Great. Splinter Cell Double Agent published across (approximately) forty-seven different platforms almost simultaneously. Should be a good for getting the best out of the Xbox 360's next generation power then. Yeah, that's sarcasm – multiplatform games usually translate to the weaker machines (e.g. the PS2) getting a crappy framerate and godawful textures, while the more powerful machines (e.g. the Xbox 360) get a less ambitious game thanks to the gimping that had to be done to get it to fit to the lowest common denominator. It's not just graphics that suffer - sound quality and level size, not to mention game AI and physics can all take a kick in the nuts. But kudos to Ubisoft – although the name, box art and the majority of the marketing is identical, the PS2 and Xbox version of SCDA is an entirely different game from the 'next gen' 360 and (presumably) PS3 version.
SCDA on the 360 is an interesting package – there is the single player story where you follow Sam Fisher on his latest adventures, and the online/system link multi player game. Although they both involve some sneaking around and share a few controls, the two halves of the game are almost entirely different. I'll deal with them both separately.
First up, the single player. Although SCDA is a continuation of the Splinter Cell series, it plays slightly differently to previous titles. You still have to sneak around undetected as much as possible, but now you get some timed missions that are a bit more free form, and you don't get many missions done under the cover of the usual Splinter Cell darkness. I'll spare the plot details, but as you may have guessed from the title of the game, you have to infiltrate a terrorist organisation, and then balance the needs of the NSA (your bosses) with the needs of the terrorists in order to keep you 'in' with the terrorists, but without behaving like a complete psychopath and going civilian-neck-snapping crazy. If you can walk that fine line you'll get some extra gadgets from the NSA to help you along after each mission, which is a nice incentive to play the game 'properly' rather than running around and killing everyone with your guns.
The actual game play elements are hard to fault – the sneaking sections work well, and unseen navigation of the large, complex areas provided by the game is adventuring fun near its best. Most of my problems with the single player game are with the plot and premise of this version of Splinter Cell. While the plot drives things along nicely, there are some glaring holes in it, like how Sam is allowed all his NSA gadgets while doing missions for the terrorists. Also, while the game would like to give you sleepless nights about the moral decisions you have to make in the game, the fact is that there is very little decision making to do – you just have to do a bit of work for both sides and there's really no way of not doing so. Having said that, there are a couple of interesting set pieces that may give the player pause. The game can be raced through in 8 hours, but if you want to sneak around properly expect 12-16 hours.
On the technical side, the single player game is among the prettiest and smoothest on the 360, albeit less so when you have to move the camera around quickly. The sound effects and music are superb, really enhancing the tension and giving the player useful and subtle non-visual feedback. Having said that, there are some bugs in the game where sounds will disappear from the game for a time which can occasionally spoil things.
And so to the multiplayer half of the game. The multi player revolves around fast moving, agile spies and heavily armed mercenaries. The spies have to steal data by wirelessly hacking into one of several consoles around the level, and the mercenaries have to stop them. It sounds simple, it is simple, but it's a lot of fun. The spies are ridiculously athletic, and the huge and complex levels give them the chance to really use these skills. Sam Fisher in the single player campaign feels sloth-like in comparison – quiet maybe, but really slow compared to these guys. They can climb drainpipes and crawl through air ducts like big monkeys, but they are also completely unable to defend themselves other than creeping up on a merc to snap his neck. They do have a device to turn off lights, break windows and hack computers from a distance though, meanwhile the mercs have firepower and little to fear from their adversaries. This means that the spies have to play a game of creatively concealing themselves and continually moving between hacking terminals to keep the mercs guessing, while the mercs have to really work together to keep all the terminals covered (4 terminals and 3 mercs), not to mention actually finding and killing the spies when they attack the terminals or get away with data. You can either play a Spies v Mercs game, or you can play a co-op game as spies, although then the mercs are just computer controlled bots. The multiplayer game style is entirely unique to the Splinter Cell brand, and I'm a big fan, especially with the game playing so well online – nice looking, and mostly lag free. The only down side to the online play is the matchmaking – there's no easy way of getting together a team of two or three friends to be matched up against opposition as in Halo 2 – it's either a private game, or an open match where you get put into a game with strangers. Actually, there is a system whereby you can form a 'Squad', which is essentially a clan, for matches against other Squads, but it's a bit cumbersome when I just want to make an ad hoc squad for that session.
As I said earlier in the review, Splinter Cell Double Agent is a package, and an excellent one at that. Ubisoft could have sold the multi player or single player on their own, although maybe not at full price, and they would stand up just fine. Having said that, like the 360 hardware itself, if you don't intend to get online then you are getting a lot less value for your money than you could be.