The sun is shining in Kinshasa, but this is not a happy place, at least not in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Double Agent. In spite of the hullabaloo happening this week at the Tokyo Game Show, we got ourselves a work-in-progress Xbox 360 build of the next game in the excellent stealth action series and made a beeline for the level we last played at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. As the name implies, Double Agent deviates from its predecessors by forcing secret agent Sam Fisher to infiltrate a terrorist organization while still accomplishing objectives for his highly classified American agency. The result should be a careful balancing act all the way to the end.
While Double Agent will be hitting multiple platforms just like previous Splinter Cell games, we were most interested in the Xbox 360 version since it marks the first major graphical update the series has received since its inception. Back in 2002 when the first Splinter Cell hit the Xbox, it was one of the most visually stunning games to hit the system up to that point. In turn, Double Agent boasts some very impressive visuals, although we've seen a number of fantastic-looking Xbox 360 games, including Ubisoft's own Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, which set a very high bar. Even so, there's some remarkable detail present in the Kinshasa level, which--in stark contrast to what you'd expect from a Splinter Cell level--takes place in broad daylight. You can just about feel the scorching-hot sun, as the sky looks almost blindingly bright, and Fisher can be seen perspiring even in his dressed-down outfit consisting of a T-shirt and camo pants. He doesn't have his night-vision gear for this assignment, but he does have a fresh pair of shades, which you can flip up and down to tint the screen darker if you want--nice touch.
The graphics stand out for sure, but we were also struck by the game's musical score. The bongo drum beats fit the setting of this particular stage really well, and we noticed a much smoother transition between sneaking music and action music than in previous Splinter Cell games for those cases when we got noticed by enemy patrols. Sound effects in general seem consistent with what you'd expect from previous Splinter Cell games, and some of the effects are taken straight from the earlier installments. However, it's great to hear the new music as well as the native speech of the enemy guards swarming this level.
Kinshasa is an action-packed level rife with gunplay, if that's how you want to swing it. We did, so we didn't even get a chance to sneak up behind anybody, since taking aim with Sam's trusty SC-20K multipurpose assault rifle is just so much easier than all that pesky sneaking around. Still, the rifle's limited view distance even when looking down its magnifying scope means that it's necessary to maneuver through these African streets very carefully, because armed militants nearby are just itching to take out any interlopers. Despite all that sunshine, it's still possible to find places to hide, such as in the shade, behind the rubble of a ruined building, or even under a truck.
We noticed some new moves and animations on display, as well as some smart use of cover by the enemy forces, but we mostly depended on our only slightly rusty Splinter Cell skills that had gotten us through all of Fisher's previous assignments and up to this one. However, the need to fulfill objectives both for the National Security Agency and for the terrorist group simply called John Brown's Army adds an interesting wrinkle to the proceedings. You'll be getting multiple, possibly conflicting, orders and will need to make snap judgments to make sure you're able to accomplish your big-picture objectives.
Nowhere is this more starkly apparent in the Kinshasa mission than toward the end, once Sam Fisher is ordered to climb up a radio tower, where he finds a sniper rifle waiting for him while his would-be victim is nearby, about to come to blows with an opponent. Under orders from a JBA contact, Fisher may take the shot that would kill one Hisham Hamza, who's a CIA operative who has blown his cover. But Fisher's commander, Lambert, quickly orders Fisher to do no such thing, as Hamza is a treasure trove of information--he must be spared and, more importantly, saved.
Most games anything like Splinter Cell put you on a linear course that forces you to do the right thing. In Double Agent, moments like this will play out according to the actions you take. Here's what really happened as we were playing: Trusting Lambert's wisdom, we lined up a shot that would take out the man assaulting Hamza as the two fought each other. However, as we pulled the trigger, the two spun around, and Hamza took a bullet in the head. Fisher's JBA contact approved of this greatly, while Lambert expressed his deep dismay as only he can. Life goes on, albeit not for Hamza in this case.
Certainly these branching moments in the gameplay and the storyline promise to be some of the most compelling parts of Double Agent, but the game retains the slick shooting and sneaking action of its predecessors as well, not to mention a unique multiplayer mode. We'll be back next week to take you through another sequence from Splinter Cell Double Agent, but for now, feast your eyes on some impressive new screens and gameplay videos, bearing in mind that the game is still a work in progress.