The life of a Double Agent
Ubisoft invite you to step into the fourth instalment of the Splinter Cell series and sample the life of a Double Agent. This game promised to take the series to the next level and provide a gripping story as well as innovative gameplay on the Xbox 360.
By now you might have heard that Ubisoft have put Fisher through the wringer, they've taken our chiselled jawed hero and added a new level of trouble to his life. He's no longer the black and white, good versus evil character we've known for so long.
An event transpires that sends Sam off the rails, Lambert offers him a chance to rebuild his life and Sam with nothing to lose takes it. He's thrown into a prison undercover and becomes everything he fought against to get to one man.
A member of John Brown's Army: the JBA.
Sam must infiltrate this organisation and fight to bring it down as a Double Agent.
The series hasn't changed much in the way of controls, new moves have been added to each instalment and there have always been a few special things for each platform. In SCDA the developers have gone about things in a different way. First let's look at the similarities to the previous game control and gameplay wise.
Sam can still shimmy and use all his acrobatic moves from the previous title. He can split-jump, hang upside down from pipes (on some pipes he can use his winch and lower himself down) and climb various fences and other things in the level. Control feels tighter than the previous games and the control interface is a lot smoother this time around.
Selecting weapons is done with a few buttons and Ubisoft have kept the lethal, non-lethal moves on the right and left triggers.
The most radical change to the GUI is the loss of the noise and light meters. You have to rely on audio cues to gauge Sam's footfalls, remembering that certain surfaces are louder than others. Sam has a small light on his back and his equipped weapon that functions as a visual sensor. If it's green you can't be seen, if it's yellow you're about to be discovered and red means you're pretty much dead.
Wall takedowns: Sam can now perform a wall takedown on a bad guy as long as he's not been discovered. Just put your back to a wall and wait for the guy to approach, do it right and you'll be able to hit the interact button and grab him.
Sam can also once more aim his pistol around corners, something that was removed from the previous title.
New to the series are water based levels where you can swim through ice cold waters, there are patches of ice that can be broken and if you wait for long enough it's possible to kill the enemy by smashing up through the ice and pulling them down to a watery grave.
There are also day time missions that make a change to the dynamics of stealth; you have to be extra careful to take advantage of hiding places and Sam's athletic abilities. Often these missions involve some serious risks and getting spotted happens quite a lot until you get used to the way the game now plays.
There have been changes to the hacking system as well as the addition of several new mini-games. A safe cracking game and a mine construction game have been added to the proceedings, there's even a bomb-defusing mini-game at one point.
There is also a trust meter, or in the case of the 360, two meters that you have to keep an eye on. Throughout the game you will be called upon to perform NSA and JBA objectives. It is here that the core of the Double Agent gameplay kicks in. Let either bar drop to nothing and its game over. You must choose which objectives to complete; star marked objectives unlock equipment and equipment upgrades.
Objectives will often have polar opposites, you can't kill and protect a target for instance - or can you? This is something you're going to have to find out for yourself as the game progresses, there are solutions to a lot of the decisions but some of them are hard and fast - no way for you to fake it.
There's now the inclusion of a HQ for Sam, at the JBA. This is where you have to rely upon personal interaction, general sneakiness and watchful observance to succeed. It's hard to hide in shadows when you're surrounded by eager-eyed JBA members, some of which don't trust you to begin with.
It is here that you'll get to do a chunk of your NSA Double Agent objectives, or if you prefer to let Sam slip towards the bad side, don't bother since most of the objectives are optional - some will lead to a serious loss of trust, so you want to be careful how you play the sides.
Sam can hide under tables and in lockers (Solid Snake anyone) in this instalment and he's even given the option of bashing the locker door, if the enemy comes too close to investigate.
There is also the issue of time; Double Agent gameplay in the JBA HQ is timed. You have a certain amount of time in which to do your sneaking, get back to the start point and solve the task set to you by the JBA. One really irksome mini-game was the email decoding game and that was a bit of a hair-puller for us.
There is also the addition of 'Directed Cutscenes' a choice moment in the in-engine cinematic where you can take control of the action, such as sky-diving and stopping a helicopter from crashing into the ground. I don't think you're in any danger in these scenes but they make an amusing diversion and addition to the storytelling, putting you in the driving seat for a while.
The save system is back from the previous game as well allowing you to save anywhere.
The visuals for SCDA are a step up from the previous games; one would expect that from the 360. There are slight noticeable frame-rate issues (tiny ones) with some of the larger in-game areas when things heat up, but most of the time the game rips along at a decent frame-rate.
It has large areas that are brimming with detail and the landscapes for the outdoor missions are excellently done. There are some great textures and lighting effects (a trademark of the series) along with some nice shadows and all the eyecandy you could hope for.
The models in the game are highly detailed and Sam looks better than ever. The work done on the facial expressions is excellent and the level of animation is definitely a step above the previous game. Sam's movements are lifelike and fluid and the way he interacts with the environment feels better this time around.
