January 03, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

The new ”Splinter Cell”: Are you a terrorist or what?

(Ubisoft; Xbox 360; Mature)

Double Agent, the latest installment in the excellent Splinter Cell series finds über-spy Sam Fisher back in the field — and in cahoots with a particularly pernicious bunch of terrorists. What’s this? Sam Fisher on the other side of truth, justice, and the American way? Turns out Sam’s oft-compromised morals are up for grabs, and whether he sides with the NSA or with the bad guys depends on the choices he (meaning: you) makes during the game. Ignoring the orders of your superiors will erode their trust in you, while taking out government agents (and even innocent civilians) will score you major points with the bad guys. (Two on-screen meters keep you up to date on how you rate with both parties). During the first few levels, this fork-in-the-road morality lesson seems like a gimmick with minimal impact on the storyline — but by the midpoint of the adventure, it’s clear that it’s more than just a frivolous add-on.

One longstanding game element that (thankfully) hasn’t changed is the emphasis on using stealth tactics instead of reckless shooting to dispatch your enemies. In most cases, you can sneak up behind an unsuspecting target, apply a chokehold, and knock him unconscious without alerting nearby sentries. There are many other ways to covertly eliminate others, including a nifty aquatic maneuver in which a submerged Fisher rises from the water like a ravenous shark, tackles a land-based foe, and drags him down to a watery grave. Longtime fans should be happy to discover that many classic Splinter Cell weapons are also present, including those nifty ”sticky camera” projectiles that give you a remote video feed of incoming hostiles (which, for good measure, can also be rigged to explode).

Add an arsenal of lively online multiplayer features (some that let you and up to five other human players choose a side — fleet-footed spies or trigger-happy mercenaries), and you have one of the coolest modern-day games of cowboys and Indians you’ll ever play. B+

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