Here at The Escapist Compound, we have those motion-sensing sinks in the restroom; the kind which are supposed to "know" when you've got your hand under the spigot, waiting for water. One of them is busted. It's set to cycle off after about three seconds and, once triggered on, must be triggered off again before it will turn back on. This means that mid-way through washing the thing will turn off, and one must remove one's hands from the sink, and then replace them in order to get more water. Three seconds more water, that is. And if it takes you longer than six seconds to wash, you have to do it again for as many three-second intervals as it takes to wash your hands.
Splinter Cell: Double Agent reminded me of that sink. While playing the game, I often found myself having to repeat dumb, inconsistent tasks merely to trigger the thing or event which was "supposed" to happen so that I could advance the game. In a more open-ended game this would be a deal breaker, but in a game like Splinter Cell, where trying combinations of sneaky moves over and over (and over) again is kind of the point, it's less of an issue and there's usually an alternate method of achieving goals. Still, a little more play testing could have avoided this and would have made the game even better than it is.
I'm thinking in particular of the game's very last (optional) level. (Perhaps because it's so fresh in my mind.) In this level, Sam Fisher must sneak onto a Coast Guard cutter, incapacitate a number of enemies, defuse a bomb and then escape before the cutter explodes. Not only does this level exhibit the afore-mentioned broken sink problem, but it's also one of the few levels in the game that seems designed to be played in only one way. One of the shorter levels in the game; I ironically spent more time on it than any of the others (barring the one section of the Kinshasa level I replayed multiple times purely because it was so much fun). One wrong move on the cutter prompts an all-out alert, and even two of the armed guards seem to be too much for Sam to handle with his available weapons; which is a shame, because of all the game's levels, that boat seemed the best-suited for a "one versus many" firefight.
Nevertheless, Splinter Cell: Double Agent is a fantastic, if niche, game. The stealth shooter isn't for everyone, admittedly, but those who are already fans of the Splinter Cell series (or its forefather, Warren Specter's Thief) will find Double Agent to be the genre's true next-gen successor. Compared to previous Sam Fisher adventures, Double Agent's levels (aside from the last one) seem better planned and paced, and one rarely finds oneself "stuck," not knowing how to proceed. The game's excellent, if slightly obtuse, 3D map feature helps immensely, while still allowing the player to ignore help and discover secrets on his own if he so chooses.
But what sets Double Agent, and most Clancy games, apart is its story and voice acting. Clancy's work may not be considered "high literature," but the man (and those who write under his name) knows how to weave a compelling yarn, and in Double Agent, the Clancy team is in fine form. The opening of Double Agent, like a good Bond film, finds Sam Fisher in a typical "day in the life," infiltrating a secret facility to defuse a missile which will undoubtedly kill millions. Unfortunately the mission goes awry, and upon extraction Sam gets another dose of bad news, which sends him on a downward spiral which ends him in a federal penitentiary.
That's when things get interesting. Sam is tasked by his handlers at Third Echelon (who arranged for his incarceration) to facilitate a fellow prisoner's escape in order to gain his trust, and thereby infiltrate said prisoner's secret terrorist organization, which is presumably working on a plot to do something or another (who cares at this point?). Sam's mission: infiltrate, earn their trust and foil the plot. No sweat. There's even a girl up for grabs. It's standard spy fare with Clancy's eye for military accuracy and political intrigue, and it's a hell of a way to escape for 20 or so hours.
A good story, however, would be useless without good acting, and Double Agent delivers in that regard as well. Not only from the voice cast (again led by Hollywood veteran Michael Ironside), but also from, strangely enough, the character rendering. It's rare to find a game in which all of the characters don't move in exactly the same way, but Ubisoft Shanghai pulled off some true trickery in matching the game characters' movements to their characterizations. Sam moves with a bad ass swagger, his nemesis, Moss, walks like he has something in his ass and the game's villain, the laid-back, yet stunningly evil Emile Dufraisne (voiced by Keith Szarabajka) walks with just the right amount of molasses-slow, New Orleans flair. It's a subtle effect, but it makes participating in the occasional in-game movie that much more endurable.
Aside from story, what makes a good spy story good is locations, locations, locations. And on that score, I'd have to give Double Agent slightly less than high marks. The game's levels (snow-bound complex, prison, a ship wrecked on the Arctic ice, a Shanghai hotel, a cruise ship and a war-torn African city) are beautifully rendered, wonderfully varied and well-conceived, but there don't seem to be enough of them. I savored every encounter of every level of this game like a mouthful of 20-year old scotch, but even then I felt like there could have been more levels, or what there were could have been longer.
The Kinshasa level in particular (complete with the obligatory hanging-from-the-ceiling section) was a true immersion masterpiece, but the game's frequent returns to the terrorist gang's secret hideout all but erased the exhilaration of being a world-traveling spy. Like returning home from vacation to find that the power has gone out, and the food in the freezer has spoiled, these levels's reliance on an unforgiving timer and a weapon-less Sam felt like a step backward in what is otherwise an innovative and wonderful game.
Adding to the disillusionment is one particular mini-game involving mines and its sudden return at a critical moment in the game. The story team and actors did a well enough job infusing dynamism and tension into the game, it needn't have been necessary to rely on stupid trickery to up the anxiety level. I won't go so far as to say that this one, idiotic addition ruined the game, but some may disagree, and it'd be hard to argue against them.
Final Verdict: If you're a fan of the genre (or the series) this game is worth the price of a purchase. There's enough here - minor irritations aside - to keep you busy for a long succession of winter nights, and you just may want to revisit this gem for a second go. The multiplayer is also a well-balanced evolution of the spy versus mercenary play that made Chaos Theory both adored and despised on the Xbox Live circuit. Otherwise it's at least worth a rent. Since this is easily the best of the genre to date, I can see it winning over some fence-sitters. You may find that Ubi has smoothed away the rough edges that have been keeping you from enjoying a "stealther" in the past. Just prepare yourself to have to retrigger the water in the sink every three seconds - and save often.