Developed by Ubisoft Shanghai
Released in 2006
Played in 2006
Played on Xbox 360
Played to completion
What it’s about
The Splinter Cell series mixes up its established formula by sending veteran spy Sam Fisher undercover on a mission to infiltrate a domestic terror cell. Sam’s in a pretty dark emotional place, having recently lost his daughter in a car accident, and the story seems designed to push him to the edge of the NSA’s (and by extension, the player’s) comfort zone. Sam has to gain his mayhem-enthusiast friends’ trust while balancing the interests of the NSA and his larger mission goals. For a while it seems like the escalating demands of both sides are leading to a riveting finale, but then the game peters out with a shameful elipsis of an ending.
How it plays
In many respects, Double Agent has the most refined and satisfying gameplay in the series. After Chaos Theory, which was mechanically polished but narratively tired, Ubisoft clearly felt that it was time to venture off the beaten path with Double Agent’s story. The core mechanics are as tight as ever though, and the game’s low-tech approach to missions now that Sam is on his own really helps to streamline and refocus gameplay that had started to become gadget-heavy in previous installments.
Sneaking in this game feels great. There’s something about the chaotic, quick-and-dirty nature of Sam’s missions in this game that encourages you to really make the most of your surroundings and limited gear. You feel outmatched, under-prepared and empty-handed, so you need to use your wits to survive. This also gives you a certain degree of cover for mistakes; the design encourages you to make the most of bad situations, distinguishing it from the iterative perfectionist gameplay of previous installments.
How it feels
Unfortunately the game never quite seems to align with the story it wants to tell. The game gives you a cutscene where Sam hears the news about his daughter’s death and pulls off his tech goggles, tossing them out of the Osprey. Rather than staying with Sam, the camera (bizarrely) follows the goggles down into the ocean. I don’t mean to fixate too much on this but to me it feels like such a strange cinematography decision. The goggles are meaningless to Sam; they are only significant to the branding of the series. That he bothered to pull them off and wing them aside seems suspect, but for the camera to follow this as if it means anything is strangely displacing. We should be with Sam, experiencing what he’s experiencing. Instead, we next see Sam with a shaved head and a prison jumpsuit, being led into his cell block. A few quick flashes intercut into this scene show us Sarah’s death, Sam’s self-destruction and so on in a matter of seconds. And then… Sam’s been in prison for months, has gained the trust of Jaime and planned his escape. That is some seriously rushed storytelling!
This problem plagues the game throughout. The story pushes Sam into dark and “extreme” territory but it never gives the player enough connection and context to follow him in. It honestly feels at times like a movie tie-in game, where a film’s narrative and emotional beats are compressed down to the minimum necessary connective tissue between missions. The game never seems to want to take five minutes to explore any of the dramatic hooks it’s skimming past.
Look, it’s still a Splinter Cell game. The level design is great. The mechanics are great. And for once the game includes new elements that feel legitimately fresh. The messy, unplanned feel of the missions feel more real and believable than any of the series’ super-spy stuff ever did. The admittedly heavy amount of scripting in the game still manages to thrill you with just-in-time successes and escapes, even when you see that the developers are cheating a bit.
The reputation system is a lot of fun, giving the player additional objectives in mission and frequently forcing tough decisions on the player. It brings the themes of the story into gameplay in the best possible way. And the social stealth missions in the JBA HQ are delightful, giving you a myriad of optional goals and letting you take ownership of your successes and failures.
But the story, god, the story. It didn’t have to be this bad. The bones of the thing were strong! But the story and the game feel completely at odds with each other. More than any previous Splinter Cell game, Double Agent puts the focus squarely on Sam Fisher as a person, rather than a weapon. This mission is deeply personal for him, but we are never allowed to get close enough to Sam’s grief to find it compelling. Sam’s daughter, used to great effect in previous games with a much lighter touch, here feels like she has been thrown under the literal and figurative bus to serve the needs of the plot. It’s unseemly. If this served a greater purpose than giving Ubisoft the excuse for changing up the status quo it could be forgiven, but it really does feel terribly cynical. The plot needs Sam to suffer, but the game does not want to spend any time on this; it’s just the setup.
Why don’t we spend time with Sam after learning of his daughter’s death? See his slide into depression and self-destructive behavior firsthand, in something more significant than few seconds of flashback? Why don’t we get to play the bank heist that put him in prison, or engineer the circumstances that allow him to win Jaime’s trust? The game’s plot just seems to be in such a huge hurry to go nowhere in particular.
After you have infiltrate the JBA, the game makes no attempt at character development for any of your terrorist compatriots. You can collect biographical data on them but it amounts to dossier-like exposition. No interaction beyond the occasional bark is allowed while the player is in control, and the cutscenes are pretty taciturn as well. It’s such a glaring missed opportunity. The villains needed to be fully realized people that we could understand and perhaps even empathize with; the player needed to feel conflicted about the fact that s/he is betraying their trust. The duality of the double agent’s sympathies is the crux of the dramatic tension of a story like this and the emotional payoff is in seeing who ends up on which side by the end. There’s never any question here who the good guys and bad guys are.
At one point, during one of the HQ sequences, the player might enter a particular room and find Enrica, the only female terrorist in the group. Without any input from the player, Sam apparently puts “the moves” on her to avoid questions about why he was sneaking into her room, and it’s implied that they sleep together. (Incidentally, this has the effect of ending this HQ sequence early even if you have unfinished objectives, making it practically a “fail state”. I discovered it by accident and had to reload my game so I could get the rest of my stuff done.) Later on, the game presents the laughable dilemma of choosing between letting innocents die or framing Enrica, leading to her death. Was this supposed to be a tough decision? Was I supposed to be invested in a romance subplot so thin that I’m not 100% certain it existed? Even those players who accidentally tripped into Enrica’s bed had to consider this one a no-brainer.
What I’d change
Slow things down. Give this story the space it needs to breathe. Build missions around the emotional journey of the character, not the plot machinations of yet another madman-with-a-bomb story. We really have seen enough of those in Splinter Cell games. Take the time to flesh out the terrorist characters, especially those with whom we’re supposed to have any emotional connection. Ideally this should be handled through gameplay in addition to the cutscenes. Pair me up with these characters on missions. Let me interact with them in the HQ. Give me a reason to care about the fact that I am lying to everyone here. A double agent story without moral ambiguity is a waste of my time.
Don’t put your writers and your mission designers on different floors.
Hindsight from 2013
While I really did enjoy this game at the time, looking back it feels like the beginning of the end for this series. Splinter Cell: Conviction, which I must stress I have not personally played, looks like a wretchedly self-indulgent paranoia fantasy which casts Sam Fisher as a rogue avenger with preternatural combat skills. I’ll be the first to admit that by Chaos Theory the Splinter Cell formula was feeling a bit rote, that’s why I hailed the innovations of Double Agent. But did we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater?
And now we have Splinter Cell: Blacklist on the way. When I saw this gif, I laughed. But it was a sad laugh.