8.5

SCDA offers interesting missions and a novel trust system that keeps Sam Fisher on his toes. Better than expected.

Splinter Cell Double Agent (SCDA, v1.02a), with its interesting twist of divided loyalties, is a solid entry in this excellent series. Depending on your PC set up the enjoyment and indeed immersion into the game can, for some, be painfully offset by graphical glitches and game ending crashes that remain unresolved by existing patches. For the record my version of the game is the "That's Hot!" Australian DVD re-release and I'm running Windows XP (SP3); my rig is outlined in my GameSpot profile.

One of gaming's favourite stealthy characters, Sam Fisher returns to action. This is an older Sam, without hair, but seemingly as agile as in his younger years. The premise of SCDA is quite interesting. After a pre-credits mission Sam, who is dealing with some inner demons after a personal tragedy, elects to sign on for what could be a suicide mission to infiltrate a domestic terrorist group, John Brown's Army (JBA). He has to earn JBA's trust to uncover details of their nefarious plot. Earning the trust of the terrorists will mean undertaking morally unpalatable tasks that potentially see him lose the trust of his mentor, Lambert at Third Echelon, and the NSA.

Gameplay-wise SCDA is similar to the earlier titles in this third person stealth series. Sam, in most missions, will have access to the gadgets he relies on to see him through. Some missions, including when Sam is escaping from prison or gathering intelligence data at JBA headquarters, will have him rely on his own physical and mental abilities, rather than gadgets. Unlike the Splinter Cell titles games, some gadgets will need to be unlocked, based on Sam's in-mission performance. Most of Sam's missions at JBA headquarters, which is on the New York City waterfront, are time limited. Sam must not only accomplish the primary tasks assigned to him by JBA but also secure intelligence on JBA for the NSA without being caught.

The JBA HQ missions follow a similar pattern and familiarisation with the HQ layout will assist in future missions as there is usually a lot to do, to increase or return Sam's trust level with both sides, in the limited time available. Sam, in addition to the usual pin key-pad codebreaking and safe cracking will need to make covert voice recordings and/or take fingerprint scans to access some areas of the JBA HQ's various secure areas. Needless to say if Sam gets caught doing this or is seen in a secure area he's going to be in very big trouble.

As with previous titles, SCDA is a mission-driven game with little in the way of character development. There is an overarching story, one of trust and betrayal, but Sam remains the strong, silent type, and its pretty much what he chooses to do, or not to do, on the missions that define his character in this iteration of the Splinter Cell franchise. In Double Agent Sam walks a moral tight-rope, irrespective of his actions or in actions someone will get hurt. This moral ambiguity, albeit somewhat simplistically dealt with in game terms, is what lifts the game for me.

The missions can be summarised as follows, as usual my favourites are marked with an asterisk:

01 Geothermal Plant, Iceland - Sam and colleague infiltrate a well guarded plant at night to disable a nuclear missile; another day, another crisis averted by Sam Fisher

02 Ellsworth Federal Penitentiary, Kansas - inmate Sam earns trust by helping a JBA member escape prison; parts are reminiscent of movies like Escape from Alcatraz

03 JBA HQ, NYC* - Sam must pass a time-limited covert ops skill test for JBA and recover intelligence from computers and files and plant a surveillance bug for the NSA while remaining undetected by JBA, then Sam must face his first moral dilemma

04 Oil tanker Rublev, Sea of Okhotsk, Siberia* - Sam parachutes in to single handedly eliminate the crew of an oil tanker and stop the captain from blowing it up

05 Jin Mao Hotel, Pudong, Shanghai* - top notch high rise infiltration mission, eavesdrop on a meeting by abseiling from the roof (some may experience a glitch here, my experience suggests do not initiate a player save after you start to abseil or the ledge hook up autosave checkpoint may fail and may crash the game), then in through a window, recover intel from safe, assassinate terrorist scientist; I actually have been to the top of this building which offers an unsurpassed view over Shanghai, the Bund and the Huangpu River

06 JBA HQ, NYC - meet Lambert, assemble some mines by inserting detonators, locate and crack the JBA boss' safe, and partake in a dangerous liaison, rather than a moral dilemma, with Enrica, a JBA true believer

07 Cruise liner, off Cozumel, Mexico* - sneak around the indoor (casino, sauna and bridge) and outdoor (pool area and bow) sections of a luxury cruise liner to plant a nuclear bomb that will demonstrate JBA's capabilities to the world

08 JBA HQ, NYC - crack a complicated computer code for JBA (unless you have Mensa standing, find a walkthrough), get evidence for NSA that JBA planted the bomb, get stop code for bomb, Sam faces another moral dilemma whether or not to blow up the cruise ship or to frame Enrica as a double agent

09 Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo* - Sam uses his gymnastic abilities to infiltrate a meeting room to learn JBA's plans to detonate bombs in Mexico City, LA and NYC, out into the war ravaged streets in broad daylight to find a fellow double agent, another moral dilemma ... save him or let him die and risk being uncovered

10 JBA HQ, NYC* - a particularly nasty moral dilemma to kick off with, after this Sam is essentially in weapons free mode for the first time at JBA HQ, Sam is in a race against the clock to find and defuse the bomb hidden deep below JBA HQ, disarm the bomb; depending on your earlier moral choices you will either be arrested as a traitor by SWAT or slip away

11 Coast Guard vessel, NYC harbour - provided you made more "right" than "wrong" moral choices you will end the game by taking out the evil
henchman

There are also two training missions which may benefit new comers to Sam's athletic abilities but which because of its use of an all-white environment was a turn off for me so I didn't bother.

