Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Review

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Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal

Platforms: Xbox, PlayStation 2, PC
Reviewed on Xbox

The National Security Agency (NSA) has created a top-secret division called the Third Echelon to gather intelligence that is crucial to national security, yet isn't accessible via traditional information-gathering techniques. The Third Echelon, itself an agency whose existence is denied by the government, works by dispatching Splinter Cells. A Splinter Cell is a single operative, sporting the most sophisticated technology available to the United States government. Sam Fisher is a Splinter Cell – an ex-SEAL and CIA veteran, and the best the country has to offer. The best, but also plausibly deniable.

Two CIA operatives have gone missing in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Charged with infiltrating the emerging government of Kombayn Nikoladze, the new Georgian president, every indication is that they uncovered something of paramount importance to national security. It's up to Sam to discover the threat posed by Nikoladze. If Sam fails to discover and diffuse the machinations unleashed by Nikoladze, he won't be coming home. And millions of Americans may die.

Xbox Live subscribers can download additional levels.

Kyle Ackerman

Sam Fisher is the personification of restrained power. Like a jaguar, his every move or crouch seems poised to unleash a lethal force – the "Fifth Freedom." The Fifth Freedom is the power to use methods not authorized by law, to bypass international treaties – any means necessary to protect national security and people's conventional freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear). Sam cuts an imposing and unique figure, clad in jet-black gear with instantly recognizable light-amplification headgear. He is ably voiced by Michael Ironside (Starship Troopers and more). Combined with his physicality, this makes Sam a unique, threatening figure, even when he is otherwise completely cloaked in shadow.

Playing Splinter Cell accomplishes something nearly every game attempts – to give the player precise control over a slick and compelling hero, while still capturing the feel of watching a cinematic action movie. Splinter Cell is more than just fun to play – it's exciting to watch. Sam is often authorized to use lethal force, but with or without the power to exercise the Fifth Freedom, his greatest ally is stealth, and stealth's best friend is shadow. Light and shadow are absolutely integral to gameplay, but also produce an environment full of stark contrasts and spectacular highlights that contribute to the game's movie-like drama.

Light sources are everywhere – casting shadows and creating pools of light that begin to seem as dangerous as the gun-toting thugs Sam needs to evade. Sun streams through Venetian blinds to create bright slats of light cutting across rooms, nets diffuse light into tiny rays, and stained glass windows create colored projections on distant walls. Objects and enemies cast detailed shadows, such that you can pinpoint a guard's location and actions just by watching a convenient wall. Controlling light becomes as important as marksmanship – flipping light switches to darken a room or shooting out the bulb of a streetlamp can be the difference between success and mission failure. The environments accentuate the importance of light, by seeming to push the Xbox to its limits, and ranging from bland corporate buildings to Chinese streets under curfew to an oil rig just before sunset. In addition to the usual rigid signs and furniture, curtains, blinds, chains and other flexible objects fill every location. Hangings move when Sam bumps them (or if hit by a stray bullet), can cause sounds that give Sam away, and can even provide useful cover.

Sam's imposing figure moves lithely through light and shadow, both giving players and observers something to marvel at. Sam can perform an incredibly versatile array of actions. Sure, he can shoot. He can walk or run, crouch and jump. Like the protagonists of many games, he can pull himself onto ledges and climb ladders. Of course, he can also jump off side walls for extra height, ultimately doing a split jump. Keeping one foot on each of two parallel walls, ten feet off the ground, he can pass unobserved as patrols go beneath, or ready a careful shot. He can rappel down cables, slide down uneven zip lines, or go hand-over-hand across a pipe. Sam can even grab enemies from behind, using them as a human shield or forcing that prisoner's head into a retinal scanner before leaving him unconscious in a dark corner. Sam's range of movement gives the player an incredible level of control. As a gamer, it feels good to have Sam climb up a pipe, jump to another ledge, traverse a zip line and then drop down onto an enemy soldier, knocking him unconscious.

Sam's repertoire of moves means that in many areas, there is flexibility in how Sam approaches a challenge. As one would expect, the game is largely linear. Linear levels are often necessary for the plot. But the game provides just enough context through cut-scenes and broadcasts of the FNW news network to justify Sam's actions within a level without excessive exposition. While there is usually just enough plot, there is no way to skip certain cut-scenes, which can be irritating on repetition. There are also key points where there is only one pipe that can be climbed, or one anchor from which to rappel. That said, more often there multiple ways to traverse an area or meet an objective. Run-and-gun play is often possible, but rarely your best option, as Sam's guns are accurate – not fast. Instead, you can time your transit between shadows, shimmy along high ledges, or use Sam's incredible array of gadgets to ease his passage. The environment is usually full of pipes, fences, walls, ledges and other features that Sam can use to his advantage.

Perhaps most important to the stealth of the game is that you can almost always take your time. Planning and deliberation pay. Sam has remote cameras that can be launched to scout out areas, and a snake camera to look under doors, so that you are rarely caught unaware, save carelessness. The control you have over the environment even extends to creating distractions – you can throw found objects (such as bottles), and a detailed interface lets you precisely control the trajectory and ultimate target. I also enjoyed the fact that Sam can nearly always use non-lethal means to achieve his ends. There are plenty of tools (such as his Ring Airfoil Projectiles or Sticky Shockers) that can incapacitate foes without slaying them.

The technology at Sam's disposal helps build the tension. The lock-picking interface is one of the highlights of the game. It sounds mundane, but when Sam needs to pick an ordinary tumbler lock, the lock appears on the screen, and the player must maneuver the analog stick to release each pin in the lock, aided by visual and force-feedback cues. At first this seems like a gimmick, but it can be nerve-wracking when you are trying to keep Sam out of sight, and are frantically trying to open a door before armed guards round the corner.

Splinter Cell is an incredible game and an easy recommendation, but that recommendation is not entirely without caveats. Save points are usually plentiful, but stealth games often hinge on repeating certain areas, trying different tactics until you succeed. Save and reload play is fine, but it's better with a "save anywhere" feature, and there are a few places where save checkpoints are agonizingly far apart. Also, while the tremendous detail of the environment is usually one of Splinter Cell's strong points, there are a few places where it can be disconcerting. It's entertaining that many computers in the game use the standard Windows aquarium screensaver, but it is odd that the only branded beverage machines are for SoBe. The obvious product placement for Sam's Palm-branded PDA isn't too strange, but it becomes jarring that nearly all guards (Georgian and Chinese alike) hum strains from Fiddler on the Roof when alone.

Splinter Cell invites players to get lost in the intensely physical world of the Third Echelon, where the strength and patience to hang off a wire while a military detachment passes beneath can be critical to the lives of millions. As a game, it is all too worthwhile to enter Sam Fisher's world for a few hours. You will learn to fear that one, threatening piano sound that means you have been spotted as much as you will fear the light.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 6, 2003 6:15 PM.

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