Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Double Agent Review
Unintuitive, un-fun and darn near unplayable too.
One thing is becoming more and more apparent as of late; while the two Big Boys of gaming are fighting tooth and nail to wage a console war based on power and graphics, Nintendo has spent its time releasing consoles that are simply fun to play. The DS, while no power house, has the touch-screen, the dual-screen and the microphone going for it. While these may seem like gimmicks, they give developers endless possibilities. The Wii, while it may also seem strange, is different enough to make even non-gamers take part in its gameplay activities. I personally know more non-gamers who own Wii's than true-to-Hoyle gamers themselves. Nintendo is always striving for something different and with the Wii, it has truly created something without peer. The only issue that us cynics have regarding its success is the fact that the games will make or break it. Wii Sports is a perfect complement to the Wii's Remote and Nunchuck controllers and is loved by all. But as we've seen with the Gamecube, certain developers are willing to port any title over to a Nintendo console just to take advantage of the user base. I've seen golf games released on multiple discs, features removed and graphics optimized so poorly that it seems there was no point in porting a title over, especially if the gamer is the one that pays the ultimate price. Enter Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Sam Fisher's latest exploit. Previously released on various consoles, it was inevitable that the Wii would see its own port. But true to form, SCDA fails to use the Wii's hardware not only to its advantage, but in any way that would make the final product fun or even playable for that matter.
Let's get right to it shall we? The reason I loved the first Splinter Cell was because it allowed me to sneak around, take out lights, bathe in darkness and be nothing more than a shadow. Sure, the story was derivative and just an excuse to keep levels stringed together, but it worked. It was hard, it looked amazing and it was fun. It also spawned a whole sub-genre of action games. The second Splinter Cell, Pandora Tomorrow, on the Xbox didn't tweak too much with the single player formula (which is good) and focused more on adding an incredible multiplayer mode, something that many had considered impossible for this series. At the time, this mode was fresh, intricate and deep. Chaos Theory than came along and changed things a bit; it made the single player mode a little easier and gave you the option to simply shoot your way out of certain situations. This may seem like blasphemy, but it brought many new fans to the series simply because it had a more forgiving gameplay engine. Chaos Theory featured long single player levels, a half-decent story, some cool new mechanics and gadgets and a multiplayer mode that still felt fresh. Now, with the release of next-gen consoles, we find a fourth release in the series. You'd think things would have progressed for the better, but it seems that this series has taken a large step back. While Double Agent does feature the best story we've seen so far, everything else just seems like a shadow of what it used to be.
The biggest problem with Double Agent is that it forgets what makes the series good in the first place. On the 360, Double Agent is too easy, too short, too dark, too claustrophobic and too boring. On the Wii, Double Agent looks like a Gamecube game and features some of the most frustrating controls ever implemented. I only mention the 360 version because if anyone is thinking of picking this one up for the Wii after playing the other version; don't. While the light and sound sensors are back in and there is an extra level tacked on to the beginning of the game to give you a proper Wii tutorial, the 360 version is clearly the best this iteration has seen. The game just takes too much away from the traditional Sam Fisher series. Gone is the need to use any (and all) of Sam's cool moves and gadgets, the clear goal in each level, the sense of satisfaction from a stealthy kill, the need to sneak around in general, and most importantly, the sense that Sam Fisher is the world biggest bad-ass. The game now feels like collection of poorly scripted missions with no clear goals and no clear direction. In fact, you'll begin many levels facing the wrong way only to discover that you simply needed to turn around.
Other changes from previous Splinter Cell games include an A.I. that has been wonderfully dumbed down and which makes sneaking around irrelevant. Isn't this a Splinter Cell Game? Story-wise, early on a tragic event in Sam's life sends him into despair and next thing you know, he's in jail and the NSA is using him as a double agent. What follows is the story of one man doing one company's bidding while being trusted by another. The dynamic is great and the "trust" bar/factor is a great idea, but you'll eventually wish Double Agent played out less like an action game and more like the traditional stealth game it should be.
