Review by DouglasFett
"Sam Fisher, like the Fonze, jumps the shark"
Many Splinter Cell fans are playing the next in the series right now, and that is Splinter Cell: Conviction. It's always been my practice though to buy games years after they come out, since they will be much cheaper then (nor do I have Xbox Live). In any case, I want to start off by laying some ground rules for my review here.
I previously reviewed Chaos Theory for the old Xbox, and gave it a very low score because Ubisoft drastically departed from the formula of the first game (which is, and always will be, the best of the series). Now, based on that remark, I should give Double Agent the same score - a 4/10. However I won't, because I've accepted that Ubisoft has changed the Splinter Cell series entirely, starting with Chaos Theory and continuing currently with Conviction. In fact, these latest three games seem almost like a different series entirely, with Pandora Tomorrow as a sort of interregnum. So, to be fair to Double Agent, I'm ranking it based on it's older brother, rather than it's grandfather. So, on with the show.
1. Graphics 10/10: The graphics are in the same ballpark as Chaos Theory's (they are only a year apart), but upgraded a bit thanks to the 360's abilities.
2. Sound 5/10: Nothing really stood out for me. The music...heck, I don't even remember the music. It's that special. Voice acting...some of the dialogue of enemy guards is recycled from Chaos Theory ("probably just ghosts and shadows"). The voices of the JBA members are believable, with the insane Emile versus the non-believer Enrica. Fisher is, fortunately, played again by Michael Ironside, but the witty remarks of past games are few in this installment. Lambert rounds out the cast and plays a large role, though missing from the roster are Grim, Redding, and Coen. What else...oh, in the standard Ubisoft formula, if the game is sitting at the main menu for too long without the player doing anything, it will cut to a trailer of the game you are playing (see: Chaos Theory, Far Cry). In our case, it cuts to a trailer of Double Agent, narrated by a guy claiming to be Sam Fisher. Rough voice. Sounds a bit younger. Trying too hard to be tough. Yup, that's not Michael Ironside, that was Ubisoft probably hiring some skinny 125 pound computer geek weasel who knows how to manipulate his voice to sound like a tough guy, but is obviously not one. But I digress.
3. Story 7/10: My main beef with Double Agent ever since it came out was that it turned into a soap opera. Fisher's daughter (who was in the first game during cut scenes) is killed, and Sam is allowed to obtain NOC status to infiltrate a domestic terrorist organization known as the JBA. That's the skinny. So how does it play out? A little choppy.
For starters, Ubisoft, as usual, has two different story lines, played out through the generation six and seven versions of consoles (just as how there were two different versions of Ghost Recon 2, one on the Xbox and one on the PS2...heck, let's talk about the various differences between the PS2, GC, and Xbox versions of the first Splinter Cell from way back in 2002). In our 360 version, Lambert narrates how Sam's daughter is killed, and he is given NOC status to spy on the JBA. Well, you'd think Lambert's narration would continue throughout the game, but it doesn't. It just stops right after the first mission. How to explain...well, simply put, there are some continuity issues, but I will get into that when I discuss gameplay.
- Double Agent: True to its name, the game has you play as the JBA's top point man, while covertly operating as the NSA's mole. Its in this that Ubisoft excelled. Other people may criticize it, but let's remember that it's a new formula for video games, and there will always be both pros and cons. In any case, in every mission, you will have objectives from both the JBA and NSA to complete. Completing objectives for either organization increases the trust they have in you, represented by a trust meter. If the trust of one organization is completely lost, game over, reload. Some objectives from the two overlap in various missions, forcing the player to make a choice that affects gameplay later on. It's this formula that plays a pretty big part in this installment.
- Gadgets: Sticky cameras, sticky shockers, ring airfoils, the usual gadgets make their appearance. A couple new additions: wall mines (remember, from the first game?) make an appearance, but this time Sam starts out with them, rather than disabling and picking them up (because the enemies don't use them here). The player is also able to unlock gadgets by completing various objectives (marked with a star on the objectives screen) for the NSA and JBA. For example, you can unlock new gadgets (EMP grenade), while also unlocking upgrades for existing gadgets (exploding sticky cams). One final note here is the "trident" goggles that have been a staple to the series: the night vision has been upgraded (in fact, one of the unlockable gadgets is an upgrade for the night vision), although the thermal vision has gone completely downhill. Oh, wait, not quite the final note yet: the SC-20K (IE the F2000) is still reliable for close quarters fire fights, but it's sniping scope has taken a major downhill turn. Replacing the scope is a red dot sight that has no zoom function...incredibly disappointing. The FiveSeven (or rather the SC pistol) is unchanged from Chaos Theory, and it still has an EMP function for use against cameras.
- Stealth: Ah, the main theme of all the Splinter Cell games, but so broad with various sub-topics comprising it. So, we'll start off with the basic stealth mechanics within the game. Simply put, it's not that engrossing. First off, the stealth meters (light/shadows and noise/ambient noise) have been completely removed, replaced with a PDA-like device attached around Sam's shoulder, that has been sometimes referred to as a "traffic light." When Sam is completely hidden, it turns green; when an enemy can see him completely, it turns red; when it's somewhere in between, it turns yellow. Again, disappointing...the dramatic lights and shadows have been taken out entirely. Some areas of levels, yah, obviously, you know you are hidden in shadows, but other levels you'll have to guess if you are hidden or not.
