Game: Splinter Cell: Double Agent
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Year: October 2006
Reviewed: June 2012
Platform: PC [sloppy-console-port]
Game Type: Third Person Stealth/Shooter
Frustrating: That is the word I immediately think of to describe this game as a one word summary. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a Splinter Cell game, and with good reason. I had read all the reviews at the time, and seen all the user comments, and was convinced that Splinter Cell: Double Agent was a big step back on Chaos Theory, and that I would not enjoy it. I’ve put off playing this game for about 6 years, and finally, through boredom more than anything, I decided to finally give it a try. I’d love to say that it was all false, and that the game isn’t as bad as I thought it was, and indeed, it is not a terrible game at all, but it is exactly how I expected it to be.
It feels like it takes everything that Chaos Theory did for the good, like:- -a great background story; -interesting levels; -decent graphics for the time, some bits looked quite impressive when I first played the game back in 2005; -removing the frustrating game-play elements of the previous games, and; -sticking to a proper stealth experience And replaces it with:- -An average plot with a strange twist that sees Sam Fisher, the central character, going to prison and hooking up with the bad guys, all undercover of course. -A mix of average and good levels, but the experience is lessened by having to go back to one exact same location a total of four times. -Worse graphics. The game looks generally ok in the darker levels, but looks like a much older game when settings include broad-daylight. Splinter Cell has used daylight missions before, but graphically the lighting is terrible. -Adding frustrating game-play elements back into the game, like timers in the mentioned repeated level that you do four times (which means it’s pretty much impossible to complete any secondary objectives) and an annoying safe-lock mini-game that is a tedious pain in the neck to complete -Putting a number of levels in broad daylight, away from the traditional (and sensible) hiding-in-the-shadows stealth game-play. Plus taking away the chance to use some of Sam’s traditional stealth gadgets. Things like sticky cams are included, but I never used one once the entire game. Sam is also lacking his fancy goggles in the JBA Base levels.
Double Agent takes place in the year of 2008, two years after the game was actually made, and starts you off doing a pretty average standard Splinter Cell type of mission for your long term government employers, the NSA. It looks and plays in a very boring way, but is fortunately soon over. Unfortunately though, this isn’t where things suddenly get a lot better, because what basically happens is that after a short cut-scene, the Sam Fisher we used to know changes into a shaven-headed prisoner as part of an undercover mission. Except that, this isn’t a set path, as the game gives you the option to continue to work mainly for the NSA, or you can decide to concentrate more on siding with an organisation called the JBA, which seems like a sort of terrorist organisation based in the USA from what I can make out.
Throughout the game, you have a meter that shows how trusted you are by each faction, and ideally it is best to stay in favour with both as much as you can. For me, I always intended to stay with the good guys, so I always made sure I did NSA tasks, but I still have to do a certain number of tasks of the JBA to keep their trust (and earn further trust), so it becomes a bit of a balancing act, but in a different way to what Sam is usually involved with!
The game seems to follow a path where you would visit the JBA HQ, then do a mission in another part of the world for the JBA, then back to HQ, then on another mission and so on. There are always things to do when you go back to the HQ, and you do get access to some new areas that are locked earlier in the game, but for the most part, it is the same boring place over and over, and you don’t get a lot of your fancy NSA equipment, which makes it less fun too. In total, you go back there four times, and I got a bit fed up with it myself.
In general, the game-play feels suited to a Stealth style, and I spent the vast majority of the game not firing a single bullet, as it is always best to sneak up on your unsuspecting victim and grab them while they are out of sight of other enemies. You have the option to interrogate some of them for extra information, although this isn’t an absolute necessity, and once that is done you can either strangle them (I assume it’s non-lethal as it doesn’t count as a kill on the stats page) or you can just shoot them if you are of a violent disposition. I tended to use a sonic emitter a lot of the game, and it was very handy for directing enemies away from me even after they had come running after me after catching a glimpse of me. So long as I hid again, it doesn’t count as breaking cover, and in a few occasions, using the sonic emitter to make sound come from another location really helped me get around what would have been some frustrating areas.
Outside of the JBA base, you get access to your fancy goggles, which show the same kind of modes you had in previous games. These include the thermal vision, as well as another one which shows up electronic devices, and night vision. There was another vision mode too that I can’t remember, but apart from the thermal mode, which I only used very rarely itself, I never used the others even once during the entire game, as they are a complete waste of space. None of the game-play seems to involve them, which is a shame.
