Ahem (coughs). What this all boils down to is this. Sam’s mainstay is still the classic stuff of sneaking, stealing documents and assaulting armed guards from the shadows, but this time he’s doing it ostensibly on the terrorist side. He may have to take over a Russian tanker, steal plans from a rogue scientist in a Shanghai skyscraper or plant a bomb in a cruise ship, but in the usual way he’s given objectives and expected to carry them out. However, while completing nasty terrorist tasks, Sam’s also expected to sample deadly substances, scan secret files and alert NSA forces as he goes, and the beauty of the game is in the way you have to play these different and sometimes opposing sets of objectives off against each other.
I suspect that someone has been watching 24, because a lot of this stuff is reminiscent of the sort of double agent nonsense we saw in season two. The game’s most suspense-packed moments are set in the organisation’s own warehouse base, where Sam is supposed to be doing training courses or helping out with the preparation of munitions, but where he’s using his spare time to sneak about, bug transmitters and feed personal files and blueprints back to the chaps at NSA. The use of a 25 minute time limit makes these sections pretty tight, and the restrictions on the use of gadgets or behaving suspiciously in key areas adds some much-needed realism to the franchise. There’s the drama as the minutes ticking down, the tension when you’re nearly spotted in a restricted area, and the mild annoyance when you realise that you can’t just rip that guy’s throat out and stuff it down his lungs, because that might just help Sam blow his cover. The game even throws in the odd emotional punch, via some nicely scripted ‘quicktime’ events. Do you shoot the innocent news crew pilot and lose points with the NSA, or miss on purpose and lose creditability with your newfound evil chums. The choice is yours, and as the game moves on your choices have more and more impact on the final outcome.
The good news is that the level design is still fantastic, offering plenty of variety and heaps of chances to act out your secret-agent fantasies. You’ve got to love a game where you can swim under the arctic ice, punch a hole below a dozy guard and drag him down into the freezing water. And how can you resist a level where you’re repelling down the outside of a skyscraper one minute, creeping through vents the next, then hopping on the top of a glass elevator for a ride down to a closed off floor? And while you’re at it, you can’t help loving those wry little touches that help make the world feel real, from the bitchy comments in the emails you snoop through, to the ridiculous conversations you can spy on with your laser microphone. The game even throws in a superbly mounted prison break sequence and – who would have thought it? – a touch of romance. Well, as romantic as things get with a character voiced by Michael Ironside.