Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent
My Ears Have just popped for the third time, as the sleek, art deco lift smoothly glides to a halt at the 87th floor of the Grand Hyatt, Shanghai - officially the world's tallest hotel. Stepping out into the Cloud 9 liar, I edge nervously towards the steel and glass viewing point and look down onto the Blade Runner-esque forest of neon toy-town skyscrapers. Suddenly, my stomach lurches 180-degrees as 1 actually feel the disconcerting sway of the building that Sam Fisher will soon rappel down.
Actually, the goggle-wearing Third Echelon agent will be clambering inside and outside a 1,380 ft skyscraper that looks uncannily like the Jin Mao Tower, but isn't Ubisoft and particularly the game's coproducer Julian Gerighty are wary of the comparison: "I just don't want to get sued," he laughs.
I'm here in the People's Republic of China for an exclusive look at the fourth Splinter Cell game Double Agent, which is currently being coded by a friendly cosmopolitan crew of over 130 people at Ubisoft's Shanghai studios. The number four is extremely unlucky in China (it sounds like the Cantonese word for death), but this doesn't concern the team working on the next important game in the series.
"Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory were critically-acclaimed games. Hie challenge was, 'OK we have enormous responsibility, but we have to make the new Splinter Cell super-interesting for us, then hopefully it'll be exciting for everybody else'," explains Gerighty. "If you don't renew, you'll go the way of Tomb Raider, where you do the same thing over seven or more games."
The developers cite Resident Evil 4 as an inspiration of how to refresh a franchise, keep the hardcore fans and introduce a raft of new players. In this respect, Double Agent marks some shocking revelations for fans: Sam Fisher without his trademark goggles for much of the adventure; daylight maps: a new visibility bar replacement; swimming sequences; a radical Halo/Call of Duty-style health system; no HUD. While? Bjuhuli? Don't worry - as I discovered after finally prising my fingers away from the iron railings on the hair-raising 87th floor of the Grand Hyatt mega-hotel, Double Agent could be the Fisher king's best game yet.
Following the death of his daughter Sarah, our hero falls into a deep bout of depression before accepting a mission from Lambert at the NSA to become an NOC (Non-Official Cover) agent - the highest form of espionage - in order to infiltrate a USA-based terrorist organisation known as John Brown's Army. Sam is planted in Ellsworth prison as a bank robber, with a secret mission to befriend JBA member Jamie Washington and break out of jail.
"We wanted to amplify the emotionally intensive experience, and so after discovering movies like Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong Triad-infiltration action movie) we made the Double Agent concept a central part of every design decision, with dual objectives for Sam in every mission," says Gerighty. "Not only will he have objectives from the terrorists, but he'll have objectives from the NSA. The tension comes from the impossible feat of satisfying both clients and from this one rule - do whatever you have to do, but don't blow your cover." This gives you real moral dilemmas - how far are you going to go to do good in the long term? Would you kill an innocent person if you knew it would save 3,000 people? What if it was your girlfriend?
These moments are heightened in what the team is calling directed scenes, which still involve you playing the game, but ixesent you with ail agonising dual choice. It's a bit like choosing between a Hob Nob ora Jaffa Cake with your cup of tea.
"For me, the most interesting relationship Sam has in the game is with the love interest Enrica. She's an eco-tcrrorist and you can understand what she wants, but really disagree with the moans. Nothing is black and white. Of course, at the end of the day you have to stop the terrorists for your job and your morals, but the different people in the organisation will make that a lot more complex."
Next, we're shown the Iceland tutorial level which is more traditional Splinter Cell fare, as you have to infiltrate a Ixisc and stop the launching of a missile destined to bring down a passenger plane. Except you begin Double Agent thrown in at the deep end (literally) with a new swimming skill to play with, complete with oxygen-bubbling scuba gear. Also, you're joined by a young rookie, known as John Doc - you can tell he's the new boy because his mask only Ims two goggles (god help the poor sod beneath him who only Ims one goggle). Doe is one of the game's new Al-controlled |Mrtners, who yon work with co-o|x?ratively through the level, copying and learning his kill moves, using him to distract enemies and (jetting the ocki leq-up into hard-to-access areas.
