One of the developers at Ubisoft asked me what I'd do if I were in a situation where killing an innocent man could save millions. Being a macho man, I of course said I'd do it in a heartbeat. Moments later I had a 9mm in my hand, aimed at the pilot of my plane. I hesitated.
Welcome to the world of Splinter Cell: Double Agent, a world where, unlike conventional games, saving a man (or killing him) could have dire consequences. Double agent, like its predecessors, is a stunning example of what you get when you have a team of game fanatics who are utterly passionate about what they do.
The entire segment played out in a first person perspective, with the gun I was wielding visible in front of me like a first person shooter. The pilot was on his knees, handcuffed and gagged, screaming for his life, though the screams were barely audible through the cloth in his mouth. If I hadn't killed him, my cover with the terrorists could have been jeopardized. If I had saved him, my cover might have taken a hit, but I would be privy to more gadgets and accessories from the NSA, as well as a much warmer welcome when I got back home. It's not as easy as it sounds.
Situations similar to what I mentioned above happen frequently in Double Agent, often when you least expect them, and demand quick thinking. In an industry saturated by shooters, to be invested emotionally in a game as you are in Double Agent, and in only 15 minutes at that, is an incredible feat.
This time around, Fisher is in pretty bad shape. His daughter has been killed while he was away on a mission, and as a result, he enlists himself as a non-official cover operative or NOC (remember the NOC list in Mission Impossible?). In other words, Fisher must infiltrate enemy lines, earn the trust of the terrorists and under no circumstances blow his cover, because if he does, the government will disavow any knowledge of his existence.
The two missions I was able to get some hands-on time with were Kinshasa (where the pilot incident occurs) and Orkhost (one of the most impressive levels I've ever seen in a videogame). In Kinshasa, Sam is hired to assassinate one of the terrorist leaders. The level is set in the middle of the day, so don't expect many shadows to hide in, and features some gorgeous lighting effects and dust that kicks up as you make your way through the warn-torn city. Along with enemies, civilians will be seen from time to time in the level, cowering and hiding in building corners, or, in the case of the exploding bus that flipped and rolled almost crushing me in the process, screaming for their lives.
The first thing you'll notice about the game is it's completely HUDless. There's no health bar; in fact there's no health kits, as Fisher just needs to stop and take a break from the action to regain some of his health. The only visible item on the screen is the satellite feed intelligence, located at the bottom left-hand side of the screen, which can track the location of enemies, calculate the amount of ammo you have left and so forth. On an interesting note, that intel is only available to you if you try to avoid killing innocent people. The NSA will actually restrict or offer more gadgets to you based on the decisions you make through the game, so you might not want to blow your cover, and this kind of decision making will run throughout the game.
From a tactical standpoint, Fisher now has a bit of an advantage as his weapons come equipped with scopes that have night and thermal vision capabilities. In Kinshasa, since Fisher isn't wearing any goggles, if you use a smoke grenade, you normally wouldn't be able to see a damn thing. But if you equip your weapon, use the scope and activate your thermal scope vision, you can enter the smoke and pick off any baddies before they even realize you're there.
The second level shown was Orkost, set in the icy cold arctic, where Fisher must sky dive out of a plane and onto the glaciers below. The sky diving sequence is simply stunning, gorgeous, with a great screen shake effect and clouds that zip by, with Sam under the player's control at all times. You can make him do flips, speed up, slow down, and more.
Best of all is when Sam opens the parachute, only to have it fail on him. The next segment is a mini-game of sorts. You must use the analogue stick to navigate Fisher's arm to the secondary chute, and pull the cord - phenomenal.
Once Fisher hits the icy floor below, you'll really get a glimpse of what Double Agent has to offer visually. Snow wisps past Sam in all directions, the winds pick up and die down, and the icy surface shimmers in the sunlight.
Eventually a couple of soldiers appear, and after avoiding them completely, I dove into the freezing cold arctic waters. The underwater view is unbelievable, with light that shines through the ice into the depths below, and Sam swims with extreme fluidity. Better yet, Sam can tap on the thin portions of the ice, drawing enemies to his location. Once the enemy is overhead, he can break through the ice, drag the clueless enemy into the freezing water and stab him with his knife.
It's a shame the demo had to end here, as Splinter Cell Double Agent for the Xbox 360 is up there with the most impressive demos I've seen on the show floor at E3 this year. Ubisoft say the game is due out in September, and assuming the whole game can match the quality shown in the demo, Ubisoft might have another huge Xbox 360 hit on its hands.