Anyone who knows me will know that I've spent the best part of the last two years playing Splinter Cell virtually non-stop. The single player game has never really done it for me THAT much. They're good, but not outstanding. However, the multiplayer that first appeared in Pandora Tomorrow grabbed me with some force, and helped me get over the fact that Ghost Recon didn't really love me anymore (until GRAW, anyway - you came crawling back, didn't you, you little tart?)
So then, a new Splinter Cell. I've been playing it for a few days now, and so far haven't been let down. The single player seems to have taken a little bit of a step back from Chaos Theory, but the A.I. is massively improved - case in point, they no longer fall for the same traps over and over again. A hired goon might go for basic distractions, such as whistling, but soldiers won't. They find you and kill you. So the improved A.I. kind of balances out the return to a more linear structure - no multiple routes anymore, but you do have to think harder about how to clear each section.
The actual 'Double Agent' part of the game seems to be window dressing. I'm hearing various things bandied about that it actually plays a greater part in the Xbox version of the game, but here in 360-land, it doesn't make a a huge difference. Screw up too much for one side, and it's instant game over. Pretty much the same as 'screw up for one side, and it's instant game over', which is how the series has worked in the past. The fact that the Xbox version is so different is starting to worry me, because I just don't have the willpower not to get it, should it turn out to be different enough to warrant it. I'm also concerned that different enough may actually turn out to be only slightly.
I've played a bit of multiplayer, and it's quite clearly a very different beast from previous games. It's still Spy on Merc, but spies no longer have a raft of gadgets, nor can they engage in any close combat, other than grabbing the mercs and breaking their necks. So you have a dichotomy between one very hard to execute, but one-hit-kills manouver, and lots of very, very killy bullets. Spies can no longer really afford to be anywhere near as aggressive as they could before. Similarly, mercs no longer have the defensive gadgetry they had previously, meaning they have to move around a lot more, and actually find the spies to kill them. I'm not going to pretend I won't miss the soft thud of a distant mine going off, but it's not put me off the new game.
I'm hopeful that this new multiplayer will be sufficiently appealling that it will draw in more players than previous editions. Whilst I love the last two games, it was often a deeply frustrating experience trying to find a game. After about six months you could guarantee the only players you would find would be either people still playing purely because they could cheat and win (mercs now categorically cannot get into the spies' spawn zones, thank the lord) or they'd be playing it for the first time, and would be pretty much certain never to play it again after a rich, full evening of not really knowing why they died.
As I say, here's hoping. It's a great game.