What else...unlike Chaos Theory, there are penalties for gunning through a level and sounding an alarm: you can lose trust with the NSA and JBA. Continuing from Chaos Theory is the stealth score, and as usual the player is rewarded nothing for obtaining 100% stealth in a level (and the whole game for that matter). Still, Ubisoft made up for that useless function by allowing players to unlock gadgets. What else....oh, lastly, stealth moves. The player is allowed the usual: crouching, climbing, hanging, zip line, rappelling, and the always fun human shield. Oddly enough, I never saw the opportunity to use the classic split jump. New moves include the corner grab (while flattened against a wall and an NPC is approaching), and the water kill: while swimming underwater, Sam can swim underneath a guard (who is standing on thin ice) and pull him in. I'm reminded of the opportunity kills from Chaos Theory, such as hanging from a ledge, and when a guard walks by, Sam can reach up and pull him down (think of the first level from CT, at the light house).
- Mini games: Returning from the first game is the lock picking (conversely with Chaos Theory's lock breaking), and from Chaos Theory is the hacking mini game. There are a few new mini games: unlocking safes, mine assembly, and bomb defusual. These aren't too bad, a small learning curve is all. In addition to these games that are present throughout most levels, are even smaller mini games that are so random and unimportant that you wonder what dope at Ubisoft allowed them in. There are two, and I have to mention them: during the Sea of Okhotsk level, Sam performs a halo jump. His first parachute malfunctions, and it's up to the player to successfully launch the backup parachute. This is the only time in the game its used. The second useless game occurs over Shanghai, where the pilot of the JBA chopper randomly dies (no reason is ever given as to how or why), and it's up to Sam to take control of the helicopter and land it successfully. Again, completely useless and random. These sections of the levels could have been substituted with amazing cut scenes, but were instead completely ruined.
- Multiplayer: Completely lacking from Double Agent is the ability to play as Splinter Cells in training, like in Chaos Theory. Rather, all people can do is MP versus and co-op (against IA bots, not in actual story based levels). I really can't say much for the MP since I don't have Xbox Live or a friend who has Double Agent...still, the game is severely lacking for split-screen story based co-op.
- Health: Replacing the health bar and the appropriately placed medkits throughout levels is the now common situational damage used in recent Call of Duty and Rainbow Six games. While in those titles your character's vision would go red and force you to retreat for cover for several moments, the same goes here in DA, except you have this small icon (that looks like a shield) in the lower left corner that is um, it's kind of confusing. When Sam is ok and not being shot or injured in anyway, the shield is full, covered in white. When he's injured, the white will decrease, but will recharge when not being attacked. In any case, medkits are gone, so you won't have to worry about surviving the next checkpoint.
- Cast of Characters: The final note on gameplay is the various characters you can interact with. As mentioned previously, the only other Third Echelon member Sam deals with is his boss, Lambert (who plays a very large role in the story); Grim, Redding, and Coen are never mentioned. The JBA cast is nothing special; the usual archetypes exist. Emile Dufraine is the head honcho, Moss is his burly 2nd, and a small handful of main JBA members round out the cast. Unfortunately, Double Agent is lacking newscaster Morris O'Dell and his reports as cutscenes for between missions. Anyway, back to the JBA, all of them are headcases in one way or another, but something needs to be said about the only female JBA member, Enrica. Enrica is supposed to be some romantic interest for Sam, but it neither surfaces, nor makes sense. Let's look at this logically. Fisher had a wife, Reagan, and she died years ago. His daughter is dead. He's a hard headed fellow who is completely loyal to the NSA...why would it ever come up that he'd be attracted to her? Even if she's not a true JBA believer, she is a criminal and emotional attachments are not a field operative's S.O.P. Her fate at the end of the game is convoluted between the two versions released, and if there is one thing I can't stand, its massive discrepancies in continuity.
5. Replay value: Like its predecessor, Double Agent gives the player multiple ways to beat a level. Adding to this is the fact that there are three endings, giving players plenty of reason to play the game over again. Not to mention the various gamer point achievements (if you are into collecting those), or just simply trying to beat every objective, including the more annoying "profile objectives" that are only available in the JBA HQ levels.
So, what to say about the game as a whole? It used to be that I loathed this game without ever buying it, because I saw where the series was going, turning into the E.R. version of stealth games (just, you know, without George Clooney). Having actually played it, my view of it has sobered a bit. While the character of Sam Fisher has become much more important to the Splinter Cell series, the Splinter Cell story will never be able to compete against Metal Gear Solid. So, if the SC story is sour, what is the series turning into?
My opinion is that, even though Double Agent is merely a redesigned (with some improvements) version of Chaos Theory, its probably just another contribution to a game series that is going downhill. What's the term, that is used to describe an ongoing series that does too much and becomes absurd...ah yes, "jumping the shark." That's what Double Agent is. Chaos Theory was just the beginning, and while it had its faults, the series could have continued successfully with CT's formula (and maybe a mix of CT's and the first game's beautiful graphics). Where was I? Oh yah. DA uses a modified version of CT, but instead of returning the series to normal after the end of the game (where Sam saves the day, takes a vacation, and returns to Third Echelon for the next installment), the story and plot went completely mad, with Fisher now being on the run in "Splinter Cell: Conviction." If it went as I just theorized, Double Agent could have been a very unique installment in a great series, but instead it is a contribution to a dying series.
Anyway. I'm thinking outside the box here. Point is, yes, Double Agent is a fun game, and you will enjoy it. I'd even recommend buying the generation six version to get a little more out of the story and it's continuity with Conviction: in the G6 version, Sam kills some Splinter Cell in training after the latter kills Enrica, which would make sense as to why Sam is on the run in Conviction. In the G7 version, the game ends with Sam stopping Carson Moss from blowing up a bomb, then escaping authorities and the screen fading to black with "To be Continued..." Anyway, if I've spoiled anything, my apologies. Rent or buy? Buy, you can find it pretty cheap. Again, try for the G6 (Xbox and PS2) versions, if not for the more logical story, then at least for the story based co-op, which is absent from the G7 versions.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 05/04/10, Updated 05/04/10
Game Release: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Double Agent (US, 10/17/06)
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