Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Splinter Cell: Double Agent review

    I really shouldn't be doing a review of this as Double Agent is almost certainly a game way-way too old for the majority of my reviewers. It was also one of the less regarded entries into the Splinter Cell series. It's, however, slated to be one of the Xbox 360 games which Ubisoft is going to be re-release as Backwards Compatible for Xbox One. My opinion? I wish they'd re-release the PS2 HD re-release of the first three games instead. But it's still pretty enjoyable. Warmed over Splinter Cell is still Splinter Cell. There's also a few really good elements.

    The premise is Sam Fisher, operative of Third Echelon, is on a mission to sabotage a group of Russian terrorists when he receives word his daughter Sarah was killed by a car wreck. This story element has no further bearing on the plot and apparently exists just because it's apparently "uncool" for a manly badass to have a daughter. Clearly, the developers of this game never saw 24 with its psychotically interesting protagonist or played Joel in The Last of Us. Which, fair enough, The Last of Us is six years latter but come on!

Good, bad, he's the guy you don't see coming.
    After hearing this horrifyingly traumatizing news (which is retconned in Conviction to much fan-rejoicing), Sam proceeds to get himself arrested so he can go undercover in John Brown's Army. This is a right-wing (?) domestic terrorist group which plans to strike at America for reasons which remain nebulous. Honestly, I don't expect much from Splinter Cell games in terms of villain motivation but given they chose to name themselves after a famous abolitionist and employ a black woman as their chief medic, I wanted to know a lot more about their motivations.

    Ultimately, John Brown's Army just exists for the purposes of Sam Fisher to infiltrate it and eliminate the members. Strangely, despite the fact they're engaged in gross terrorist acts from the beginning, Sam goes along with several missions while they prepare to launch a devastating strike which will cripple the United States government. According to the developers, there was originally an option to join the JBA for real and it's a shame that wasn't included in the main game as I think the premise is a lot more interesting than it's really allowed to be.

The Hong Kong mission is my favorite.
    The big draw from Splinter Cell: Double Agent is the decision system. At several points during the game, usually at the end of a level, you will be given a choice to either do an act to further the aims of the JBA or subvert them for the NSA. Each action will result in you gaining or losing reputation with one faction or the other. If you lose your reputation with one or the other, the game ends as you're disavowed by one. As a Double Agent, you have to maintain at least a bare minimum of activities for both sides.

    The game contains, for the first time, a potential love interest for Sam Fisher in Enrica Villablanca. In the original (P2/Xbox) version of the game, Sam and she actually consider running away together while the second (Xbox360/PC) version of the game has him just playing her. It's really disappointing as the game seems almost pathologically afraid of showing Sam Fisher as possessed of human emotions when these qualities are what separates him from other generic action video game protagonists.

Enric is perhaps the first love interest in Splinter Cell history.
    There's some really good levels in this game like a prison break, Shanghai, and a cruise ship. The controls are somewhat combative but work well for making it clear Sam is not an individual who should be engaging in combat. This is a pure stealth game with combat deliberately designed to be clunky and only useful when you have someone from behind. I think the game would benefit from a different control scheme but, overall, it works well.

    Michael Ironsides' performance is the heart of the Splinter Cell series and without him, it's just not the same. He doesn't have as much to work here as in Conviction, but he still manages to make Sam and intimidating yet likable figure. Don Jordon's Lambert is also an excellent performance and his character has a great send-off before his replacement in Conviction.

Emile Dufrane is quietly menacing, albeit not exceptional.
    Keith Szarabajka does a decent job as Emile Dufrane, being both intimidating as well as evil. Sadly, again, we don't have any real understanding of his motivations. I really think Rachel Reenstra's Enrica was too likable for the story and could have been much-much better developed but that's my problem with the game as a whole. The plot seems very phoned in.

    Still, the big appeal of Splinter Cell is and, hopefully, always will be the fact it is an unforgiving test of your stealth abilities. It's possible to simply murder your way through much of the game but this is less recommanded than simply avoiding conflict in the first place. There's not much interactivity in the game compared to later stealth games which would allow you to hide virtually anywhere (here, it's only under tables and desks) but it's still perfectly serviceable ten years later.

Run away! Run away!
    Double Agent adds a couple of useless features to the game like different colors of night vision which don't add any benefit to the game whatsoever. Also, there's a couple of sections in the game where visibility is obscured for Sam Fisher but not his opponents. You can also unlock a staggering variety of equipment but I never had to use anything but my trusty silenced pistol. The best device bonus I could have used there was more ammunition and even that is something of an unnecessary bonus.

    Overall, I had a pretty good time playing it. It's not as good as the previous episodes of Sam Fisher's adventures or later ones like Conviction and Blacklist but it's still entertaining. I hope they'll re-release the game soon and it'd be awesome to compile this, Conviction, and Blacklist into a single game.


1 comment:

  1. I haven't beaten this game, yet, but I have played it. Here's some of my thoughts:

    I love the idea of being a double agent and the moral dillemas that could create. Your character is a good guy but has to pretend to be a bad guy in order to do the right thing. Unfortunately, maintaining your cover is very likely to necessitate being a bad guy. Which means you have to carefully balance out "convince the bad guys you're on their side" and "don't actually help them in a meaningful way". Unfortunately, at least in the part that I played, balancing the two is too easy most of the time which renders the ethical dilemma kind of irrelevant.

    Some ports of the game avoid this problem by turning it into a literal zero sum game. I'm not sure if this is the best approach per say. NOT blowing your cover is not equivalent to helping your enemy, and not helping your enemy isn't necessarily equivalent to blowing your cover. It's possible to do neither or both. I just think doing both should be a sign that you're playing the game particularly well (I was not).

    You're right about motive-it's especially important for a game where you're infiltrating the enemy. You can't really feel like a double agent if you don't even know the fundementals of who you're pretending to work for. I'm tempted to say they're right-wing anarchists, along the lines of Stefan Molyneux.

    The controls were clunky, which does admittingly help for increasing the stealth feel, but is still really inconvenient. IIRC (haven't played it in a while), the examine button on the PC version is also the swap weapon or pause button (I can't recall which), which is all kinds of annoying.

    Still, I DID like what I tried overall. It at least "interested" me.