Reviewed: April 16, 2005
Released: March 28, 2005
I remember my first experience with Splinter Cell fondly:
Thoroughly frustrated by the trial and error wanderings of Hitman 2, I took the game in for trade hoping to pick up the newest Ratchet and Clank release. The clerk recommended I take a look at Splinter Cell instead. As a Metal Gear loyalist, I was skeptical about picking up an unknown game licensed to some novel-churning militant I never had the stomach to read. Doubting that it could compete with the Metal Gear series, I thought I’d give it a go based on one comment from the store clerk:
“Sneaking around in Splinter Cell is infinitely more enjoyable than it is in any other stealth game”...Boy was he right.
Three years later, Sam Fisher is back and better than ever in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, the third entry in the amazing Splinter Cell series of titles, which – along with their fellow Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon brethren – have effectively made Tom Clancy and the Tom Clancy brand a household name.
First, I am going to assume that for the most part, all of you reading this review have played through at least one Splinter Cell game in the past. I’m going to assume that you already know how Sam Fisher out-snakes his “Solid” counterpart many times over with stealthier stealth moves, slicker weapons and gadgets, absolutely gorgeous graphics, and a story line that – to be blunt – is a bit more sensible and a lot less insulting than Konami’s saga. And finally, I’m going to assume that you – like me – have been waiting on pins and needles for Chaos Theory to rock your world.
Guess what? It does.
At its core, the mechanics of Splinter Cell haven’t changed a whole lot since its initial outing a few years back – but then again, they didn’t really need to. Since its initial introduction, each successive Splinter Cell title has been deemed the “preeminent stealth adventure” of its time – with a record that good, why mess with success?
Once again the story revolves around a terrorist threat – this time, a convoluted story of Japan versus Korea and China in a war over information technology in the form of computer algorithms. Regardless, you can rest assured that there are plenty of twists and turns to the story, but never enough to really lose sight of the big picture.
Gameplay still takes the form of you playing as Sam Fisher, equipped with a handful of weapons and gadgets – not the least of which is Sam’s trademark tri-vision headgear which allows him to see in night vision, thermal vision and electromagnetic vision. From the get-go you are allowed to carry both the silenced SC pistol, which has the added ability to disable electronic devices as well as any obvious ballistic benefits, and the SC-20 rifle, which can be loaded with a variety of lethal and non-lethal projectiles, as well as a handful of projectile gadgets like the ever popular sticky camera.
This time around though, Sam is equipped with a small dagger that can be used for a variety of purposes; from the obvious persuasion and/or evisceration of enemies, to the less obvious cutting of fabrics and ropes to open new pathways. The addition of the knife seems to come in conjunction with additional tuning of the close-combat melee mechanics, which now seem less clunky and cumbersome than before. Believe me, it is so much nicer to have a lethal weapon equipped in hand to instantly silence accidental guard discoveries rather than fumbling around trying to draw a pistol or box the guard’s ears as in the previous titles.
Sam has also been afforded a number of new stealth kills – including the highly publicized cherry-picker move that Ubisoft is featuring in their television campaign, as well as the hanging rail grabs and a PS2-exculsive ‘underwater surprise’ move. The stealth kills have always been a selling point of the Splinter Cell games, but in the past you generally were not afforded the chance to use them unless you purposely choreographed the scene – Chaos Theory is different, the opportunities to perform stealth kills are more frequent and using them is more out of necessity than guilty pleasure.
As with the previous two titles, the controls are silky-smooth. Sam moves in three-dimensional space with real-time directional controls mapped to the left analog stick, camera controls to the right. Crouching, jumping, arming and context-sensitive actions are all controlled with the face buttons, while the lethal and non-lethal (KO) moves assigned to the top shoulder buttons. The bottom shoulder buttons are assigned to special moves – whistling, etc.. and the D-pad is used for weapons selection. The DualShock 2 controller affords just the right amount of loosey-goosey precision required of a game like Splinter Cell – not sloppy, yet not rigid – and I never once felt like the Sam wasn’t responding exactly as I wanted him to.
This time around, you really have the opportunity to play the game to your own liking – with the game making a point of letting you decide whether or not to use restraint when dealing with the AI guards. In fact, it is almost as if the game is purposely putting your morality to the test by projecting genuine human personalities on the guards. Eavesdropping on guard-to-guard conversations will reveal that these men have families, girlfriends, friends – even emotions like fear, love, happiness, loneliness etc. – and that the terms of their service might not be by choice.
Sure, it is all scripted and they are just AI characters, but in some respect, it makes you think twice about the decision between knocking out or killing a character after you have just overheard him talking about how excited he is to see his wife and kids when he is released. I like when a game makes you think about your actions, and then gives viable options – allowing you to make the choice.
In playing both the Xbox and PS2 versions of the game, there were some noticeable differences between the two versions, above and beyond the obvious visual quality. While these differences in no way lessen the PS2 version’s impact as they did for Ghost Recon 2 (see the scores for heaven’s sake – this is an wonderful title), there are some substantial differences to note which point to the Xbox as THE version to pick if given the choice.
