion of the series was widely successful, Ubisoft and the gaming community were aware of its flaws. One such flaw was the steep learning curve, evident with both Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory where new players often found themselves outmatched by the veterans immediately upon joining online matches. Hardcore fans of the series had spent their time honing their skills within the maps and making use of the spy and mercenary abilities to effectively cause new players to throw down their controllers in anger. The community grew attached to the deathmatch mode and only a couple of the maps (one that quickly comes to mind; Warehouse). With Double Agent, Ubisoft Montreal chose to make some changes to the formula with a streamlined approach that removes the deathmatch mode in favor of the objectives system that was originally planned as the focal point of the multiplayer portion of the series. Unfortunately, like with all changes, not everyone is going to be pleased with the results.
In effort to make Double Agentâs multiplayer much more accessible to new players Ubisoft has added a video drone that explains the rules of the game at both the Spy and Mercenary spawn points as soon as you enter the match. Essentially, the multiplayer component is based on 3 Spies versus 3 Mercenaries.
The Spyâs objective is to infiltrate the compound and hack files from the designated locations around the map and then return safely to the video drone with the completed file. In the top left corner of the UI players will notice a 3D map that indicates the color-coded hacking locations relevant to your position. This allows even the newest of players to learn the map much easier than before, as each of the important locations are right there in your UI. As for the play style of the spies team, they act much differently compared to Sam Fisher. Relying more on acrobatics and speed, these spies react much more fluidly to your actions. The multiplayer maps are designed to be very vertical, allowing the spies to jump roof to roof and scale the walls rather quickly with well placed ladders, pipes, and vents. The plethora of gadgets from Chaos Theory are no longer available to the spies, as players are given a choice between 4 different gadgets; smoke bombs, flash bombs, a jamming device, and a healing syringe. By returning to a supply crate located next to the video drone, players can always replenish their supplies or switch to an alternative gadget but can only hold 1 particular gadget at a time. Some players whoâve become attached to the classic âSticky Shockerâ gun may be disappointed that they can no longer take on the mercenaries head-on. Thereâs no effective way of taking down a mercenary who is aware of your presence other than getting behind him and snapping his neck, which forces you to rely on your stealth abilities. Get in, hack, and get out is your primary goal. Itâs certainly a slightly different approach to the multiplayer that the past 2 entries in the series never moved to, and if you stick with it you will find it very rewarding. Hacking a complete file and remaining unscathed is an accomplishment and players will strive for this, rather than silently stalking mercenaries for long periods of time.
On the other side of the coin we have our mercenaries who are not too much different from their Chaos Theory counterparts. Their objectives remain unchanged. Everything of course is explained via the video drone at the mercenary spawn point. It is a rather simple goal; stop the spies from hacking files at all costs. Like the spies, the mercs have a UI that showcases the hacking locations that will flash when being hacked so that the mercs can fall back and close-in on the spy. Unlike the spies, mercs play in a first person perspective giving them greater control over their shots. The mercenaries still operate using a high tech suit that allows them to see hacking spies in the dark as well as a motion sensor that lights up around a spy when they are in sight. They are also equipped with an assault rifle loaded with a grenade launcher, a flashlight, and an endless amount of clips. The flashlight has received an upgrade since Chaos Theory; allowing players to adjust it to provide either close quarters or distant lighting, which can come in handy when sniping or searching a small room for a nearby spy. In addition to these abilities, mercs are informed of a spyâs presence nearby using their equipmentâs innate proximity detection. The mines and other gadgets from previous Splinter Cells have been removed in favor of a single gadget â the drone. The mercs can launch a drone that is operated much in the same way as the mini-helicopter gadget from EAâs James Bond 007: Nightfire. Once launched, it can be flown within the area and can be detonated in order to take out those pesky spies. Itâs a useful tool that you will find yourself using often as spies will attempt to hide and hack in hard to reach locations. Do I miss the old gadgets? Yes, but at the same time the drone and Double Agentâs changes make for a very different play style and most players, including myself, will grow to love the current setup.
As for the multiplayer modes and features, it is a very limited package in comparison to the previous Splinter Cell titles. The omission of the Co-Op campaign is a bit confusing, considering I found it a worthy addition to the Splinter Cell series. We saw the single player campaign, the co-op campaign, and the multiplayer component all as unique features in the game; each with their own maps, storylines, and memories. Double Agent presents a new addition to the series, the Co-Op Challenge system. Not much different from the ordinary multiplayer component, the Co-Op Challenges place you and a buddy or two against AI mercenary bots. The mechanics are identical essentially, except that you are given objectives that must be completed; such as hacking as much as you can for the highest score. These challenges are rewarded with medals (bronze, silver, gold) that will unlock achievements, extras, and open up new and more difficult challenges for you and your friends to try out.
Online matches rely on a single mode in either ranked or unranked, this is due to the streamlined approach Ubisoft took when developing Double Agent. Players may miss the deathmatch component, as it was a very popular part of the online component in previous games. The good news is that whatâs left of the online matches is very solid. The major issue as far as I could tell was the obvious inability to create a public match (unless you are lucky enough to do a Quick Match and end up the host randomly of course). See, they give you the option to create a private match (with all slots reserved for friends you must invite) but never a room that you can fully control and open to the public. Itâs omission is odd considering the fact that it was available in the previous 2 games. Sure thereâs the Squad feature which allows you to recruit several players in your squad to always have on hand to work together against another Squad. Itâs an interesting feature, just underdeveloped. In the end itâs really about completely random matches. Having used the plethora of options and setups in Chaos Theory, Double Agentâs match system is a step backwards.