"You're below the ice flow, and can see guards above through holes in the ice," adds Gerighty. "By knocking on the ice you'll attract the guards to different areas, allowing you to up out of the water, grab them and slit their throats underwater. It's for the kids!" Other NPCs that help you out in the game include another NSA agent called HislMin, jjIus you also finally get to play with hots in the stonking new team-lMsed multiplayer mode.
Next up is one of the daytime maps, set in Kinshasa, Africa, where a civil war is raging between military justice and reliefs. It's here, in the dusty and detritus-ridden backstreets that you can really see the vision of the new Splinter Cell-the level is the antithesis of the previous games.
"This comes into effect in say, a snowstorm, says Smith. "Previously, you'd have no idea whether the guys over the hill could see you or not. Now, as long as it's green, you're OK. If it turns orange, the goons have seen something in the snow, so you can back away for a while. You can play with the Al in a way you've never done before."
As for the PC version, the mouse/keyboard control system should remain unchanged from Chaos Theory, as fans have told the team it's fine. Graphically, the team are looking to match the Xbox 360 version for the minimum spec, although this is expected to be quite high - 3GHz with shader-only 3D cards. However, Splinter Cell: Double Agent will be compatible with the new AGE IA PliysX card, and the PC developers are implementing all kinds of subtle stuff that the 360 team don't have time for, such as physics on plants and vegetation that moves as Sam brushes past.
Double Agent looks stunning too, with dynamic lighting, interactive water $1111100$ (from similar technology used in the movie The Perfect Storm), detailed textures for skin that shimmers with sweat in the African sun. and clothes that fold and ruffle realistically in the urban sprawl of New York. Each of the game's 180-plus characters has been designed with the same care and attention as Sam Fisher, with asymmetric faces (not just left-right copies), skin texture, unique blemishes and subtle details such as the fact that a person's eyes will animated even if they're wearing dark sunglasses.
Yes, it may my jetlag speaking, but this brave re-invention of Splinter Cell looks very promising. Even without his trademark goggles, Sam Fisher (voiced again by Michael Ironside) is proving to be a heavyweight character who has the potential of real emotional highs and lows - something that was definitely missing in previous games. Having dual objectives for missions is something that I've wanted to see in more games. The great TIE Fighter and more recently titles such as KOTOR and Oblivion have allowed you to create your own path through the moral maze, and as a result have been infinitely more engaging. With Splinter Cell: Double Agent, the stealth genre is evolving...
"Previously, the multiplayer was all based on skill - it was very hardcore," says senior producer Arnaud Carette. "Now, we hold your hand for the first hour to show possibilities of the map, with 'ghosts' showing where you can move and what actions you can perform. Also, to help gamers get to grips with the environments and characters and start to compete, we've added bots. We wanted the Al to act realistically, to give you the feeling you're playing against real people. The bots can communicate between one another, make real-time strategies and tactics and will be able to kick your ass."
Multiplayer is now up to three-versus-three, with Upsilon forces (mercenaries) versus spies. However, the tricky part as a spy is not getting the objective or info, but extracting yourself safe and alive afterwards. The Upsilon force now has a powerful proximity radar, but like the movie Aliens, it shows the threat is near but not whether they're above, below, in front or behind you. The spies, meanwhile, can now hack systems using limited wi-fi, which adds a fascinating element of cat and mouse as you move around trying to avoid the attention of the meres. Each player has three lives during the game, and for the spies, you can leave the hacking and return to the same place later if things get too hot - however, if you're shot and killed, you lose the entire file.
The multiplayer Team Hack level shown was the typical warehouse affair, but the tension was palpable between the members of the Ubisoft dev team as the spies attempted to steal away information from four computer terminals, while the meres tracked them down. Disappointingly, there's none of the co-op multiplayer missions that were introduced in Chaos Theory, but the team have decided to focus on the Al bots to train up beginners offline so they can enjoy the full Splinter Cell experience with their friends online. Here's the full list of modes:
- Team Hack: hack the other team's computer and protect yours.