All in all a good spread of mission types including not one, but three, ship infiltration missions. The Shanghai highrise mission is a standout as are the war torn street of Kinshasa. The game looks good (well, for me it looked a lot better after I realised what was causing my graphic issues) and indeed the sound and voice acting are up to the usual high standard. The JBA leader and his henchmen, and woman, are all quite believable and in no way over the top.

Fortunately there are no "boss fights" in the traditional shooter game sense, though as noted there are a number of challenging time limited missions. None of the missions or mini-games feels out of place although cracking the computer code is probably a more comfortable fit in an adventure game where time is not your enemy.

Glitches, problems and stability? Well, I could say, quite honestly, that I spent more time trying to get the game running in a stable fashion than I did playing it. As it transpired, this seems to have been partly a self-inflicted problem. Read on (if you are interested ... this is how my original review started).

Firstly, let me say my experience of playing SCDA was at times a teeth-gnashing and table thumping exercise. No, the game is not perversely difficult or indeed lacking in enjoyment. My problems related to actually getting the game running in a stable fashion. I suffered numerous graphical problems, many well documented on various gaming forums. Seems like the general online consensus is that SCDA does not run very well with some Nvidia cards. I can concur with this suffering mainly the "colored spots" on Sam and NPCs issue commencing with the prison mission and ghostlike superimposed after-images on some cut scenes. I only experienced a few crashes but the colored spots issue was at times quite disconcerting but the game was still playable.

Trying to resolve these graphical issues meant quite a bit of online research on forums, tweaking settings on my Nvidia control panel and the in-game graphics menu. Note that when you change, apply and save the in-game graphics settings, the graphics setting screen reverts to its default text each time you return to it BUT apparently the saved settings remain valid; that is the graphics setting screen does not update.

Getting the game running in a reasonably stable fashion is filled with numerous irritating issues like this. Unlike many users did not get any Runtime Errors (having your desktop start up link as follows: "C: Program Files Ubisoft Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Double Agent SCDA-Offline System SplinterCell4.exe" -LL ... the -LL somehow fixes most Runtime issues).

Anyway I got the game running in a stable, of sorts, fashion but had to put up with bizarre graphical effects, which seemed directly related to the position of the cammera relative to light source on Sam and various NPCs. I had glowing blue Sam, multicoloured court jester Sam, "ghosts" of previous scenes overlaying the current on-screen images. Despite this the game was playable, if irritating.

Secondly, if you are still with me, before playing SCDA I had dutifully updated my favourite "stable" Nvidia driver (v258.96) to the lastest (v280.26) and this, as it has since transpired, may be the main cause of the above problems, at least in my case. I only discovered this after I had completed SCDA, spots, ghosts and all. Since then I have reverted to my older driver and tried replaying some of the missions that were particularly marred by bizarre graphic effects. Well with the older driver SCDA not only loads quickly, runs smoother, it also no longer has spots! If only I had known.

So the message here is do not always "update your graphics driver to the latest version" as it does not fix all problems. Indeed it may create some. I always wondered why some posters on forums rolled back their drivers to an earlier version if problems were encountered. Surely the latest drivers have all the "stuff" of the older ones plus more, right? Well,now I know better. Also as a result I rewrote this review, as replaying parts of this game without the graphical issues set me in a different, far more positive, frame of mind .

That said, even if you do experience similar graphical issues, it is well worth persevering with SCDA, although one needs to be prepared for bouts of extreme aggravation as you "get into" the game only to suffer a problem. There is much written on online forums about "fixes" for SCDA, usually interspersed with invective. Some "fixes" work for some and not for others depending on one's operating system and GPU. As noted for me it was simply going back to an older, mid-2010, graphics driver and all was good (but don't forget the -LL just in case).

So overall playing SCDA was for me, to use that overused expression, quite a journey. Knowing the "fix" for my graphical issues I will no doubt replay this game again. Despite the dramas with running the game the unique features of SCDA cannot be overlooked; if only the game was better optimised to run on PC.

Finally, SCDA does have a number of reasonably accessible multiplayer missions that can be enjoyed by the single player versus AI bots.

OVERALL: If you manage to get SCDA running smoothly you will experience an excellent entrant in the Splinter Cell franchise. The loyalty/trust mechanism is quite novel and you will face a few moral dilemnas on your way to completing the game. While Chaos Theory remains most people's and indeed my favourite Splinter Cell game, I feel SCDA has been unduly harshly treated though mainly due to its PC (in)stability issues.

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