STAFF REVIEW of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent (Xbox 360)

Wednesday, November 8, 2006.

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent Box art In a nutshell Splinter Cell Double Agent has got to be the most fully featured stealth action game to date, so if you like the idea of high-tech espionage, it's certainly going to have plenty to offer you. This game, like all of the Splinter Cell games from the last generation offers; gorgeous visuals, especially the lighting effects and the environments; improved, more open-ended single-player campaign, and innovative multiplayer modes. The campaign game play is retouched but pretty similar to the previous games; the multiplayer doesnt cater to the hardcore fans as much as Chaos Theory did, it's not as complicated and punishing to new players. This instalment of the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell stealth action franchise features the continuing adventures of Sam Fisher, a top secret agent who's sent in to accomplish the US government's dirty work when political situations go sour, very sour indeed. Sam is going deep undercover, in order to infiltrate a terrorist organization operating on American soil. Has Sam gone bad? No. But he'll be faced with very tough moral choices if he wants to accomplish his mission. Sort of like the moral system incorporated in Fable and Kotor but not as obvious as to which decision is the right one. The choices you make will determine how the game will end (3 possible endings).

Though the premise of the story is a techno-thriller that lives up to the Tom Clancy name, storytelling has never been Splinter Cell's strong suit, but Double Agent is the exception. Between-mission cut scenes sometimes set the stage for your next assignment, but a lot of your missions details are conveyed in premission monologues by your commanding officers and informants but the best parts of the story happen during the missions themselves, where you'll often hear Fisher exchanging banter with his off-site crew. Double Agent fuels your imagination with its plot, and lets you be creative with the gameplay. No other game does this well at making you feel like a deadly spy working behind enemy lines.

As the game begins, youre babysitting a new agent through a routine recon mission, when things predictably go wrong. The rookie gets killed but then is immediately forgotten when you learn that your daughter has been hit by a car. This somehow leads to an undercover mission in a prison, and begins a spy story with about as many holes as the dead rookie. But just like always, the constant flow of well-written dialog within the missions keeps you interested and engaged in spite of the seemingly random twists.

Since youre undercover, half of the missions take place in the terrorists compound. There, youll be given jobs fit for an extremist (craft some mines, dispose of a body) and objectives from Lambert (load a trojan into their servers, copy documents). A new trust system gives you more leeway in the regular missions. Since youre working for the government and the terrorists, you need both of them to believe in you. This is represented by two meters, which, in a lot of cases, give you more room for error than you had in the previous games. If you mess up and stab a cop, for instance, Lambert won't freak out. If you mess up and stab five, well, maybe it's time to retire. The meters also play into the morally ambiguous decisions Double Agent places before you. The irony is that, in existing, they pretty much undermine any sense of morality. For example, at one point the terrorists ask you to kill a hostage. If you point the gun at him, you can see exactly how much of Lamberts trust a kill will cost, and if you aim at the wall, how much less the terrorists will trust you should you decline. This causes you to weigh your choice pragmatically, not morally, and takes the suspense out of whats supposed to be a life and death decision.

Multiplayer is also solid and continues on the Spy vs. Merc mould originally developed for Pandora Tomorrow. Spies sneak around in third person, attempting to steal items, while first person Mercs will do everything they can to stop them.

Co-op also returns, this time sporting considerably more levels than in Chaos Theory. Theyve been overly simplified this time around and lack the sense of awe the original levels inspired, but theyre still a blast to help and certainly add to the totally enjoyable playtime.

The only notable flaw with Double Agent is that loading eats up a lot of time. Granted, loads dont occur very often, but they happen enough to be mildly annoying. It also takes forever to save a game because loading the list of previous saves takes, at the very least, 30 seconds.

Splinter Cell's famous good looks have always helped the series a great deal, and sure enough, they're once again a big part of the appeal of Double Agent. The game's incredible animations, meticulously detailed environments, and gorgeous lighting effects are exactly what you expect from a next-gen title. The slew of new moves and animations help make the experience feel like more than just a rehash of the previous Splinter Cells. However, the graphical enhancements made to the campaign mode make for a starker contrast with the multiplayer mode, which doesn't look quite as sharp. In all, Double Agent holds onto the Splinter Cell mantle of being one of the best-looking games out there. The over reliance on dark, claustrophobic confines that defined Chaos Theory has been replaced by an eclectic mix of outdoor and interior locations, embellished by a variety of weather effects and rich architecture and cultural influences.

It's also a great-sounding game, though at times you'll wish that the audio was implemented better. As in previous Splinter Cell games, the soundtrack's cues are actually a little haphazard. For example, you'll be skulking about without any background music for the most part, and then the beats suddenly kick in if you alert anyone to your presence or get in a fight. When the coast is clear, the music fades as quickly as it picks up, dampening some of the suspense you might otherwise experience if you weren't sure if other foes were nearby. The music sounds terrific, at any rate, as does the voice work from the game's main cast. Fearsomely loud gunfire and other well-done ambient effects help sell the whole experience, even though the game's international cast of characters still speaks in stereotypically accented English. You'll also hear some of the characters' voices noticeably change as they go from chattering with each other to taunting you in a fight. It's not that bad, it's just something that can undermine some of your suspension of disbelief in a game that works hard to be convincing.

Michael Ironside returns once again to voice series hero Sam Fisher. As always, his voice work is top notch. In fact, its so good you have to wonder if Michael Ironside really is just as bitter and crotchety as Sam is. Dennis Haysbert also returns to voice the little angel sitting on Sams shoulder, Lambert.

Splinter Cell Double Agent fulfills a lot of the previously untapped potential of its predecessors' single-player portions, while successfully extending the impressive multiplayer offerings of Chaos Theory. It's got to be the most fully featured stealth action game to date, so if you like the idea of high-tech espionage, it's certainly going to have plenty to offer you.

Overall: 9.4 / 10
Gameplay: 9.4 / 10
Visuals: 9.6 / 10
Sound: 9.4 / 10


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