Ubisoft Splinter Cell: Double Agent review
Splinter Cell has been around on various formats and incarnations since 2002, and the basic premise has remained the same – you’re secret agent Sam Fisher, wearing a fetching ensemble of black rubber and night-vision goggles, hiding in darkened corners of rooms, hanging from conveniently placed pipes and snapping the necks of unlucky guards.
Double Agent’s storyline is engrossing. Starting off with Sam going deep underground and helping a convict escape from prison, you infiltrate a terrorist organisation with – and there is the distinct whiff of predictability here – plans to detonate the mother of all bombs. Unusually, Double Agent’s storyline is branching, which means there are several points throughout the game where you can make decisions that affect the direction of the narrative.
Characters live or die by your choices, and you’ll experience different missions and objectives depending on whether you do as you’re told by your NSA handlers or play it fast and loose by obeying the terrorists. Not only does this add to the game’s dramatic feel, it also gives it more replay value. The element of choice is given a little more life by a pair of “trust” meters, one for the NSA and one for the terrorist organisation you’re working for. Carry out too many successful missions for one organisation at the expense of the other and the trust meter drops, eventually forcing you to take drastic action on the behalf of the other faction.
The missions themselves are varied. The mainstay of the series – staying hidden until the last possible moment before silently bumping off a guard and pinching his security pass – remains, but there are concessions for gamers wanting to charge around throwing hand grenades. There are few missions where lethal force is banned – you get extra points for managing complete stealth (and are rewarded with weapon and equipment upgrades), but if you choose to hammer through missions with the maximum noise you’ll rarely find yourself backed into a corner and forced to restart the mission.
Splinter Cell has seen a steady series of improvements since the nigh-on-impossible difficulty of the first few instalments, and Double Agent, partly because it’s a direct port from next-generation consoles such as the Xbox 360, is the most playable yet. This is almost entirely good: you no longer need to be pixel-perfect in order to pull off a decent neck-snap, but it also means there are portions of the game that are too easy. For instance, you have a light on your suit that turns green when you’re sufficiently hidden, and yellow when you’re out in the open. But it can show green even when you appear to be in a relatively well-lit area; a guard can nonchalantly puff on a cigarette right next to you, completely unaware of your presence until you kneecap him.
But there’s a strong argument for playing the whole game at its easiest settings. The extraordinary set-pieces are more cinematic when you don’t need to sit through them five times, and it also showcases the game at its film-like best. The graphics are terrific: turn on high-dynamic range rendering and you’re in for a treat. Objects in the environment around you flutter in the breeze, react realistically when you knock them over, and the explosions are amazingly intense. The only problem with the easiest mode is that it makes the game too short. From beginning to end, with a few late nights and a weekend in the middle, we managed to finish the entire thing in a week. It’s a still a gratifying experience, and the only reason we wish it lasted longer is that the game looks so good.