Your standard load-out of weapons includes various grenades: smoke, gas, frag; and you usually have access to a machine gun and a stealth pistol. The stealth pistol has an extra feature on the secondary fire to use an EMP type feature on cameras, although I only had the chance to use that feature on very rare occasions throughout the game. That’s one annoying thing about the game; at various stages when you do finally get access to all the goodies that Sam had in the previous Splinter Cell games, there just isn’t a reason to use them. At other times when those gadgets are not available, and when it would have been nice to use them, they aren’t available. This seems like a very poor design decision, which is something I have come to expect from this game's development anyway.
|Hacking electronic devices is easy…||...picking this type of lock is a nightmare though|
At various points in the game, you’ll have to break into things, such as standard door locks, electronic door locks, safes, computers, and each of these involves a mini-game. Most of these are very easy, but do fit in well with the Splinter Cell theme, but there is one which was very annoying, which was the kind of lock you came across on safes. It became a tedious battle to try and line up three cogs, even though the basic actions are very simple. For some reason, it is extremely difficult to get the cogs to line up just right, and at one point I spent five minutes just trying to get the first of three cogs lined up before giving up and reloading, as a timed event had triggered, and I was way behind where I should have been. Picking these particular locks is a relatively simple concept that somehow fails, because trying to get the three cylinders lined up is a pain, and quite a few times I have had to reload from a quick save because I was spending so long fiddling about with a lock that I was failing to complete other tasks in time. As I mentioned, though, hacking computers and other electronic equipment though is very easy, and involves virtually no challenge but due to this, I feel it works in a way that doesn’t disrupt game flow, which is more important. I have no problem with making the mini-games slightly challenging, but having to rely on luck rather than skill should not be the requirement to complete those tasks.
At a few points throughout the game, you are at the JBA base, and you are required to complete all the objectives in a certain time – you are told this is optional to a point, but not completing objectives loses trust in either the JBA or NSA. Of course, it is best to complete all of them, but on the second time you go back to the JBA base this is made difficult by the use of a pointless and boring task, which involves fitting explosives in some mines, you have to guide the detonator into each mine 10 times, and this takes up about 3-4 minutes, which feels like an eternity and is both extremely dull and not challenging at all. I gained no joy from doing the task, and it didn’t add any immersion to the game, so why include it? If they just made it three mines, it would have felt a lot less painful to do.
Another problem with levels based at the JBA HQ is that they are always timed, meaning you have to rush to get through things, and while I did manage to do it ok the first couple of times, it made me groan every time I saw a timer pop-up as I don’t like to be rushed along in a game, I like to do it at my own pace. In the latter occasions when you go back there, I found it impossible to complete all the tasks, so just concentrated on the main objectives. I didn’t seem to get punished all that much regarding trust loss for not doing the secondary tasks, and for the most part, they were just useless training exercises, so not particularly fun anyway.
The game itself is moderately interesting; it’s not the best of games for story, but not the worst either. It is certainly much weaker than Chaos Theory, the series highlight, but at least it is still trying to be a stealth game, unlike the later Splinter Cell: Conviction which has all but abandoned stealth game play, but this game marks the start of the downfall for Sam Fisher and his adventures. In particular, one of the later levels almost forced you into combat, as you get a secondary task to save someone within a limited time (there is no timer on screen) and you pretty much have to run through a number of army troops to get to it on time. I was relatively luckily, and only one saw me, so I quickly shot that person, but it was annoying because I couldn’t solve it through stealth.
Graphically, the game looks less impressive than Chaos Theory did on release, mainly due to the over-use of blurry effects. It’s a kind of bloom-blur effect, which softens all the cut-scenes, and just ends up looking terrible. Thankfully, most of the time the effect isn’t used, but the basic graphics are certainly no stronger than the previous game in the series, which doesn’t mean that they aren’t good in general, it just means that there has been zero progress made. Nearer the end, the graphics take a dive for the worse, and a large outside level, which seems more suited to a Call of Duty setting, looks very poor. The lighting in daylight is one of the weakest aspects of the game, and the lack of detail in textures and assets in this level made me wonder whether it was originally planned as a night level, but then they just stuck the brightness up to maximum and made it a midday level. It felt as though I was playing a game from around 2002, not one from 2006, when the game was made. Even in the darker levels though, the shadows are absolutely among the worst I’ve seen. It seems to be another major complaint about the game, and it was even mentioned that the console versions had much better shadows, which goes to show how this game was basically just a poor console port. The shadows are of such low resolution that you could probably use a ruler on the screen to measure the size of the blocks.
Continuing from the previous game is the use of in-game product placements and advertisements, and Nokia seems to appear quite a lot. I seem to remember one for Nivea too. It is something that was brought up in our review about Chaos Theory, and while it doesn’t make the game bad as such, every time I see a product placement, it does look very obvious and slightly out of place, as most of the time, the logo is very brightly lit.
Moving on to bugs, the game has a few minor ones, like when you get stuck on scenery on very rare occasions, and the odd graphical bug, such as when I encountered a tower near the end that had part of the middle missing so that to was hovering in mid air. If these were the only bugs though, I wouldn’t be too bothered though, as most games tend to include bugs, and these were ones I could live with. This is not the case though, and there are some pretty major game-stopping bugs that happened in three different parts of the game.
The biggest bug I encountered in the game was when I went to Shanghai, and at a certain point through the level, the game would crash whenever you tried to save, which meant the game was basically over, no matter how far you got even trying to avoid saving, as soon as the next auto-save kicked in, the game would crash. It’s a terrible game breaker, and I nearly gave up on the game. After half an hour of persistence and redoing the same bit of level half a dozen times, I eventually managed to overcome the bug by deleting all my quick saves manually from the save folder (something you can’t do in game) and then completely restarting that mission.
