Friday, March 13, 2009

Splinter Cell: Double Agent

Well that was *terrible*!

When the fourth game in a previously solid series goes so terribly awry, it's tempting to imagine all kinds of scenarios that might explain what the hell happened---Ham-handed corporate interference? Breakdown in production process? Designer going through a nasty, highly distracting divorce?

Sure, this is the first Splinter Cell game for the 360, and there's bound to be some production tangles created by the hardware transition. But the problems here aren't technological at all---they're strictly design problems. And it's hard to understand how the company that got the previous Splinter Cell game so right could get this one so wrong.

I only got through three levels before turning the game off. But in all of them, the level design was disastrously bad, every time. The basic problem is that every step of the way, it was almost impossible to determine what your goal is. And for a stealth game, which is fundamentally a puzzle game wrapped up in a realistic skin, that's a fatal blow. The basic dynamic of a good stealth game is: Step 1: Survey situation; determine goal and obstacle. Step 2: Come up with a clever way to get to goal. But if you can't figure out where the goal is, as I couldn't over and over, you're left to wander around aimlessly, shooting guards and looking for buttons, and then you're just playing a slow-paced Unreal Tournament mod.

What makes it really sad for me is that I've really loved previous games in the Splinter Cell series. The highlighyt has always been the genuinely physical interaction with the controller, in which you have to push the sticks v-e-r-r-r-r-y gently---long before the Wii, this was a great way of analogizing avatar action through player action, as your digital delicacy translated to the character's delicate movment. Combined with the series' excellent visual design and strong, albeit Clancily Red-baiting storytelling, the series provided some of the most immersive playtime I had with my Xbox.

But this time around, everything's a muddle. The controls are still fine---screwing those up would take an act of deliberate sabatoge. But the art design is way too enthusiastic about throwing more objects on screen, with no consideration for whether those objects make clear what you should be doing, further compounding the problem of level layouts that make it impossible to get into the groove of gameplay because you're constantly wondering what the hell the designers want you to do here, instead of focusing on the mission.

And most surprisingly for a Tom Clancey series game, the storytelling is a disaster. I mean, I know that Clancey doesn't really oversee the writing process in any substantive way, but previous games have had solid pulpy plotting. And the basic idea of Double Agent---Sam Fischer, traumatized by the accidental death of his daughter, goes undercover to infiltrate a militia group---is a perfectly fine adventure story. But Double Agent gets its storytelling autistically wrong every step of the way. The cutscenes highlight irrelevant details, but skim over important facts; information is parceled out in all the wrong ways, with important things skimmed over or dropped in the middle of scenes focused elsewhere; there's completely arbitrary shifting between cutscene and in-game storytelling; and even the basic rules of the universe, like who's got the walkie-talkie, never get settled. It's as though someone wrote a decent video game story, then applied William Burroughs' cut-up technique to it---it's hard to imagine that anyone who's ever described anything to anyone could get the basics of narrative so consistently wrong.

And actually, I sort of doubt they did. The sheer every-step incompetence of DA suggests a game that was subject to some kind of crazy rushed revision process, with things being shoehorned into the story and the design at many last minutes. I can't even blame the design team exactly, when it's clear from the game that something went profoundly wrong in the production process. That doesn't mean it's worth playing, of course---oh christ no!---but I just can't hate 'em.

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