Below the rain-drenched streets of Washington DC lies one of the world's most closely guarded secrets, which America will do anything to protect. No, not the location of George W Bush's personal vocabulary, but something much more valuable: 3rd Echelon's supreme headquarters, The central covert machine responsible for the smooth running of the Splinter Cell programme and, in effect, your new boss. Picking up where multiplayer in Chaos Theory left off, your task is to kick ass on one of Splinter Cell Double Agent's eight multiplayer maps, but there have been some changes.
Set amongst a varied selection of maps drawing inspiration from the single-player element of the game, the environments are certainly detailed, offering all manner of tricks and treats in terms of visuals, and numerous ways to tackle each map. However, I really need to get one thing out of the way: There's only one game mode in Double Agent's multiplayer component. Why on God's earth would Ubisoft Montreal reduce the number of game types? The reason is simple. Ubisoft took feedback from as many forums and from as many multiplayer Splinter Cell fans as possible before creating the gameplay elements and environments for SCDA. What we've got is a streamlined, more accessible and often more enjoyable experience, for the hardcore fans and new players alike. That's the blurb out of the way, but seriously; is it a plus?
In essence, the multiplayer side of Splinter Cell Double Agent is 3-on-3 team capture-the-flag. It's a little more complex than this, as in reality your task is to secure four objectives, which could be blowing up computers, to capturing data or evidence. So, that means there's no Mercs Vs Spies game type as in previous games, which could cause a little upset amongst the hardcore fans; however, it does make the game really easy to jump into for newbies, According to Ubisoft, everyone is going to love the multiplayer aspect, and from what I played, they could well be right.
Featuring eight maps, with two more promised by the holiday period this year, there's plenty to sink your teeth into, from indoor warehouse environments, through to corporate headquarters and the like - all offering a slightly different playing style. Where a penthouse might be brightly lit, a warehouse is a much darker affair, and in all honesty, the maps I played certainly worked well, with certain maps favouring Mercs, while others favoured spies. The environments themselves are up to the usual Splinter Cell standard, with every pane of glass and light being breakable; there's nothing that veers too far away from the successful mould of the previous incarnations. However, a couple of new gadgets spice things up a little.
Firstly, for Mercs, there's the welcome addition of a proximity detector. In previous games it's been incredibly hard to locate spies in low light areas, so much so that the game heavily favoured Spies and caused a large amount of uproar in the community. To address this, the proximity detector will beep to inform the Merc of the direction and distance of a spy. Whilst it may seem a trivial addition to the uninitiated, it really does make a huge amount of difference to the gameplay, creating a level playing field for the first time in the series - and makes you feel like you're a marine in Aliens.
As for the Spies, you're treated to something that's incredibly cool. Night vision enabled drones! Controllable via the thumbsticks, you're able to fly up, under and around almost everything you can see, showing you the area of conflict, which in turn gives you the advantage of foresight when attacking an objective. There is always a downside though, as using the drone leaves you motionless and exposed to attacks from Mercs. One handy feature to counteract this slightly, is the ability for the drone to self destruct. This causes considerable harm to anyone caught in its blast radius, but at the same time returns your view to the playable character, giving you a chance to stop the attacking Mercs.
On the actual presentation side, SCDA is looking superb, with all the environments making you grin with delight, although perhaps not looking as impressive as the stunning single-player locations. Music plays a low-key role, with sound effects and effective use of 5.1 surround sound taking centre stage, actually enhancing gameplay. Although a multi-platform series, Splinter Cell has always been thought of as an Xbox franchise, and the Xbox 360 version is certainly the showcase version this time around.
So, is the omission of Deathmatch going to be a huge disappointment for fans or has Ubisoft come up with a great way to make playing Splinter Cell online more fun? Only the final code will tell the full story, but needless to say, it'll certainly be an interesting read. By all accounts the single-player campaign is shaping up well, and with a little more work on multiplayer balancing, Splinter Cell Double Agent could well be a game worthy of buying on all fronts. Sam Fisher looks set to make his next-gen debut in October, so expect a full review near then.