Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox, PS2, PC - Xbox 360 version reviewed.
I used to despise Sam Fisher – there, I’ve said it. For years I dismissed him not so much as the poor man’s Solid Snake, but as the spy hero for those who preferred lovely graphics at the expense of decent gameplay. Like everyone, I was amazed by Sam’s first appearance on the Xbox. I admired the smooth animation, the stunning lighting, the way Sam seamlessly pulled off a range of cool special moves. But the more I played, the more I grew to hate the way the game funnelled you through one way of doing things, and if you stepped out of line, it was back to the last poorly placed checkpoint. Where Metal Gear Solid 2 gave you scope to experiment, play and simply had fun, Splinter Cell wanted you to conform and play the game the way they meant you to. In truth, I found the first two Splinter Cells a chore – a good looking chore, but a chore I was happy to avoid working my way through.
Then something unexpected happened. I played Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and suddenly everything clicked. The game was more flexible, the levels more open and appealing, and the mix of creeping, crawling, climbing and techno-wizardry just seemed to work. The game was more generous on the subjects of checkpoints and saving, and you felt you could tackle the levels in roughly any order you wanted. The result was arguably the best espionage game since Metal Gear Solid 2.
And now, with Double Agent, my turnaround is complete. Ubisoft has taken the fine foundations set by Chaos Theory, and built a next-generation stealth game that beats even its illustrious predecessor, not just by virtue of graphical improvements – though these are obvious and impressive – nor by the addition of major gameplay tweaks or checkbox features, though there are a few of these as well. Instead, Ubisoft has added another dimension to the game that takes it to a whole new level.
In the unlikely event that you don’t know what this is, the clue is in the title. Following a death in the family, Sam is confronting his dark side, and it’s at this point that the NSA issues his toughest mission yet. He’s to infiltrate a terrorist organisation and pretend to do its bidding, while secretly passing info back to the boys at NSA HQ. If he doesn’t play along with the baddies, he’ll lose their trust and fail the mission, but if he plays along too well, there’s every chance that the NSA will disavow him. Yep (adopt gravely tones of the classic video trailer voiceover) Sam is now a double agent, and he’s walking a knife edge, where failure could cost him his life.