The Xbox 360 and PC versions of "Splinter Cell: Double Agent" take full advantage of next-gen horsepower to render richer environments, smarter enemies and killer graphics.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/31/2006 7:51:26 PM ET 2006-11-01T00:51:26

How does the super agent that has saved the world three times over top himself? By threatening to destroy it. Sam Fisher, the grizzled hero of Ubisoft's techno-spy action series Splinter Cell, sheds his hard-earned good guy credentials in "Double Agent," the fourth installment of the franchise. In this title, Fisher falls in with a group of domestic terrorists determined to wreak havoc on the homeland.

But lest you lose faith in Fisher, understand that the covert agent is still under the employ of the United States government. A recent tragedy in his personal life has left him with nothing to lose, and his handlers have decided use his dangerous vulnerability to make him the ultimate undercover operative. What they don't know is how far Fisher is willing to go to prove to the bad guys that he's the baddest of them all. And that's where the player comes in.

Just like previous Splinter Cell games, there is no shortage of stealth and bloodshed, but in "Double Agent," you're the "bad guy." And the actions that can earn trust with one group puts you at odds with the other. For example, after helping a terrorist escape from jail, Fisher must prove his loyalty to the faction by killing an innocent civilian — and this is not the only time you must sacrifice your humanity during this harrowing assignment.

Trust is a fluid currency in "Double Agent," and the more the terrorists like having you around, the queasier you make the government. To maintain status with the feds, you need to balance coldhearted incidents with flashes of mercy, such as only knocking a target out instead of assassinating him. The choices you make affect the outcome of the game. The player that indulges baser impulses sees a different ending than the one who fights to maintain a sense of decency.

You'll wing around the world in "Double Agent," and take in some thrilling sights, including rappelling down the side of a hotel in Shanghai and pulling a mercenary thug down into the icy Sea of Okhotsk. You'll also have access to a toy chest of gear and gadgetry, such as thermal vision goggles, computer hacking hardware and optic cables for peeking beneath locked doors. As Fisher, you'll also have access to a variety of weapons, but more often than not, you'll need to rely on stealth and cunning.

Ever since the second Splinter Cell adventure, "Pandora Tomorrow," Ubisoft has essentially created two games in one, thanks to the addition of an online multiplayer mode. The game divides players into two groups with different weapons and skill sets — spies versus mercenaries. For example, mercenaries cannot crawl through air ducts and vents like spies, but spies have no business engaging in a direct gunfight with a mercenary.

However, "Double Agent" takes a cue from the king of console multiplayer, Halo 2, and trades in some of the stealth of past games for more run-and-gun action. It's sure to disappoint some loyal fans, but nothing was more frustrating than coming late to the party in previous Splinter Cell games. If other players had been in the game for a lot longer than you, you had no chance — and, more than likely, no fun.

This otherwise outstanding game is hindered by a squirrelly camera that requires constant adjustment, and it never gets any easier. Struggling with the camera is just as frustrating during the prison escape (getting shot by a guard while the camera gets hung up in a doorway is a teeth-grinder) as it is when you're trying to survive a brutal daylight firefight in the Congo.

"Double Agent" was released Oct. 18 for several platforms, but the Xbox 360 and PC editions of the game are considerably different from the PlayStation 2 and GameCube versions. Not only is there is a marked difference in the graphics — the Xbox 360 visuals are absolutely stunning on an HD display — but the general layout and mission structure is altered, too. This is evident starting with the very first level: Iceland. While the Xbox 360 and PC renders a massive military outpost where you must diffuse a missile, the PS2 and GameCube build funnels you through a tamer, more linear munitions factory.

Both versions offer considerable thrills and plenty of terrorist-hunting action, but the next-gen "Double Agent" uses the extra horsepower to render richer environments, smarter enemies and killer graphics. It's by far the better game, in spite of the $10 premium for the Xbox 360 edition.

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