It was back in 2002 when we first met Sam Fisher, a jaded but extremely talented secret agent who was sent all around the world to take care of the most sensitive, covert operations conducted by the United States. Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell became one of the defining franchises of the original Xbox, thanks to its incredibly lifelike graphics and sophisticated stealth action gameplay, and the PC translations of this series have been comparably as good if not better. Earlier this fall, Splinter Cell hit the Xbox 360 for the first time, and the transition to a more powerful new platform naturally created even higher expectations. Yet despite a compelling new premise that forces Fisher to make some tough moral choices to infiltrate a terrorist group, Splinter Cell Double Agent's campaign could best be described as Splinter Cell with a fresh coat of paint. Now this experience is available on the PC in a version that's nearly identical to what can be found on the Xbox 360, notwithstanding some technical issues you might run into. The single-player portion of the game possesses all of the strengths and weaknesses that fans of the series have come to expect. On the other hand, the multiplayer component, which is like a whole separate game, has seen a variety of interesting changes since the last game, making it probably the better half package.
Sam Fisher's got an unusual assignment in Splinter Cell Double Agent, and there's an impressive multiplayer mode waiting for you as well.
Those familiar with the Xbox 360 version of Double Agent will find roughly the same experience in this version, which feels like it was ported from the console. Of course, the default controls are different, though Splinter Cell has always played about as well using a mouse and keyboard as with a gamepad, and this year's game is no different. Visually, the PC version looks nearly as good as the graphically impressive Xbox 360 version, if you have a powerful PC. However, even on the highest settings, it appears that the PC version is missing some of the bells and whistles of the 360 version, and you might still see some odd fluctuations in the game's frame rate, as well as noticeably long loading times. On the plus side, the PC game retails for less, though it naturally lacks the Xbox 360 version's unlockable achievements, which help add replay value to both the solo campaign and the online modes. Players posting on the game's message boards also complain about compatibility issues with particular hardware and various crash bugs; though, after automatically downloading a required patch, the main issue we encountered on our test system was an occasional inability to connect to multiplayer matches. There's also a bug that seems to prevent you from using the extra gadgets you unlock by completing optional missions. So if you have the choice, the Xbox 360 version is the safer bet. At any rate, if you've seen the Xbox 360 version of the game already, then you know what to expect.
Even though the Splinter Cell games bear the name of a famous author, they have never been particularly good at telling stories, despite the fact that Sam Fisher has always stood out as a great character. Double Agent gives the impression that it might buck this trend. Early on in the game, Fisher loses his cool and winds up in prison after he's given some very bad news. Unfortunately there's no real follow-through on this plot point because Fisher's incarceration turns out to be a setup for him to get in good with an upstart terrorist group oddly called John Brown's Army (JBA). The JBA tentatively accepts Fisher as one of its own...but he's still working for the National Security Agency (NSA), which orders him to play nice and learn what makes these terrorists tick. The terrorist leaders have some personality, but they've got a pretty conventional blow-stuff-up plan. The game's whole premise wears thin as Fisher keeps getting crucial assignments from the bad guys, who inexplicably supply him with the experimental government-issue assault rifle he's always used. Eventually you'll wonder why Sam can't just kill them all and be done with it. But your patience will be rewarded, as there's an action-packed finale and multiple endings to look forward to based on the choices you make along the way.
From a gameplay standpoint, ultimately there's not much new or different about the single-player campaign of Double Agent versus that of the previous game, Chaos Theory. If you've played that game, then expect to use all the same moves and abilities to get through Double Agent's dangerous levels, all crawling with enemy patrols. Most of all, you'll be quietly sneaking through these levels while keeping a low profile, sometimes creeping up from behind foes either to put them in a vice grip for an interrogation session, or just put them out of their misery with a quick, lethal knife attack. The controls are complicated to learn if you don't already know them, as even the simple act of opening a door presents you with multiple options: slam it open, use an optical cable to see what's on the other side, and more. But a couple of slick training missions make the learning curve more tolerable. Once on a real mission, enemy forces will respond to you by using the same tactics and behavior you'll probably recognize from the previous games, which still can't be considered a remarkable display of artificial intelligence. If you move too quickly, nearby guards will wander around searching for you. And if they spot you, they'll run behind cover and open fire. That's really about it. While the game's environments are all new, and some are very impressive, seeing all of the recycled moves, animations, and sound effects makes Double Agent's campaign feel like an update rather than a full-on sequel.
However, there's a new trust system that gives the missions a different, often more free-form tone than missions from previous Splinter Cell games. There are also moments during the campaign when Fisher must make some sort of tough moral choice to stay in the JBA's good graces, though you could count these moments on one hand. The trust system mostly forces you to be more careful. Getting spotted by enemies will cause you to lose some of either the NSA's or the JBA's trust, and if either of your two trust meters runs out, it's game over. The trust meters carry over from mission to mission, but by completing optional mission objectives for both the JBA and the NSA, you can remain in the good graces of both organizations. In practice, on the default difficulty setting, it isn't difficult to maintain your trust with both sides. Even so, the game takes a step back from Chaos Theory by including a number of potentially frustrating instant-fail situations, such as if JBA terrorists catch you trying to pick a lock inside their base. The penalty isn't always this severe, as if a JBA agent catches you skulking about in a restricted area, he'll chase you out as your trust meter dwindles. Still, this is usually a good enough reason to load a saved game. The trust system makes for an interesting twist, but Double Agent still mostly boils down to a linear series of stealth missions, each with some major objectives and some optional secondary tasks.
You'll have to spend some time buddying up with the lieutenants of the John Brown's Army terrorist group.
The JBA base missions are a new concept for Splinter Cell, and they're hit or miss. You get about 30 minutes to snoop around and try to accomplish as many different objectives as possible. Sam can't attack his foes during these sequences, and if he's caught sneaking by his JBA brothers, their reactions just aren't believable. On the other hand, the way Sam switches from a casual walk into his low stealthy crouch when he enters into a restricted area is a great, immediate indication that you're about to conduct some risky business. Getting through undetected is tense and feels rewarding, though these open-ended, pure-stealth missions will have you frequently reloading saved games until you can find the right way to slip through the JBA's security. The first couple of visits to the JBA base are entertaining, but because you'll return here between almost every major mission, it's less exciting after a while. And during one such mission, you're forced to decrypt an e-mail by completing a 3D sudoku puzzle, which seems oddly out of place.
Fisher's main assignments in Double Agent take him everywhere from a massive tanker caught in a freezing-cold Russian winter to a sweltering-hot African town that's wracked by war. Interestingly, most of these missions take place in broad daylight, so Fisher will need to hide behind cover much more often than he'll need to slink through the shadows. In fact, you could go through most of the campaign without ever using his signature night vision goggles, and he won't even have them half the time anyway. The game's main missions are quite lengthy and challenging, and it's generally up to you to decide whether to try to sneak past your foes or fight them.
The shooting in Double Agent feels exactly the same as before, so it's not particularly satisfying and is mostly a means to an end. You must aim while standing perfectly still in order to shoot with any accuracy, and Fisher moves slowly when his gun is equipped anyway, which prevents you from playing this or any Splinter Cell game in a run-and-gun fashion. And besides, the silenced pistol and rifle Fisher uses just don't pack much of a visceral punch. Fisher also has the same quick lethal and nonlethal close-combat attacks he had in Chaos Theory and remains powerful enough to take down one or two guards head on.