AND SO FLOWED forth the Ubisoft press releases. Sam Fisher's gone bad! He's killed all the younglings! He's wearing a top hat and a cape and twirling his moustache! He's tying a young girl to a railway track, accompanied by the ragtime rhythms of a honky-tonk piano!
In the run-up to the release of Double Agent, the PR hounds stopped just short of posting out A4 renders of Sam Fisher snapping the necks of puppies in their mission to make him seem a bit risqué.
Of course, they were trying to get the message across that the fourth Splinter Cell game wouldn't simply be another collection of exotic locations in which to shoot out lightbulbs and stalk terrorists in an acrobatic and vaguely homoerotic way. Oh no - this time Sam Fisher's received that alluring Jack Bauer-style air of moral ambiguity everybody seems to be craving lately.
His new outlook on life is born at the end of the game's astoundingly good prologue mission in Iceland (spoiler warning!), where Fisher loses his rookie spy-in-training partner, only to be told that his daughter has been killed in a hit-and-run accident.
It's at this point that Sam chucks his trinoculars into the ocean and weeps with despair and deep moral ambiguity. Ubisoft
actually tried to license Johnny Cash's excellent cover of Hurt to play through this rousing introduction, before deciding it
would cost too much. It probably would've been over-egging the depressing pudding a bit, but its near inclusion highlights the sombre direction the series has taken.
Inspired by these horrible events, Sam forgets to shave and robs a bank, landing himself behind bars complete with an edgy, stubbled makeover. But not really, as it's all an NSA plot to have Sam infiltrate the ranks of a terrorist organisation. What's more, this is all explained in a 20-second FMV montage. How's that for adding depth and colour to a previously bland character? Good job, Ubisoft.
Sam Fisher's fresh perspective leaves us with a new addition to the Splinter Cell mantra - the much talked-about trust system. It's a brilliant premise, something that's been done so many times on the big screen, but never truly investigated in games. The terrorists you're working for have plans to start exploding cities, and if you want to overthrow their little plot you're going to have to nod and smile and play along for the time being. Like waiting for everybody to put down their hotels first before flipping the Monopoly board over and kicking your opponents in the face.
Fortunately, this doesn't just mean a linear set of objectives with some text on the loading screen to further the story of subterfuge. That would be far too easy, and not very interesting. Instead, each mission throws several objectives at you, some from the JBA (misguided bad guys), and some from the NSA (overbearing good guys).
Failing these objectives results in a loss of trust in one or both of these camps, meaning that over the course of the game you find yourself straining to complete nefarious deeds to remain undercover, while adhering to the NSA's objectives, which range from simply not killing anyone to specific instructions to plant bugs or listen in on secret terrorist meetings the JBA has employed you to guard.
Sometimes, trying to juggle the two sets of objectives is genius. You might be sneaking around doing your NSA spying stuff when you see your boss heading for the room where he left you, forcing you to race him back and pretend you were there the whole time (like the dog racing back to his clothes in Woof!).