Genre: Stealth Action
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: September 2006
There are tons of Splinter Cell games, or at least it feels that way. Somehow, Ubisoft can keep a new one hitting every 18 months (or so) and still leave the gameplay feeling fresh and fans satisfied. The upcoming Splinter Cell: Double Agent seems to be no exception to this general rule. Plenty of what goes on in the story and gameplay should feel familiar to fans of the Splinter Cell titles, but there are also some striking differences from previous entries in the series. For the first time, players can control the outcome of the game and choose to play Sam Fisher as either a hero or a villain, by making critical decisions about how Sam reacts to the situation in which he's been placed.
Double Agent is a title that's been a long time coming, with the X360 version entering development over two years ago. Story-wise, the game's focus is on changing up the Tom Clancy formula that has dominated the earlier games in the series, instead trying to build up the emotional intensity of gameplay for the characters. The developer who demonstrated the game for us cited a Hong Kong movie called Infernal Affairs (now being remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed) as the major inspiration for what their new direction for the series would be. In Infernal Affairs, a Hong Kong cop goes undercover to infiltrate the Triads, while a Triad operative tries to infiltrate the Hong Kong police. All goes smoothly until the head of the Triads and the head of the Hong Kong police department both realize they have moles in their respective organizations.
In Double Agent, Sam Fisher's life has been shattered. His daughter, his one remaining link to humanity, has died in a tragic accident. To cope, he asks for the most dangerous, life-threatening assignment possible. He's assigned to infiltrate a terrorist cell that's operating out of New Orleans, and set up with a second identity that's a hardened bank-robbing criminal. Once in prison, Sam befriends terrorist leader Jamie Washington there, which gives him a lead into the terrorist underworld of New Orleans.
Once Sam joins the terrorists, he's put in situations where he has to make increasingly serious, high-stakes decisions about how he'll present himself and what he'll do. Through making the right tree of decisions, players can ultimately have Sam stay true to his mission or completely renounce his loyalties to become a terrorist. Complicating the matter is that even if you want Sam to keep his hands clean, he'll be required to at least act like a terrorist enough to convince the other terrorists that he's sincere and completely not a spy. Likewise, if Sam begins acting like a terrorist too quickly, his employers will turn on him. Regardless of what path you dictate for Sam, you'll have to think your decisions through carefully. Probably the coolest thing about this new decision system is that it finally gives a Splinter Cell title a branching storyline, complete with multiple endings. This massively increases replay value for the single-player game.
The decision-making process occurs in Double Agent in two different ways. Some decisions have to be made in dynamic, interactive cut scenes. Depicted as first-person sequences to increase the feeling of immersion to enhance the story's visceral emotional impact, these decisions arise as part of the game's storyline. The one demonstrated for me by Ubisoft was a sequence where Sam's terrorist boss decides to test his loyalty by ordering him to shoot an inconvenient hostage. If Sam decides to shoot the hostage, as we saw in the demo, then the terrorists' respect for Sam increases, and he's offered a certain mission. If he refuses, the developer merely said that the terrorists would immediately begin to suspect him, and his next mission would probably go differently.
The other aspect of decision-making is in the missions themselves, each of which offer two different objectives that the player may follow to complete a segment of the mission. Missions can have anywhere from one to three sets of objectives, all of which have the potential to branch the storyline. For each decision set, one option essentially favors the forces of law and order, while the other favors the terrorists. Players may pursue either mission objective as they see fit, allowing a player to, for example, counteract a story decision that seemed to favor the terrorists with a mission decision that favors the government. How dramatically different the two mission objectives can be is still largely unrevealed, but a demo of a mission in progress clearly showed how pursuing different sorts of methods often involved taking different routes through a stage, and handling situations in different ways. In some situations, killing off enemies favors keeping Sam on the straight and narrow, while simply ignoring things like criminals shooting up bystanders pushes Sam toward standing as a terrorist.
What decisions Sam makes affect more than just whether Sam's status as "good" or "evil." As part of Sam's cover, he has to live with the terrorists in their headquarters, and the terrorists control what kind of equipment he has access to. If the terrorists don't trust Sam as a result of his decisions, then they're not going to be giving him the best stuff (though the government may pick up the slack). Failing to win the terrorists' trust can also block off entire sections of the headquarters, which makes some resources (possibly mission and decision trees) inaccessible. Doing this gives the player incentive to make sure that, even if they're trying to keep Sam law-abiding, he finds some way to convince the terrorists that he's actually on their side without really being on their side. The obvious mind-boggling complexity of this is something few video games have attempted, and shows just how profound the influence of Infernal Affairs was.
The sweet new gameplay in Double Agent does not come at the expense of the graphics, always a strong point with this series. The build Ubisoft showed off most proudly was the XBox 360 version, but also showed an only slightly diminished build for the Xbox. To give Splinter Cell a fresh sense of visual to go with the expanded gameplay, Sam's assignments now take him to some truly exotic corners of the globe and force players to engage in some very creative new twists on stealth gameplay. Ubisoft demonstrated a desolate snow level and a level set in a sun-baked North African desert setting to show just how exotic and extreme the final version's environments could get.
Likewise, Sam's entire appearance and array of tactics altered dramatically for each environment. In the snow level, Sam had to engage in underwater espionage, swimming through tunnels of freezing-cold water underneath. Alternatively, he could move above the water in a stark white suit that let him seamlessly blend in to the environment. Above-water, Sam had to deal with enemy agents, though, who'd have to be disposed of quietly to avoid starting a firefight that Sam probably couldn't win. The North African level, in war-torn Kenshasa, was a wholly different experience, where Sam had to achieve his objective while dodging through narrow streets and avoiding violent insurgents who would kill Sam simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ubisoft was keeping a lot of the content in Double Agent under wraps, but what they did have to show was absolutely dynamite. From the stylish cut scenes to the killer graphics to some truly outstanding gameplay, Double Agent is shaping up to be one of this fall's most titanic titles. Although Ubisoft focused on showing the two Xbox editions, versions have been promised for systems as diverse as the PS3 and GameCube when the big launch for the title comes this fall. Anyone with even a remote interest in stealth gameplay or the Splinter Cell series needs to play this title, just on the strength of the single-player campaign alone. When multiplayer gets factored in, there's no telling how great the final package is going to be.
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