- Deathmatch: individual or team.
- Blitz alternate attack and defence and lead your team to victory.
- Key Run: grab the only key on the map to hack high-security computers.
- Sam vs All: can one Sam Fisher defeat three Upsilon spies? * Countdown: the more you kill, the more you play...
Good for the Stealth
If there's one thing that's going to prevent you experimenting with multiple pathways and different ways of moving through levels in a stealth game, it's a health system that relies on first-aid packs. Double Agent's senior designer CT Smith was determined to create a more forgiving system: "In the recent Winter Olympics, the USA and Canada had impact suits -material that hardens on impact. We took that idea a couple of generations ahead for military purposes to the point where it can stop a bullet. However, after a few hits, the suit can't cope, so you need to take a break for it to recover, which actually encourages stealth - because when in combat the last thing you want to do is stand still!"
What this means for players, in a similar way to the systems in Halo or Call of Duty 2, is that if you cock-up a situation of getting past a guard, you can go and recover for a while, then try again without feeling as if you're being punished. The new health system can also be adapted to different situations, so in jail, Sam is shot at with a non-lethal riot shotgun (that he can also pick up and use) - if he takes too many hits, he's knocked unconscious and wakes up in the prison infirmary. Smith says: "Combine this health system with the new moment-to-moment traffic light' feedback system on Sam showing what the Al is thinking, and the game is immediately much more fun."
Download Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent
What A Great day. Besides waking up at 4am just to get there, my trip to Annecy in the foothills of the French Alps was a happy time. The reason is printed lovingly across the page just a few inches away: Splinter Cell: Double Agent's multiplayer mode. Having been developed from the ground up in a heavily modified Unreal 2 engine by an entirely different team, it's essentially a separate game from the single-player component. The premise, if you're not familiar with the multiplayer modes of Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, is one of spies versus mercenaries. Three spies must hack three security terminals, controlling from a standard Splinter Cell third-person viewpoint and using many of the main game's acrobatic tricks. Three meres must prevent the spies from doing this, from a first-person viewpoint, using a gun and a flashlight. Sound familiar? Well it should, because it's based on the much-played ancient Egyptian sport of hide-and-seek, albeit on a far more deadly and technological level.
This time around, the team are intent on making it more accessible to newcomers, offering visual instructions as to where you can go and what you can do as a spy for the first hour of play. Gone are the confusing and almost unworkable server interfaces, and arriving on the console train is an Xbox Live-style interface with optimatch and buddy list options.
Other changes intensify the experience hugely, such as the spy's new-found ability to hack from a distance. Consider this situation I found myself in, sitting in complete darkness on some rafters, metres above a terminal I was hacking. The hacked terminal alerts a mere, who enters the room - his Aliens-style proximity detector blipping away, letting him know I'm within ten metres of him.
I watch, he's standing next to the terminal and looking in every direction, shining his torch, searching for me - all I need is another ten seconds and I'm done. In previous games, I'd have to stand right next to the terminal as I hacked, and he would have found and killed me by now. Instead though, we're playing a game of cat and mouse; an online test of faith.
Around about that point the mere stares straight at me, and for a moment I'm unsure if I've been spotted. Just like when you can't tell if the old man with sunglasses on the bus is staring at your crotch, your flee or flee-harder instinct kicks in. As a spy, your only defence is hiding in the shadows or running away. In this situation, the mere shot me right between the goggle-eyes, the game's newly developed killcam explaining why it happened - my electromagnetic hacking tools had shown up on his appropriate visor. Clever, clever, clever.
At the end of the day, Martin Korda and I won wine and cheese for being the best spies there. Korda later called to explain it was meat, and not cheese. He sounded happy. I was too. The multiplayer side of Double Agent will be the cheese (or meat) to the single-player's wine, and it shall make a glorious feast.
The Beginning Of the end for the Splinter Cell series or the end of the beginning? Who knows what the next iteration will bring, but for now, this is the flawed gem that represents all that is good and bad with the series.