Huge open levels with numerous places to hide and multiple routes of entry make up the majority of Double Agent. The level design is slick and effective with no real problems, all of the places that the designers have created feel real enough and the JBA HQ is definitely a dark scummy hideout.
The AI hasn't changed that much from the first game. We haven't yet seen an enemy that could replace a broken light bulb, but they are sharper than their previous counterparts and definitely know how to use the environment to their advantage - they are not as easy to spook and are fonder this time around of bringing extra backup to investigate anything suspicious.
It occasionally does something stupid but on the harder difficulty levels the AI can be a challenge to slip past undetected.
Havok powers the game and all the bells and whistles we've come to expect are there, with extensive ragdoll explosive action for those people that want to go the gung-ho approach.
The sounds in the game, the audio effects for the weapons and various ambient sounds are all rendered to top quality. They sound great.
I prefer the music in Double Agent over that used in the previous game, it fits and it provides a good backdrop to the stealth and action. It rises when things get intense and falls off when you're sneaking around.
Michael Ironside returns as Sam Fisher and provides a grittier version of Sam this time around, he's hurting and you can tell it. Michael's performance as Sam is without question and the guy knows the ropes, so I can't complain about anything in that respect. The rest of the voice actors do a damn fine job and it's nice to see Dwight (Howlin' Mad Murdoch) Schultz listed in the game as well.
SCDA introduces a new take on the old MP from the previous title in the series, the whole Spy Vs. Mercenary is now Spy Vs. Upsilon and the gameplay mechanic has changed vastly compared to the last one.
The spy has lost the advantage of small arms fire and is now far more agile, not lethal in close quarters. You must rely upon teamwork and acrobatic skill to get out of trouble as a spy whilst downloading data from the large maps and generally causing havoc to your enemies the Upsilon mercs.
You have a detector akin to Aliens built into your suit and it beeps to warn you there's a merc about, not quite where, it gets faster as they approach closer. You have only 1 gadget you can use at a time, and a pick of 4 gadgets max.
The spy can get behind a merc and try and break their neck but this is hard to pull off and it seems quite buggy. Not as though we expected it would be easy considering that the spy is supposed to be about sneaking and sabotage.
You have the night-vision mode and an arm mounted hacking unit that can also disable lights.
Some maps have a generator that you can hack, if you hack it the power drops to lights and security doors. The mercs can however restart the generator and all the lights will come back on, even the ones you disabled.
The MP game modes are similar; you download a file or several files, or even a broken file that comes from different terminals. Get the file(s) back to your start point to win. Double Agent mode pits every spy for themselves against the other agents to see who the best is.
You can play on Live or System link, there is no mp coop like the previous game (that is on the Xbox version of SCDA along with the Spy Vs Spy game mode) - there is a mp coop where a group of 3 spy agents can tackle AI based mercs over a variety of difficulty levels (the harder mercs are a brutal challenge) and maps.
Mp is pretty fun and it's a definite change from the previous game, there's a lot more in the way of tactics to the spy this time around. Stealth is a definite factor compared to spamming gadgets.
As the mercs the game changes significantly, you can rappel down from a railing to get to the floor quickly. You can spin around and smack a spy with the butt of your weapon, the weapon can be toggled between autofire and sniper modes. You have vision modes that detect spy hacking and automatically if a spy moves too quickly away from you, you get them showing up on your HUD as a white outline.
The merc has a brutal arsenal at his disposal, definitely a favourite amongst merc players is the remote drone, a nasty explosive camera that can follow a spy through the vents and ducting - not too far though, usually far enough to cause them serious issues however.
The mercs gun can also fire grenades and these are used with pin-point accuracy by people online, so spies should beware, ducts are not always a safe place to hide. Just like the spy the merc has a motion tracker and knows that a spy is around, just not exactly where.
The flashlight rounds out the mercs arsenal and illuminates dark areas to help flush out sneaky agents.
In conclusion, the MP element of Double Agent isn't just tacked on - it feels a fully realised part of the game and provides some fast frenetic fun even for spies when the mercs start firing and you have to make a dash and fade, using one of the many escape moves available to the highly athletic agents.
Lag issues still abound however and the game features something that I find intensely annoying, annoying enough to shave points off for.
I hate in-game advertising with a passion, there, I've said it. Advertising space costs and proponents of in-game advertising basically are using the excuse that it doesn't hurt the consumer...no...but nor does it cost the developers/publisher to advertise on your game - you're paying them for the game and they get free advertising space out of it.
Is it worth it?
There will be arguments for years to come over which version owners should get, each version of the game offers something different - but for the best fun and graphics you should go for the Xbox 360 version. The Xbox version of the game feels more complete in terms of story and certain Double Agent gameplay mechanics but the 360 has the edge in all other departments.
I miss the split-screen coop that made the previous game such a hit so I had to get hold of the Xbox version for completeness' sake. I hope Ubisoft take the next game back to those coop roots because they were an excellent innovation. I could live without the Mp Vs. if the game had a decent coop through both specialist missions and single player.