LOS ANGELES--After three games in as many years, it's probably time the designers behind Splinter Cell put a new spin on the highly acclaimed stealth action series. How about starting by making hero Sam Fisher a bad guy? That's the premise of Double Agent, the fourth game in the Splinter Cell series in which Fisher will infiltrate a terrorist cell in an attempt to bring it down from the inside. Just because you've joined the bad guys doesn't mean you'll have to act like them, though. The designers wanted to give the player as much freedom as possible to engage various scenarios as he or she sees fit, and we got to see several such open-ended situations in action during our recent demo of the game on the Xbox 360.
In fact, the demo started off with Fisher in a dingy back room where his cohorts had bound and gagged a prisoner. The player was immediately given a command to kill this helpless captive, at which point the game switched to a first-person view, which showed Fisher pointing a gun right at the guy's head. But you don't necessarily have to do the deed yourself. Like many of the crucial story points in the game, this one gave the player the option of refusing to carry out an act that Sam Fisher, Boy Scout that he is, would consider to be wrong. If you're feeling evil, though, you'll certainly be able to go through with heinous acts like this one. In this particular case, the prisoner was doomed from the start, because even if you don't make Fisher do the deed, one of the other bad guys will. But in other situations, you'll have to decide whether or not to take action, and then face the consequences of your decisions.
Of course, the choices you make are going to affect the terrorists' faith in you, not to mention the progression of the storyline. Based on what you decide to do--or who you decide to kill, primarily--you'll get different bits of dialogue later in the game, and some missions will even feature entirely different objectives. In fact, it's possible for you to miss certain missions entirely, based on the way events play out, and of course there will be multiple endings. But all that should just give you an incentive to go back and play the game differently to see what changes.
In another mission we saw, Fisher was dispatched by his terrorist pals to the Sea of Okhotsk to hijack a tanker, and this level started with a mechanic new to the Splinter Cell series: skydiving. As Fisher descended, it appeared the player could guide his free fall to some extent. Alas, his parachute became tangled and didn't deploy correctly, which kicked the sequence into a minigame where the player had to guide Fisher's hand over the various straps and buckles of the chute's harness to get it to unfurl properly. The mechanics here were said to be similar to the series' lock-picking minigame, where you'll have to subtly move the analog stick and wait for the appropriate controller vibration in order to succeed.
After Fisher hit the ground, we saw him explore a severe arctic environment where he stealthily approached an enemy encampment. Sam's appearance will apparently evolve significantly throughout the storyline based on his environment. In this mission, he was wearing a suit clearly made for extremely cold weather. Good thing, too, since he promptly jumped right through a hole in the ice and swam through the frigid waters to get closer to the bad guys. A Ubisoft rep talked about how you'll be able to perform stealth kills in this scenario by literally pulling enemies down through the ice and taking them out underwater (we weren't able to see this in action).
Finally, the most explosive mission of our demo took place in the civil war-torn Congo capital of Kinshasa and sent Fisher on an assassination mission of an undisclosed nature. This level forced the player to dispense with any pretense of stealth, as hostile forces were laying waste to the already-beleaguered city streets with machine-gun fire and heavy explosives. As a result, Fisher had to run and gun his way through the chaos, occasionally engaging in firefights that caught innocent bystanders in their crossfire. The level of destruction in this mission was truly impressive--at one point, a bus was launched off the ground by a massive explosion and rolled down the street, flattening the hapless souls caught in its path. At the end of the level, Fisher reached another one of those pivotal moments in which he had to decide whether or not to take out a supposed ally at range with a sniper rifle.
If you've been wondering if Double Agent is actually going to look as good as those impressive screenshots that have come out so far, we're pretty sure it will. The game really does look just about as good as the initial screens have indicated, and we can't wait to see how the visuals shape up as the game gets closer to release. And since that's now slated to happen in September, we won't really have that long to wait, after all. Stay tuned for more on Double Agent at E3 and in the coming months.