Another issue I have is that when going to the load screen to find a save game, they aren’t in any order at all – you’d think that as they have a timestamp, they’d be in time order, so the latest save would be at the top, with the oldest further down, but no, sloppy coding means they are completely random, so trying to find a particular save when you are someone like me who saves a lot, is pretty damned hard to do, as it is mixed up amongst saves from all the previous missions. The only time I needed to find an old save was when I encountered the Shanghai save-game bug, as normally you can just click to continue from the latest save, but as I was trying to test loading different save points, that is how I found out about this most basic of features being missing. I know from programming myself that creating an ordered list is once of the most basic things you learn to do, but Ubisoft fails miserably here.
On the last level of the game I had an issue where I was trying to sneak around, but for some reason, Sam just wanted to stand up all the time. Maybe his knees were aching and he wanted a stretch, but it wasn’t the time or the place when you are trying to avoid detection.
I was starting to slightly forgive the game for its shortcomings after getting to around 90 per cent of the way through, but then the game decided to commit a cardinal sin again, and surprise-surprise, save game bug makes a comeback. This time I tried a slightly older save file, and it luckily worked, however it still lost me about 15 more minutes of my time messing around with things. To make matters worse, the game introduces another show-stopping bug right in the dying moments of the game. You complete the task you are supposed to, the message pops up, but the game stays on a screen looking down on the level, and no input keys work, forcing you to alt-tab out of the game to close it. It isn’t like all these bugs I have had are just related to my computer, and that they are even random, because whenever I searched there were plenty of people quoting the exact same places for the bugs to pop up. This is stuff that should have been found easily during Quality Control testing, but Ubisoft seem to have done very little of that. Luckily, someone found a fix and it worked for me too; it involves setting the game resolution down to 800x600, and the game continues on just fine, even though the bit shown afterwards is just a dozen seconds long, and looks as though it was rendered in the games engine anyway, rather than being a video file. Although I can’t really tell, as everything looks awful at 800x600 on my widescreen monitor.
Finally the credits roll, and there was a ‘bonus mission’ at the end, which is only another 10 minutes maximum, due to a timer ticking down. It is relatively simple, and shows what happens to one of the other key people, but feels ultimately pointless being tagged on at the end like it is.
Ok I’ll summarise the numerous faults of Splinter Cell: Double Agent.
- It has some major bugs, not many overall, but when they do appear, they are big.
- The story is competent, but quite average, and not all that exciting.
- There is continuing use of in-game adverts
- The graphics range from average at the time, to being downright terrible for the year it was made.
- Stealth game-play doesn’t feel like it is as rewarding to do as it was with earlier games, and in one of the later missions, you are almost forced into combat and/or breaking your cover, which will ruin your stats.
- Limited use of Sam Fisher's usual gadgets, either due to unavailability, or just no reason to use them.
- You can’t skip the opening intro movies every time you start the game. I know it’s Ubisoft, I know it uses the Unreal Engine. I don’t need to be told this every time I start up!
Splinter Cell: Double Agent is a game I wanted to like, because I like stealth game-play and I enjoyed the other Splinter Cell games I played, but because of a number of flaws, it ends up being very average and a somewhat disappointing experience. At its very core, the game-play is still stealth based, and although the basic plot isn’t exactly amazing, it serves competently as a frame upon which the various missions in the game are linked to. Judging the game based on this, I would probably rate it fairly well, even though it isn’t going in the direction I would have liked. What really kills the game is the bugs, and the poor graphics, which are linked partly to a poor choice of settings for Sam to visit. I find it hard to rate the game, because I did like it, and it's certainly no Blacksite, but it is a little bit of a letdown. Had I paid full price back then, I would have been deeply disappointed, and a lot of old forum posts I came across when searching for bug fixes voiced that opinion. As I am playing the game many years later, and already know the poor direction that Ubisoft has taken with the sequels, I’m almost feeling more lenient towards this game now, because compared to them, this is still just about the Sam Fisher we know and like from the earlier games, and this still is at heart a stealth game. It does mark the start of a downward spiral for the series though, and that is a great shame.
Story – standard plot, not as good as Chaos Theory, but probably on par with Pandora Tomorrow. 3/5
Game-play – it is still a stealth game, and I still like it for that reason, but this feels like it is taking the first step away from being completely stealth. It was generally ok though. 3.5/5
Graphics – they are generally decent for about three quarters of the game, but pretty terrible in the remaining quarter. Shadows were awful from start to finish though. 2.5/5
Sound – Michael Ironside returns as Sam Fisher, and voices him well. I didn’t encounter any sound issues in the game. Sound is about the only thing Ubisoft did right. 4/5
Stability/Bugs – the save game issue I got twice, and the freeze at the end of the game made me want to scream. On the whole the game isn’t too bad though I must admit; still, I’m only giving it 2.5/5. That is me being generous too.
Save System – Save anywhere, when it works! Unlimited saves too. Loading saves is more of a pain though, as they are not ordered! 2.5/5
Does this game play like you have a Splinter in your hand? Should the developers be locked in a Cell? Let us know in the forum!