Review: Splinter Cell: Double Agent

by Tom Ingram

Sam Fisher used to be a breath of fresh air from the usual stoic, tough-talking action hero. He always had a pleasant sense of humour about his work, and treated friends and enemies alike with respect. If you played the games properly, he hardly ever killed anyone, and when he did they usually had it coming. He didn’t have the usual dark, sorrowful past. He was a respected Navy SEAL before becoming a secret agent. Aside from a mysteriously missing spouse (which, let’s face it, is commonplace these days), he had a solid family life, with no problems at home. The Splinter Cell games were about international politics, and the sneaky, underhanded stuff that goes on when the general population isn’t looking. Not about Sam’s daughter getting caught in an animal trap while being chased by a cougar.

That all changed with Splinter Cell: Double Agent. There were actually two versions of Double Agent. One was released on the Xbox 360 and PS3, and the other one was released on the systems from the previous generation. I played the Gamecube one, so this primarily applies to that version, but I imagine much of it will carry over. After the excellent Chaos Theory, we were treated to a boilerplate story that transformed Fisher into a stoic, tough-talking action hero, and brought his family life into play.

The game starts with Fisher and Hisham Hamza (who I assume is a fellow Third Echelon agent–this is never clear) infiltrating a factory in Iceland. The cooperative game mechanics are a new addition. Your partner can give you boosts over walls. In this level it’s fairly well-implemented, but there are moments in the game where the mechanic is shoehorned in.

Having an AI partner takes away from the overall feel of the game. The reason for Splinter Cell‘s charm was that you were behind enemy lines in another country, all alone, with only the voices of a tight-knit group of friends thousands of miles away to help you. It doesn’t work if there’s another guy right there. Plus, Hamza’s an annoying bastard, and the AI is terrible. On several occasions, my AI partner strayed into the light and got his ass shot off, and everyone acted like it was my fault.

The mission ends abruptly when Lambert scrubs it and sends in another unit to blow up the factory. Fisher and Hamza board the helicopter and learn that Fisher’s daughter was killed by a drunk driver in an accident. It’s revealed in the next game that **TNFC** ure qrngu jnf npghnyyl snxrq nf cneg bs n frperg pbafcvenpl, naq ab bar obgurerq gb gryy Fnz (ROT13ed, go here to translate).

As is standard practice when secret agents are emotionally compromised, Fisher is assigned to an important deep-cover mission so top-secret that only two other people know about it. Fisher has to embed himself in the John Brown’s Army, a domestic terrorist group that uses unconventional warfare tactics to…

Glory, glory hallelujah

Got me. The goal of the JBA is to be baaaaaaaaaaaaad. Specifics are never given. John Brown was an American abolitionist, if I recall correctly, but there are so few radical abolitionist groups out there these days that it doesn’t seem like a likely explanation. Plus, it’s hinted at one point that the leader, Emile Dufraisne, is somewhat racist, which confuses the issue further.

Dufraisne is one of the most annoying works of voice acting perpetrated in recent memory. He’s like a particularly verbose Cajun Elmer Fudd. At any moment, you expect him to say “son of a gun, we gonna have some fun on the bayou”. The other characters are only moderately annoying, but they can grate on your nerves. Enrica Villablanca, Fisher’s love interest who’s about half his age, is particularly annoying.

In theory, after the first mission the moral choice mechanic comes into play. As you complete objectives, one side or the other gains or loses trust depending on who benefitted from it. Unfortunately, the choices make no sense and there’s no way to make both sides trust you. If you complete an objective for Third Echelon that the JBA never even finds out about, they still lose trust for you.

If you go too far to one side, you’re told that you’ll have to complete an objective in a certain amount of time to regain trust. I imagined that this would involve some kind of difficult moral choice, but it’s actually nothing more than logging onto the nearest computer and checking in. And most of the major choices could have a third option that would make both sides trust you. It’s really nothing more than a system of arbitrary false dilemmas, a gimmick to make it look like they’re being creative.

The game mechanics are much the same as Chaos Theory, only with a more polished, harder to use interface. One major change is that with all his high tech equipment, Fisher has lost the ability to lean against walls. Navigating narrow corridors with guards in them is a lot more difficult now, and for no good reason. Fisher still has the goggles, but there’s virtually no reason to use them. And going into the OPSAT no longer pauses the game.

This was a great series, with good characterization and writing. It was always a lot of fun to play. Unfortunately, Double Agent ruined that, and with the recent grittyward descent that was Splinter Cell: Conviction, it doesn’t look like we’ll have the old Splinter Cell back any time soon.