It’s no surprise to anyone who has read my reviews and commentaries that I am a huge Metal Gear fan. Something about tactical espionage and stealth infiltration just piques my interest. Nothing is more suspenseful than sneaking up on an unsuspecting guard, where the slightest noise could mean the difference between taking a hostage or being a corpse. Solid Snake may have been the innovator of the stealth genre, but his successors add their own special skills to the mix (the lead character from Thief using shadows to hide in, and Hitman #47 disguising himself as an innocent courier).
Last May I noticed that Ubi Soft was adding another title to their successful Tom Clancy Franchise. After good memories of both Rainbow Six titles and Ghost Recon, I was curious to see what this new title, Splinter Cell, was all about. The initial footage I experienced was impressive, to say the least, particularly the advanced lighting effects that showcased the power of the XBox. I even sat down for a while to get a feel for the game’s control. The only problem was waiting until the Christmas holiday for the game to be released.
But when Splinter Cell was finally released, the true powers of the XBox were revealed.
In typical Clancy fashion, Splinter Cell is set in the immediate future, in this case, the year 2004. The premier of the Georgian Republic, a man named Kombayn Nikoladze executes his plans to start a potential World War 3. Starting with the disruption of worldwide communications (known throughout the game as The Information Crisis), his plans are carried out. The NSA sends in two agents to the Georgian capital on T’Blisi to investigate, but they are reported missing.
This is a job for agent Sam Fisher. Fisher is a special type of operative. Working for an organization called Third Echelon, he is entrusted with the "Fifth Freedom," which is the ability to infiltrate, hack, steal, destroy and kill to protect the other freedoms that America holds dear.
Along the course of the mission, Fisher will use his trusty SC-20K assault rifle complete with unique ammunition such as Ring Airfoil rounds which stun guards instead of killing them (similar to bean bag rounds), or Sticky Shockers (a projectile taser) and Diversion Cameras (a miniature camera that can be shot at a location, emitting a noise that attracts guards, and stuns them with a dose of knockout gas). Other tools of play that Fisher will eventually use include a lockpick which is controlled with the left analog stick (you actually can feel the lock being picked with the controller vibration), special exploding lockpicks for quick entry, proximity sensor wall mines, electronic camera jammers, and even a fiber optic cable that can be placed under doors (where the video image is downloaded to Sam’s Palm interface).
While Sam may have some amazing toys and weapons to use, there is one weapon that he uses best"darkness. When hiding in shadows, he is virtually invisible and capable of sneaking up on any unsuspecting guard, or giving them the slip. A meter in the corner of the screen will display how visible Sam is to his surroundings. Safe to say, light is bad and darkness is heaven.
But even darkness Sam is not blind. He always wears a special three-eyed visor capable of both night vision and thermal vision. Both modes showcase the graphical power of Splinter Cell. When in night vision mode, far away settings are blurred out (excellent use of depth of field blur), and in thermal mode, any heat signatures are easily detected. One of the cooler features that heat vision provides is after a guard is killed, you can actually see the heat signature of the body disintegrate.
As I mentioned before, Splinter Cell’s gameplay is centered on its light/shadow engine. Everything in the game casts a realistic shadow. Light shining through a chain link fence will cast an exact shadow on the ground and nearby surroundings. Bullet holes in walls will also emit their own realistic light source. Surprisingly, all this occurs without any slowdown at all.
For a Tom Clancy title, I was surprised to see that the soundtrack was done by the Crystal Method. I was expecting the usual patriotic music we have come to expect in titles like Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon. It is a surprising, and very good, change to the norm. The game’s dialogue is impressive as well. While it may not be at the grand scale of the MGS series, conversations between Fisher and Lambert (his Third Echelon CO) are true to life, as are the moments when Fisher interrogates a guard at gunpoint.
There is only one recognizable name that I saw in the voice credits, but it’s a good one: Michael Ironside (as Sam Fisher). Anyone who has seen him in Top Gun, Total Recall, and of course, Starship Troopers, knows his abrasive, tough guy accent, which fits Sam perfectly. Even during one of the funnier scenes (an interview Sam did at Ubi Soft Montreal), he never changes his tone.
Splinter Cell looks even more impressive when running on HDTV. It might only be at 480p, but the progressive scan really adds to the depth. In addition, anyone with an XBox Live account will be able to download new missions and features as they come around.
Just as the PS2 has Vice City and the GameCube has Metroid Prime, the XBox now has its own killer app (although it will be coming out soon for both the PC and PS2) which every X owner should have, if to just show off the capabilities of Microsoft’s green monster. For everyone else though, Splinter Cell is a gut-wrenching, nail biting stealth mission unlike any even seen before. Sorry Snake, I think Sam Fisher has got you on this one.
Come to think of it, maybe Sam Fisher should take over Raiden’s position. Two total badasses will work better than one badass and his whiner sidekick.
Developers: Ubisoft Montreal