The “stealth genre” hasn’t always been one favored by yours truly. I've generally kept my feelings neutral concerning these more tact-oriented titles as my taste in playable entertainment yearns for that of a faster-paced experience as opposed to the slow, methodical approach of games like "Hitman," its kin, and a personal favorite of mine, the "Thief" series. But the stealth/action genre is one that I've grown appreciative of as a whole as I, too, have grown and matured.
The genre isn't for everybody though as I’m sure nearly every gamer who has tried one of these bad boys is well aware. For most of us it’s probably much easier to pick up the controller, throw in a game, and run full-throttle into a gun battle rather than think things through logically and react to the situation accordingly. Gunfights are a great stress reliever in videogames if done correctly and I'm probably the first gamer in line to tell you that, but the stealth genre NEEDS to exist. And as night-and-day different as the action and stealth genres are, in this case, I can't say that paltry comparison between the two is even something worth considering.
Granted, “Splinter Cell: Double Agent” may be just as slow-paced as any of the other games mentioned above with equal emphasis on brains over brawn, but that is vastly refreshing in a day and age where action games outsell brainy thinkers by much more than mere pennies. Moreover, this series’ (“Splinter Cell’s”) overt success probably has something to do with its unique approach to stealth game play. Where “Thief,” for example, was very upfront with its sneak-n-evade mechanics and allowed for only the very basics some 10 odd years ago, “Splinter Cell” and its sequels (particularly this one) places you right in the middle of an interactive spy film; the very form of filmic media this superb series has been culling its unique game play attributes from since its inception. Being able to greatly interact with a fantastic looking environment in so many unique ways similar to that classy genre of cinema is particularly why “Splinter Cell: Double Agent” is such a beautifully constructed stealth game and is also why it is so much fun to play.
UbiSoft Montreal has gone to great lengths to make sure that this experience is one that won’t be forgotten any time soon. Where other stealth games may have only allowed you to stay within strict "sneaker" guidelines (i.e. not being seen, picking enemies off from a distance/close-up silently if you so choose, maybe eliminating light sources etc…), “Double Agent” is such an incredibly involving experience because the creators have decided to throw in nearly every physical technique that has been achieved in many of the high grossing spy features of today and yesteryear. Forget that "Double Agent" is decidedly linear; you’ll be having too much fun pulling baddies through ice & breaking their necks or rappelling down huge sky scrapers to even notice. The cinematic flair, panache and interactivity of the "Bond/Bourne" films gets what I’m going to call the “Splinter Cell makeover.” "Double Agent" allows for rappelling, carving then entering through windows, optic-wiring under doors, sky diving, and all sorts of other immersive aspects of game play. "Double Agent" takes the most memorable scenes of nearly every spy film ever conceived and multiplies it on the “cool” scale by about 50.
Not only is Sam Fisher’s latest interactive journey a hell of a lot of fun, it’s also awesomely cinematic. Introduced in this game to tie in with the double agent concept in its title is a storyline that places Fisher in cahoots with a terrorist outfit (John Brown’s Army) while also having to keep his allegiances with the NSA. You complete tasks during each mission in any order you like. Each objective given to Fisher is optional as well. How you play the game (such as who is killed, what objectives you perform for what outfit, etc…), though optional, will result in increased trust if completed, or a loss in trust if not completed. Completing these tasks will ultimately determine the ending of the game. There are even a handful of scripted sequences in-game where you must decide if a prisoner lives or dies at your hands. Kill them and you gain trust from John Brown’s Army (from here on out referred to as JBA) or, if you don’t, from the NSA. It’s a wonderfully implemented game play mechanic and is spectacularly immersive.
Even if it were a cut-and-dried stealth game, much like the prior three were, the game would have worked beautifully. The AI can be so cunning and so intelligent that it makes “Double Agent’s” otherwise easy difficulty seem much more difficult. Although it isn’t the hardest stealth game I’ve ever encountered, the AI is programmed beautifully and there was nary an intelligence glitch (such as being seen or shot through a wall) to be found. Pathfinding wasn't a problem for the various NPCs either and it made the entire experience all the more believable. Even without the above mentioned physical manuevers factored in, the whole experience would have been just as rewarding. Hell, I would have been just as pleased with the final results even if “Double Agent” was only a mere carbon copy, game play-wise, of its hugely successful predecessors. Like the old saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ But the entire experience is totally fresh, brand new, and 100% involving.
Graphically, there were few games of the time that could touch “Double Agent.” Released at the tail-end of 2006 just in time for the holiday season and running on a highly modified Unreal 2 Engine (although officially nicknamed Unreal Engine 2.5 for “Double Agent”) it looks surprisingly better than the many Unreal 3 Engine releases that we’ve been seeing as of late. Character models, as usual with any iteration of an Unreal-powered graphics engine, are its most impressive facet, and everyone from Sam Fisher to the JBA’s Moss and Emile looks spectacular. Lighting and shading effects are spectacularly next-gen and top-of-the-line as well. Level design is also intuitive and sharp; probably the best of any “Splinter Cell” game thus far. The missions set in areas with ice and snow effects are, hands down, the best constructed by far. It’s a testament to the design team that a game released nearly a year and a half ago, running on dated technology, can look as good as it does and still manage to beat out most of the competition.
Having Michael Ironside voice the main character in your videogame really forces you to step up the quality of your product and UbiSoft have certainly done so here. The all-around voice talent is surprisingly solid if not near 100% for this go ‘round. The supporters are held up by a firm foundation from Ironside and the remaining members of the cast give stupendous performances also. Sound effects are sparse but effective when put to use. The lack of music is something I felt enhanced the game play, as well as the mood, and I was more than glad to have a lack of music in sections where it may have distracted otherwise. The areas where the sound design truly counts, such as voiceacting and sound effects, are quality and, really, you couldn’t ask for much more than that.
“Double Agent” is probably one of the few stealth games I would put in my all-time top ten games without hesitation. Not because there’s anything wrong with the stealth genre, mind you, but only because games of that ilk tend not to hold my interest for very long. I was never a big “Splinter Cell” fan before this game, but then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Or maybe it was just this game, I’m not sure. The interactivity on display here, the visuals, the voiceacting, the “double agent” game play, the smart AI; it all forms one hell of a game. It’s certainly the best stealth/shooter I’ve ever played as well as the best “Splinter Cell” game thus far. It’s not for everybody and if you’re not into slower-paced games where it is a MUST to take it slow, you definitely won’t enjoy this. But for fans of any of Sam Fisher’s past adventures, pick this up immediately. Take it from me, its well worth the dough.