All it took was a little math to figure this one out. Since the Splinter Cell series began, Ubisoft has released sequels roughly once a year -- starting with a game developed in Montreal, then to one in Shanghai, and then back to Montreal. This alternating system allowed the teams to create fleshed out games without having to rush each project. So it only makes sense that for Splinter Cell Double Agent, Shanghai is back in charge...for the 360 version, anyway (just to make it confusing, Montreal's massive staff is working on the PS2/Xbox/GC versions, and the multiplayer team in Annecy working on the Spies Versus Mercenaries mode on all systems). We recently spoke with 360 associate producer Daniel Roy to find out what the newest game in the series is all about.
At Microsoft's X05 event held in October, Ubisoft unveiled the first teaser trailer for Double Agent, under then-title Splinter Cell 4, showing brief glimpses of a multiplayer mode and ending with the words "You have no idea what's coming." Shortly thereafter, a teaser website went live for the game at the no-so-subtle URL bewaresamfisher.com, showing off police reports, voice samples and a load of clues that all added up to series hero Sam Fisher being put in jail.
The online reaction was intense, with many fans suspecting that Ubisoft had done to the Splinter Cell series what it had previously done to Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. That is, made the series into a darker, more "edgy" version of its former self -- a tough sell given the series history, and as it turns out, entirely untrue.
"The Splinter Cell series has always been pretty dark (forgive the pun), so I'm not convinced the comparison is entirely valid," says Roy. "Sam is going deep undercover, in order to infiltrate a terrorist organization operating on American soil. Has Sam gone bad? No. But he'll be faced with very tough moral choices if he wants to accomplish his mission."
It's like a variation on the morality system in place in games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Fable, but with many situations where there won't be clear good guy/bad guy split decisions, and players will have to go with their gut on what they think is the right move. In Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow (also developed by the team in Shanghai), there was a memorable scene in mission four that took place in Jerusalem where players got a message over the radio that someone pretending to be their friend turned out to be an enemy. As Dahlia Tahl was escaping underground in an elevator, the player had to make a split-second decision of whether to kill her or let her go on her way -- which resulted in a minor branching story change later on in the game. Players can expect a lot more of this in Double Agent. "As a matter of fact, you can consider the scene in the elevator in Jerusalem an early prototype of a huge facet of Splinter Cell Double Agent," says Roy.
"Since Fisher is now working undercover, this means he has to interact with people he only spent time choking in the dark previously," explains Roy. "Expect to see Sam develop relationships with these people, and actually go on missions with them from time to time. Also, while Sam has always been a good soldier so far, this time around his work is not as clear-cut for him. Expect some tough choices and moral conundrums this time around. These choices will affect how the game plays out, how the terrorists perceive you, and what type of gadgets you will have at your disposal. In general, the core gameplay experience of the previous episodes is there, but the context and added elements will make a lot of it refreshing and intense."
Also, don't assume that just because the main story hook we've heard so far places Fisher in jail, that the whole game will take place there like a videogame version of Oz. Reportedly there will be cut-scenes that players can control where Fisher does such activities as SCUBA diving and skydiving, and we're willing to be he spends some time on solid land outside the prison walls as well.
Even if that only turns out to be a small portion of the game, however, we know for a fact that players will get their fill of environment variety through the game's many multiplayer modes. Thus far, each Splinter Cell sequel has introduced one new multiplayer mode, starting with the Spies Versus Mercenaries and then moving into Spy co-op earlier this year in Splinter Cell Chaos Theory.
For Double Agent, we're still trying to nail down all the specifics on each of the multiplayer modes, but here's what we know so far: the Spies Versus Mercenaries is back for 360, Xbox, and PS2 (and will reportedly feature three-on-three play for the first time), an unannounced new mode is in the works for the 360, and co-op is in the works for the Xbox and PS2 versions along with a new Spy Versus Spy competitive mode. On 360, there will also be a new ranking system to help make the Spies Versus Mercs mode accessible for beginners who may have been turned off by the steep learning curve in the past.
Because of the split development between Shanghai and Montreal for the single-player campaign, players can expect differences there as well. "There are many differences between the two, since they share the same core concept but not the detailed design," explains Roy. "Basically, they are two different takes on the same core concept and storyline. This means the PS2 and XBOX versions can be custom-tailored to the hardware, and yet not hold back the X360 from reaching it full potential."
If it seems a bit strange to see certain features exclusive to certain systems, this is something Ubisoft has done before -- the company has been known to throw an extra feature or two to Splinter Cell games on different platforms in the past, via extra levels, online modes, etc. We'll have to wait for the full details on the various modes available in the different versions to know which will be the definitive game.
Graphically, however, we seem to already have our answer. When a handful of screenshots of the game were leaked online recently, players had trouble determining which version of the game they were from. Given the less-than-impressive standards that have been set for next-gen games by certain Xbox 360 titles, some fans believed the screens were from the Xbox 360 version of the game, despite looking extremely similar in quality to the Xbox version of Splinter Cell Chaos Theory. According to Roy, those screens are actually from the PlayStation 2 version of the game. "It's great to see our PS2 screenshots look as good as an X360 game, but when you see the SC4 X360 screenshots, you'll notice the difference, trust me... the Chaos Theory engine has indeed given us a great head start; on the X360 hardware, we've been having a great time finding new ways to make it sing," he says.
Unfortunately, we'll have to wait to get a good look at the first screens from the 360 version of the game, but to see the first screens from the current-gen version, head over to our media page. Splinter Cell Double Agent ships in Spring 2006.