When playing an online match, if you are unable to fill the mercenary team with players, the option to include AI bots is available. This does come in handy, as finding willing mercenaries is tough task. Not many players want to take on the role of a mercenary. The issue really hasnât changed from Chaos Theory so this comes as expected. As for the bots themselves, at their lower levels, they are relatively easy to fool, but later on (in their higher difficulties) they become completely immune to smoke and flash bombs, which is frustrating. Getting behind them following a grenade is near impossible as they walk backwards and continue facing your direction and shooting at you, not allowing you to get behind them â regardless of the fact that they should be temporarily blinded. Itâs this âall-knowingâ AI that brings down the experience with the bots.
Overall, the online experience is hampered by a lack of match options, lag, and the very streamlined approach that does about as much good as it does bad. Often I found myself standing behind enemies unable to grab them to snap their neck. From what I heard from other players, many experience this in every-day matches. Unless you are the host, every other player suffers from a slight delay that makes it almost impossible to snap anyone necks and once-in-a-while causes a glitch that stops players from using hacking devices. The multiplayer is superb, but not every match is a pleasant experience due to bugs, glitches, whatever it may be. Itâs a bit sporadic, as some nights I found myself frustrated due to the fact that hosts continued abandoning sessions, players were unintentionally kicked, or my grabs as a spy were delayed. It disappoints because behind these annoying issues, thereâs an excellent game to be played. If only these problems were cleared up. A patch, maybe? Should we expect to pay for a flawed title, only to receive a patch months later to fix the problems? It begs those questions and more, but those are a whole different debate.
Even back on the original Xbox, the Splinter Cell series was known for its realistic graphics engine and Double Agent is no different. As you would expect, a majority of the character models are well done, even Sam Fisherâs various attire are all meticulously detailed, my personal favorite being the white stealth suit he uses during the Okhotsk supertanker mission. The level designs however are hit-and-miss. Some environments are quite elegant, while some others just donât stick out as anything fresh or exciting. For instance, I found myself disappointed with the Shanghai mission. Shanghai is a breathtaking city and you will certainly realize it as you are rappelling down the building; but once you make your way inside you enter a seemingly mediocre hotel. Thankfully this is not a reoccurring theme considering missions like Okhotsk, Cozumel, and Kinshasa are outstanding examples of Ubisoftâs fine work.
Side by side, Double Agent compared to itâs predecessor Chaos Theory, the graphics donât make such an incredible leap. This may disappoint some considering Double Agent is the first of the next-gen Splinter Cell games. A lot of players had high hopes for this Xbox 360 outing. However, when you look at the difference between Splinter Cell 1 and Chaos Theory youâd be amazed what developers are capable of once a console enters itâs later generations.
Anyone familiar with Michael Ironside, the voice behind agent Sam Fisher, knows very well that this man embodies each of his characters and without a doubt can be counted on for taking even the most poorly written lines and delivering them to the best of his abilities. You may notice that much of Fisherâs banter is missing â which may be due to the fact that Samâs daughter has been murdered and it brings a side of Sam players have not seen before, but Ironside still manages to pull out a great performance. Don Jordan (Lambert), Jesse Burch (Williams), Rachel Reenstra (Enrica), and the other voice actors handle their parts as expected. As for the other bodies in the Splinter Cell universe, most of them are acted well enough to get by. Some of the enemies respond to interrogations with jokes that tend to be a bit corny considering the circumstances - having a knife to your throat doesnât exactly come off as the greatest time to practice your comedy routine.
When guards are alerted to your presence you will hear a high pitched ring that will inform you of their movement as well as a change in the background music to suit the potential danger â very fitting. The important sounds; gun shots, grenades, the shattering of glass, and the choking of your victims are all great as expected. The array of sound effects within Double Agent get the job done nicely even if the majority of them are recycled from the previous Splinter Cell outings. Overall, you wonât be displeased with what you hear in SC:DA.
(Note: Iâve heard of some issues with sound glitches in both multiplayer and single player but have yet to encounter any problems in that area. Regardless, Iâm sure if there is a minor problem with sound effect glitches, Ubisoft will take care of it eventually.)
I honestly came into this review wanting to score Double Agent much higher than I eventually did. Ubisoft has concocted an excellent stealth title worthy of the Splinter Cell series. With SC:DA as the spring board for the series on next-gen consoles, I am confident the creative folks in both the Shanghai and Montreal offices will be able to take Sam Fisher in a direction that stealth fans will love. These folks took a chance at trying to invigorate the franchise to appeal to a larger audience with a streamlined approach and brought the Splinter Cell series two steps forward into the next-gen market. The unfortunate part of this package is that not everyone will take to the changes as well as Ubisoft had hoped. Double Agent had a strong act to follow, as Chaos Theory was an excellent entry in the series and was a very well rounded title. In this case, Ubisoft may have put too much effort into trying to re-invent the wheel. At itâs core, Double Agent is a terrific game and I would definitely recommend it to all action and stealth genre fans, but the stifled campaign and clumsy multiplayer presentation hinder it from being the stellar game everyone was hoping for.
Final score- 8 out of 10 (How do we rate games?)