The next game in the Splinter Cell series is now set for release in October. October 20 to be exact, which is probably disappointing to longtime fans of the stealth-action series who are eager to play its first installment on a next-gen platform. But when those fans see what Ubisoft is doing with the multiplayer component in Sam Fisher's next mission (to say nothing of the game's unique new story campaign), we think they'll be glad the developers are taking all the time they need to get it right. If you haven't been keeping up, Double Agent sees former government spy Sam Fisher becoming disillusioned with his old employers and turning into a terrorist as a result. The single-player mode has been covered in our earlier previews, but we finally got the chance for some hands-on play with the multiplayer side of the game at recent events in London and San Francisco.
Previous Splinter Cell games have earned acclaim for their multiplayer features, with the excellent co-op mode being a highlight. However, Ubisoft concedes that previously, the experience online could be frustrating for casual players who were shunned by the hardcore competitive groups. In Double Agent, effort has been made to tighten up the levels for quick 15-minute games, while expanding features to keep hardcore players coming back. The multiplayer designers have also focused on making the gameplay as accessible as possible for newcomers, and indeed we were able to jump into both roles--the mercenary and the spy--in the competitive multiplayer mode with ease the first time we tried them.
Like in Pandora Tomorrow, Double Agent's competitive games feature two teams of three people playing cat and mouse, with one set of spies and one of mercenaries. Each team has its own combination of skills in order to help it attain the objectives for each level. The spy, played from a third-person perspective, possesses great agility, being able to quickly climb most obstacles and crawl through vents. The mercenary is played through a first-person view, and has access to weaponry and gadgets that will help him eliminate this spy threat. With spies crawling over each level in an effort to hack computers and steal data, it's the mercenary's job to stop them by any means necessary.
In fact, that's the spy's sole objective. Each map has four computers scattered throughout that contain sensitive files, and the spy team will have to successfully hack into two of these computers, retrieve the data, and return it to an extraction point to win the match. The mercenaries' job is simply to kill all the spies or at least stymie their hacking attempts until time runs out. Both teams' objectives are made a little easier by a 3D minimap that shows the location of all your teammates and the four sensitive computers. These computer icons will blink when one of them is being accessed, so you can easily keep track of where the relevant activity is at any given time.
Double Agent affords each team new skills and technologies in order to more effectively combat the other side, and there are a number of checks and balances in place whereby each side can counter the other's strategy with efficient use of these diverse abilities. The centerpiece of the spy's arsenal is a hacking tool that allows him to access computers from afar. The catch is that the farther you are from the source, the more time it will take to hack and download the data--and you'll see a cell phone signal-style graph on your heads-up display indicating how strong your hack is at the present distance. While hiding away will increase your chance of survival, remotely hacking will mean that you have to wait around potentially for a good couple of minutes. But luckily you can start a hack, then stop it and move to another location and pick up where you left off, which can be incredibly frustrating for mercs who are trying to find where you're hacking from.
That's not nearly all the spy can do with this hacking tool, though. You can also deactivate most lights, much like Sam Fisher can in the single-player game. But in multiplayer, these lights stay off for good, so you can essentially shroud an entire area in darkness and then rely on the spy's thermal and night-vision modes to see the hapless mercs, who only have a standard flashlight. The hacking tool even lets you break out certain windows, and you can hack into some door locks to open new pathways, too. Spies can also choose from several gadgets at the beginning of a level, from a health boost to a scrambler that will disable the merc's motion sensor to a flare that can blind him. Naturally, you're a little short on offensive options when playing as the spy, but you can sneak up behind a merc and snap his neck if you're really careful--and the few times we managed to do this were among the more exciting moments we've had in a multiplayer game in a long time.
Playing as a spy in Double Agent's multiplayer mode feels a little like playing regular Splinter Cell in fast forward, since these guys can just get from one place to another so fast. In addition to the standard hanging on ledges and shimmying up pipes, spies can pull off some nimbler evasion moves that you won't see in the single-player game, such as diving over low windowsills. Best of all, the game shows you exactly where you can perform these maneuvers, with a silhouette of the character performing the action in the right spot and a hovering button icon showing you what to press. Trust us, this assistance is more than welcome when you're fleeing from a merc who's trying to mow you down with his rifle and you don't have time to scour the area for possible escape routes.
Of course, spies don't get to have all the fun. The mercenaries are armed with a standard automatic assault rifle, as you'd expect, and you can zoom in with it to perform a single sniper shot for higher precision. As mentioned, the mercs only have a flashlight attached to their rifle, but you can at least change the focus of the beam to control how far ahead of you it will illuminate. You've also got a special vision mode that will light up the spies "like a Christmas tree," in the words of one Ubi rep, when they're engaged in a hack attempt. You can barely see your surroundings otherwise in this mode, though, so it's not really useful unless you're near a computer being hacked and can't locate the spy.
In fact, the mercenaries have been blessed with quite a lot of cool new gadgetry. There's now a motion-sensor tool that lets you see if a spy is in the vicinity, both audibly and through controller vibration. Mercenaries also have technology that gives spies a white outline when spotted, making them easier to pick out. This only works when a spy is in full standing mode, at which point they're extremely visible, so a crafty spy will always want to stay crouched to avoid this problem. But, of course, once you've spotted and are firing on a spy, they'll want to get out of there as fast as possible, so they'll naturally be in a full upright position as they flee. That just makes them all the easier to keep track of as you're trying to gun them down.
But wait, there's more! More toys, that is. Using one of the new drone robots, mercenaries can plant themselves in a hidden space and use it to hunt down spies remotely. The robot can fly up and down to reach places that otherwise only a spy could, and if you do find a spy hiding in the shadows, you can detonate the drone remotely. You can also opt for a standard frag grenade instead of this drone, which is useful for flushing spies out of hard-to-reach places. Mercenaries can also jump off buildings and ledges, rappelling down quickly to safety. All these enhancements and toys make up for the fact that, in terms of movement, a mercenary is far more restricted than a spy.
We played through this mode in a three-on-three system-link configuration on the Xbox 360, and the subtle new changes made for a very tense game of cat and mouse. We loved the ease in which spies can scale buildings and get into the nooks and crannies of every level. As a spy, the challenge is to find the sneakiest place to hide and hack computers from afar. As you wait nervously in the shadows while the mercenaries shine their flashlights around, you can sense their frustration at not being able to find you. Likewise, mercenaries can use drones and grenades to scour the levels and kill spies from afar. And if spies ever reveal themselves to a mercenary, they can easily be eliminated with a machine gun.
There are eight new multiplayer levels in Splinter Cell: Double Agent, featuring industrial locations in several places including New Orleans. Another map we played was set in a mansion. All the maps have areas that only spies can access, which helps to negate the mercs' overwhelming offensive advantage, and we had a blast playing both roles and using our unique tech and abilities to try to shut down the other team. We think anyone who enjoyed the multiplayer mode in Pandora Tomorrow is going to have an awfully good time with this mode--we certainly did during our short (too short) play session.
In fact, based on how much fun we had, this mode is certainly set to be popular at launch with the Xbox 360's Live community. The agility of the spies lets you nimbly traverse the levels and easily learn each hiding spot, while the camera used for the mercenaries again makes Splinter Cell feel like a first-person shooter. The improvement in gadgetry, as well as the motion sensor, also adds to the tension when playing as a mercenary, and it's incredibly satisfying to find a spy with a drone and to detonate it from afar. And it's equally satisfying as a spy to successfully black out a room, hide behind cover, and sneak up behind a mercenary to silently snap his neck. Luckily, October's not too far away, so we'll not have long to wait before we can all play Double Agent online.