The good being that the gameplay is just what you'd expect and is still great fun. The bad is represented by the hideous bugs that, even now, rear their grotesque heads out of the screen and clamp their acid-dripping mouths over your poor, unprotected eyes.
This was such a shame, as clearly there is just as much magic, if not more, in this game than there was in the other Splinter Cell games, it was just cruelly tarnished by the bug problem. Such was the extent of the bug troubles that Ubisoft's reputation was perhaps forever affected in the eyes of thousands of consumers because of the state the game was released in.
A great game, just tragically, and fatally, broken.
It was the ultimate game of cat-and-mouse until the mice ruined all the fun. A few years back, Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow (PS2/XB) introduced a revolutionary multiplayer game to the stealth genre.
It was ingenious a tense 2-on-2 mode where sneaky spies went on covert missions while heavily armed mercenaries hunted and gunned them down. But a funny thing happened: The mice got good. The hardcore fans have gotten so good, they slaughter the newbies before they're given a chance to enjoy the game, the developers tell us. You don't say. It was obvious the multiplayer, while critically acclaimed, wasn't quite working when pro spies were going on the offensive and taking out mercenaries before they knew what hit them. The game failed the other way, too: It was near impossible for new spies to beat a couple of veteran meres. It was enough to frustrate even the most seasoned of gamers.
Now the developers are shooting for a more accessible, newbie-friendly 3-on-3 game in the Xbox 360 edition of Double Agent (tts also scheduled to hit PS2, Xbox, and GameCube with different feature sets). It's the right idea, but will it turn off the hardcore fans of Pandora Tomorrow and Us sequel, Chaos Theory ?
Here's a look at what's new, what's out, and what's being done to give the cats (and rookie mice) a fighting chance in the world of Splinter Cell.
Then: In Pandora and Chaos, spies were equipped to hold their own against the meres. They had four slots to hold stuff like smoke grenades, flashbangs, or sticky cameras (that emitted knockout gas) to help get meres off their backs, and they had offensive help in a shocker gun and combat moves like an elbow smash or body-drop attack.
Now The spies refam to do their good, government-approved deeds. But with the focus on simplifying the gameplay, the developers neutered these shadowy agents. The shockergun, elbow smash, and most of the gadgets are out point being, these guys are supposed to be sneaking around, not charging in for battle. The spies only carry one gadget at a time, which they can pick at the start of the mission and swap out at the designated drop zone. These include smoke grenades, flashbangs, health needles (to healyou ora teammate), and jammers (which spook a mercenary into thinking a spy is somewhere that he's not). The spies keep their drop attack and humiliation-inducing rear chokehold for the 360.
The spies are slightly more nimble than before, which helps alleviate the pain from the offensive castration. Hitting the right bumper in certain places, for example, will allow spies to do a quick escape move, such as leaping through a window or sliding into an air vent. The spies also have an all-purpose hacking device they can use it to shoot out lights, mess up mercenary electronics, or grab computer files from a distance.
Then: Mercenaries were stacked Chaos Theory: three typ of guns and mines, spy traps, frag grenades, and so on. The also had several tools such as laser sights, flashlights, sound detectors, and a couple of different vision modes to track down well-hidden spies.
Now: The meres lose most of their goodies, but they're well-equipped to deal with the government boys in tights (only) gun is the assault rifle with integrated grenade and sniper scope. Instead of mines or spy traps (or gas masks or flares or...), the meres get remote-controlled, camera-equipped drones that can go into those areas that spies love and meres can't reach, air vents and crawlspaces. Oh, these things can be set to explode, too. But as far as gadgets go, the drone's it for this team.
Mercs see the world in such a more simplified manner now. They can turn on an adjustable flashlight on their guns, but they no longer have a laser sight. The motion-tracking display is now built into the visor if the spies run around, they will appear highlighted to the mercenaries without the meres having to switch on a separate motion-tracking vision. But EMF vision is still something the meres have to activate manually: Turn it on, and if a spy's using any of his vision modes (thermal, night), he'll light up on the mere's screen like a neon please shoot me" sign. Instead of arrows pointing out to meres where sound (from an on-the-move spy) is coming from, they get less direct help from a proximity detector, which works visually (an onscreen range indicator), audibly (heartbeat), and tactilely (controller rumble) when a spy (or his fake-out jammer) is nearby.