Over the course of the game you'll be working for the JBA, a glorified terrorist cell, while still in contact with the NSA and Lambert. Some levels will feel like The Chronicles of Riddick, some will feel almost like an open sandbox game a la GTA, others will feel like James Bond level and a few will even resound with echoes of past Splinter Cell games. The last ones, the ones that actually involve the need to sneak around, are the best of the game, but they inevitably feel watered down and never live up to the great series' potential. All of Sam's previous moves are available, but where the split jump was almost necessary in the first game, it feels like a novelty in this one. Unfortunately, this is the case with all the usual trappings of the game. You'll also be able to control an A.I. partner in some levels, but the tacked-on co-op mode does a better job of that. In the end, the single player mode is simply an exercise in futility which will leave casual fans wondering what made the series great and veterans scratching their heads in hopes that the next level will be as good as it should really be. This is too bad since Double Agent does indeed feature the strongest narrative of any Sam Fisher outing yet, with great characters and amazing voice-acting, but simply not the gameplay to match what we've all come to expect.
The Wii version of SCDA removes all multiplayer aspect from the game and simply fleshes out a co-op mode. It's a nice addition, but the controls make it frustrating and the lack of multiplayer (even split-screen) is noticeable. Also, gone is the sexy British lady who narrates every menu option and tutorial in the game in favor of Lambert giving you the 411 on all things SC-related. This was a little disappointing since I'd gotten very used to the non-stop chatter.
For all the gameplay and storyline changes this outing produced though, it's ultimately the control issues that will determine if the Wii's SCDA is a worthy title. And here's where this version fails miserably. Controlling Sam with the Remote and Nunchuck is unintuitive, unpleasant and incredibly frustrating. It's nice to see certain games like Super Swing Golf and Dragon Ball Z give gamers the option to play it using traditional control schemes or Wii-controller schemes and this seems like the perfect place for that option. On other consoles, the beauty of Splinter Cell (besides its graphics) has always been its control scheme. In this version, you'll find yourself pointing one hand at the television to try and rotate the camera around only to need the same hand to also control your aiming. The Wii Remote in this instance is cumbersome and the Nunchuck doesn't make things any easier. Whereas in Zelda, the camera could me rotated back on Link at the press of a button, the camera in this case is user-controlled. But the same controller (and motion) is also responsible for aiming and directing Sam around (although the Nunchuck controls his motion). Add to this the shaking, swinging, jumping schemes of the Nunchuck and you're at a great disadvantage already. In the end, while your first few minutes controlling Sam will seem neat due to the freshness of it all, you will eventually feel disoriented and completely frustrated with the controls. And if you can't control Sam, don't expect to have any fun with him either.
Graphically, Double Agent on the Wii looks more like a PS2 or Gamecube version than anything else. The contrast/brightness on the levels seems very high (and not in a good way) and while the cutscenes are amazing, the game itself looks dated (by regular Xbox/PS2 standards) and feels like a lot of polish has been removed in the port over. And while the levels are well detailed and feel real, they are not designed to fit the stealth genre at all. The levels feel claustrophobic and never really lend to the open-ended "get it done the way you want" kind of mentality. When you feel like you're not sure how to accomplish a mission goal, you generally just have to proceed to where the game ushers you and generally you'll find it.
In the audio department, the entire presentation seems to hang, once again, on the incomparable Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher. I don't think there is a voice actor as ingrained to a character as much as Ironside is to Fisher and that's a good thing. In fact, all the voice work in Double Agent is impeccable and unquestionably professional. The sound effects are also amazing and the audio mix is one that will truly make you appreciate your elaborate audio setup.
In the end, your mileage with Splinter Cell will largely depend on your expectations and what console you choose to play in on. On the 360, as a long-standing fan of the series, this outing felt like a departure that I wasn't ready to accept, but it still looked amazing and played well. On the Wii, this game felt more like a chore to play than anything else. The single player mode felt short and the controls are horrible. Unfortunately, casual gamers who've come to love their Wii will likely pick this up as a fun diversion not knowing that it's really not a Wii-friendly title. It's a bad port with terrible graphics, few modes and controls that will anger many. If you must follow Sam on this outing, do yourself a favor and pick it up for any other console but the Wii.