Publisher: Ubisoft | Developer: Ubisoft | System: Xbox | Genre: Action
I’m going to get one thing out in the open before I begin: I love the Splinter Cell series, and I love it even more than the Metal Gear Solid series. Solid Snake and crew might be the progenitors of the current craze for stealth action and MGS was an incredible game, but playing MGS3 made me realise that the formula hasn’t aged or developed very well, and I’m not too keen on the postmodernism that Kojima is intent on filling his titles with.
I enjoyed the cinematic side of MGS3 but it was when I found myself running a few steps and switching to the first person view to look around for enemies all the time that I decided that it’s just not suited to a large organic environment with no radar. The angular corridors of MGS and MGS2 work fine, but a jungle doesn’t. Splinter Cell, on the other hand, takes the best of MGS, adds the features that we take for granted in modern games (like a fully 3D camera) that are perhaps are missing from Metal Gear, and gives it a nice dose of near-future realism.
Some may disagree, but I’ve found myself immensely enjoying each Splinter Cell as the gameplay is refined whereas each MGS has made me more worn out on the whole thing. So is it third time lucky or is this a step too far?
Sam Fisher (voiced again by Michael Ironside) is once again thrown into the deep end as he becomes embroiled in an ever-deepening conspiracy, this time to use military algorithms capable of taking over computer systems to plunge the world into war. Praise should once again be given for the way that the game unravels the story during gameplay through the events that you observe, but like the previous titles it’s essentially a fairly basic skeleton on which to hang an excuse for some excellent stealth gameplay.
In this respect the game hasn’t changed much. Sam has some token new abilities and you might find some tweaks here and there, but there’s very little that makes any fundamental change. One thing that springs to mind is how the previously trusty technique of shooting out lights to create darkness will now make a noise loud enough to put nearby enemies on edge and even bring them searching for the source of the disturbance. A far better technique is to use the secondary function of your pistol, an electromagnetic weapon that temporarily disturbs electronics, to knock out the light silently and do your business in the short period of confusion that follows. It’s extremely satisfying to pass through the whole mission without leaving any sign that you were there. Any tweaks that you do notice are positive, with nothing detrimental done to the gameplay.
Some changes to the format like being able to choose your weapon loadout (assault, stealth, and Redding’s recommendation, the option in between) have little bearing on how you play – I barely fired a shot when I went through the game – but the one improvement which does make a great change is the new non-linear level design via alternate routes and optional objectives that crop up as you play. Obviously it’s no GTA when it comes to free-roaming gameplay, but coupled with the more forgiving alarm system the game absolutely encourages experimentation. Throw in the console debut of the PC version’s quick saves and you really have no excuse not to play around and test your limits. That is a real improvement from the A-to-B structure of the first two games.
If I’m being picky I could criticise it for being too easy now. Discovery by the enemy can be solved with a quick press of the right trigger to stick them with your new knife, killing them instantly and silently, which means that the threat of engaging the enemy at close range isn’t really there anymore. This is exacerbated by the quick saves’ ability to remove any real penalty for death. Although it is easier, it also doesn’t have the frustration of Pandora Tomorrow (who didn’t end up having to repeat half a mission when they messed up one little section?) and there is plenty of lifespan beyond the first completion of the campaign, so it’s not as much of a negative as I first thought.
Multiplayer has received a boost with the addition of a co-op mode, as well as the return of the 2-on-2 versus mode from Pandora Tomorrow. If anything it’s the versus which feels like the weak link as anyone who played a lot of it in the previous title will find nothing new (it even has the old maps available), and the graphics engine for this mode, apparently unchanged from PT, really looks quite bad next to the other modes. It should nonetheless remain an excellent multiplayer game for those who missed it last time. The co-op is extremely entertaining with a handful of missions that tie into the main campaign in some way – for example in the campaign Sam finds a clue leading to officials at the Panama Canal, and in the co-op you’ll visit a Panaman bank to take the lead further. It makes some innovative use of the Live features (shouting into the microphone to attract the attention of guards, for example) and requires some real teamwork to get through, but they need to add more levels if it’s going to have longevity.
Probably the most overt change, certainly the one that provoked the most hype, is the radically improved graphics engine. Splinter Cell looked spectacular when it came out and Pandora Tomorrow wasn’t really any more than an upgrade, but this is an overhaul that looks like it belongs on the next generation of consoles. Models are detailed, the lighting is as good as ever, and the whole game has been coated in bump mapping and specular highlighting that looks gorgeous. I did feel that the first level was an all-out attempt to show off the engine and they got more conservative after that, but the game looks consistently brilliant. When the Xbox is capable of this at a smooth framerate it makes you wonder if they’re making a mistake by retiring it this year.
Chaos Theory probably won’t convert you if you really didn’t like the other two, although it might have managed to lessen some of your annoyances. Stealth aficionados and anyone who remotely enjoyed Fisher’s previous adventures should waste no time in picking up a copy of this title now, because it sets a high benchmark for the genre to live up to in future.