Then: Two spies worked together to dear objectives that was the easy part The hard part was avoiding mines, spy traps, laser trip wires, cameras, and presence detectors. That was enough crap to keep a spy busy for, oh...two minutes until he got caught and killed.
Now All that stuff above? Gone. The only things spies have to worry about are mere drones and, well, the meres themselves. Spies are more free to run about the levels! since the dangerous obstacles you had to stop and scan for are things of the past. All objectives are just a straightforward infiltrate and extract, where the spies have to hack into various computerterminals to download data to take back to the drop zone (the farther away a spy is from the station, the weaker his hacking signal and, therefore, the slower the download). A helpful onscreen minimap helps spies and meres see where their teammates and objectives are, including which terminal is actively being hacked.
The map designs are taking the simpler and accessible" route as well. The designers are toning down the mazes of vents, multifloored rooms, and alternate paths from previous games to create more straightforward stages that are a bit easier to navigate. Each map is designed and playtested to be memorized in 10 to 15 minutes max, the developers tell us. On top of that, animated helper ghosts are scattered throughout each level to help beginners get their bearings. For example, a ghost with a large Y icon above his head might be climbing a pipe, letting players know that a.) that pipe is climbable to reach a higher elevation, and b.) you need to hit a button to do it (guess which one?). These friendly ghost guides eventually disappear after the player sees them a few times.
THE CO-OP GAME
Then: Chaos Theory let you play through campaign-style missions with a fellow spy. It was cool, but short with an abrupt no-ending.
Now: In Double Agent, cooperative mode is a series of standalone missions done more in the style of the versus game rather than a story- and dialogue-driven campaign mode. Your team of human spies goes up against computer-controlled meres and takes care of specific taski, such as download as much data as possible within the time limit (without needing to secure the data back at the drop zone)." Some of these co-op" missions are even competitive, like the first to bring back two discs of data wins. Ubisoft is planning on having six co-op challenges available from the start, 12 more to unlock after you've progressed a little bit, then another 12 to download over Xbox Live at a later date.
THE OPINION OF A LONE GAMER
Then:Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrowand Chaos Theory: two of the finest multiplayer games I've ever played, handicapped only by the fact that most of my gaming friends and co-workers won't even touch them because they're too complex, hard- core, and frustrating. My gaming friends and co-workers are a bunch of big babies. Now: Initially, I was underwhelmed by the new direction of Splinter Cell multiplayer. No multiple gadgets? No clever traps to catch spies? Where's all the strategy that went into each matchup? Alas, those days look to be over, unless I want to keep myChaos Theory disc permanently on deck. But the more I played Double Agent multi, the more it grew on me. I'm not sure if it's because I'm jonesing for any Splinter Cell versus action (it's been over a year since Chaos Theory came out) or what, but I was starting to appreciate how smoothly the game was moving along because, as a spy, I didn't have to stop every few tiptoed steps to scan for cameras, mines, spy traps, and all that crap I only needed to worry about the mercs, objectives, and keeping quiet like a good spy should. And once I realized I shouldn't actively be going after mercs all the time (you know, being offensively neutered and all), it did put me in a more paranoid role. I'm weak, I'm near-powerless, and I really need to stick to the shadows and keep out of sight. Hey, what do you know? This new spy game may actually end up being more intense.... But on the merc side, I was definitely missing setting up all my antispy wares. At the same time, though, I can appreciate how much less frustrating my new merc was making the game for the spies and how interactions needed a more personal touch (no more anonymous mine kills you'll have to see the spy to put him to rest).
So while we lose a lot of the hardcore, strategic gameplay in versus play, at the very least, I know more of my big-baby friends and co-workers will be willing to face off with and against me in Double Agent. And seeing as how most of them wouldn't play Chaos Theory with me, it looks like these changes are for the better after all...