What a great day! Besides waking up at 4am just to get there, my trip to Annecy in the foothills of the French Alps was a happy time. The reason is printed lovingly across these pages: Splinter Cell: Double Agent's multiplayer mode. Having been developed from the ground up in a heavily modified Unreal 2 engine by an entirely different team, it's essentially a separate game from the single-player component.
The premise, if you're not familiar with the multiplayer modes of Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, is one of spies versus mercenaries. Three spies must hack three security terminals, controlling from a standard Splinter Cell third-person viewpoint and using many of the main game's acrobatic tricks. Three mercs must prevent the spies from doing this, from a first-person viewpoint, using a gun and a flashlight. Sound familiar? Well it should, because it's based on the much-played ancient Egyptian sport of hide-and-seek, albeit on a far more deadly and technological level.
This time around, the team are intent on making it more accessible to newcomers, offering visual instructions as to where you can go and what you can do as a spy for the first hour of play. Gone are the confusing and almost unworkable server interfaces, and arriving on the console train is an Xbox Live-style interface with optimatch and buddy list options.
Other changes intensify the experience hugely, such as the spy's new-found ability to hack from a distance. Consider this situation I found myself in, sitting in complete darkness on some rafters, metres above a terminal I was hacking. The hacked terminal alerts a merc, who enters the room - his Aliens-style proximity detector blipping away, letting him know I'm within ten metres of him.
I watch, he's standing next to the terminal and looking in every direction, shining his torch, searching for me - all I need is another ten seconds and I'm done. In previous games, I'd have to stand right next to the terminal as I hacked, and he would have found and killed me by now. Instead though, we're playing a game of cat and mouse; an online test of faith.
Around about that point the merc stares straight at me, and for a moment I'm unsure if I've been spotted. Just like when you can't tell if the old man with sunglasses on the bus is staring at your crotch, your flee or flee-harder instinct kicks in. As a spy, your only defence is hiding in the shadows or running away. In this situation, the merc shot me right between the goggle-eyes, the game's newly developed killcam explaining why it happened - my electromagnetic hacking tools had shown up on his appropriate visor. Clever, clever, clever.
At the end of the day, Martin Korda and I won wine and cheese for being the best spies there. Korda later called to explain it was meat, and not cheese. He sounded happy. I was too. The multiplayer side of Double Agent will be the cheese (or meat) to the single-player's wine, and it shall make a glorious feast.