First and foremost, the Xbox version features larger and more fleshed-out levels than the PS2. While most of the main “parts” are present, many of the hallways or multiple pathways have been shortened, rearranged or removed altogether for the PS2 release. The differences would not be noticed unless you had the luxury of having both games present like I did, but dollar-for-dollar, you are getting a bit more game with the Xbox.
Second, although the PS2 version does feature multiplayer modes, they are identical to the online modes of the previous release Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow, save for the offline cooperative mode. The Xbox version on the other hand, features newly amped-up versions of multiplayer (new options, levels, game types) along with Xbox Live support for all of the multiplayer modes, including the four cooperative missions.
Finally, while both versions take more time than seems necessary to load, the Xbox version features virtually no in-level loading screens and nearly momentary quicksaves, whereas the PS2 version requires frequent mid-mission loads, and any loading or saving easily takes a minute or more of downtime.
Splinter Cell is a stealth game through and through; to effectively complete a mission, Sam must go unseen and unheard. Therefore Ubisoft has always put a big emphasis on the lighting and sound – so much so, it is difficult to separate the graphics and sound portions of this review from the Gameplay, since they play such integral roles in the mechanics of the game as a whole.
As mentioned earlier, Splinter Cell Chaos Theory is playable over Playstation Online. However, the online portion is nothing more than a direct port of the online portion of Pandora Tomorrow. That is not necessarily a bad thing – the two-on-two Spies vs. Mercenaries still plays extremely well for newcomers – but for veterans it is a bit of a letdown.
Still, for those few people who are new to the series, or just new to online, the gameplay of the online mode was highly touted back in 2004 for its fresh take on player vs. player gaming which pitted two teams of two against each other with one team playing the part of the Fisher-esque Spies, the other team as the Mercenary guards.
What makes the multiplayer so unique is how the game portrays the different perspectives of being Spies versus that of being Mercenaries; Spies are lesser equipped in a lethal aspect, but are afforded night vision and a third-person perspective. Mercenaries are armed to the gills, but have no night vision and a first-person perspective. What this means is that Mercenaries have limited vision but can kill from a distance, while Spies have great vision, but must kill from close range. The Spies are also given missions to steal certain objects that the Mercenaries are tasked with protecting.
By design, it makes for a very interesting game that is a fresh change from the standard run ‘n gun gameplay of the industry standard deathmatch and CTF matches. The problem is, in the year since Splinter Cell multiplayer was released in Pandora Tomorrow, gamers have become bored with the standard gameplay and developed new variations of the games – very complicated variations, mind you – and many players are not willing to let “noobs” in on the secret. What this means is that it is very, very difficult for newcomers to get in on a game period, much less be completely humiliated by more experienced players.
Co-op on the other hand is a new feature to Splinter Cell. In it, two players can complete scripted missions against computer AI. The really interesting feature of the cooperative mode is that there are a number of places where two players must…well..cooperate in order to complete certain tasks. In some instances, high walls will require one spy to boost the second spy up to a ledge, where he remains hanging long enough for the first in turn to scale his body onto the ledge where he turns and hoists the first up. Other areas will have one spy launching the other into enemies or over walls, or using cooperative repelling and hanging moves.
The only real knock is that as mentioned previously in this review, the PS2 co-op is split-screen only whereas the Xbox version allows online co-op. This isn’t too much of a problem if you have friends living locally, but for gamers like me – 33, married, children, job – it is not always easy to find friends who want to spend an evening at your house looking at a split screen. At least with Xbox Live, I can call one of my buddies in Florida or Texas or Detroit and play a game of co-op virtually any time.
The bar has officially been set. Until further notice, any questions regarding the best looking game on the Playstation 2 can be answered simply with "Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory". While the PS2 version’s graphics might not match those of the Xbox version of Chaos Theory (which also received significant visual upgrades this time around), they certainly look every bit as good as the previous two releases did on Microsoft’s graphical powerhouse. In fact, it’s almost startling how good this game looks in comparison to other PS2 titles.
All of the trademark lighting and shadowing that have helped define the Splinter Cell series thus far are present once again and in better form than ever. The levels are all superbly laid out with the lighting placement perfectly spaced to lend just the right amount of tension as you sneak from guard to guard, past security cameras and over and under laser beams.
Sam’s three different vision modes will be utilized to their full potential in Chaos Theory. Many levels will see Sam almost exclusively in night vision, flicking back to normal vision only long enough to allow him to target his pistol on a lighting fixture, or to better gauge his shadow-hopping, then flicking over to thermal vision to spot enemies at a distance. The visual impact of the different vision modes is amazing, and the little details like seeing characters’ mouths moving while speaking in what would normally be pitch blackness (where developers could easily ignore such minutiae) are really a testament to great programming.
Really, the only beef I have with the graphics have to do with the draw distance issues. At first glance the distanced backgrounds look great – no popup, draw in, etc. – but on closer inspection you realize that due to the video compression, it is really difficult to make out defined character shapes at distances that are not all that that far away. This makes hostage situations a bit difficult, as you are forced to come in closer than you would normally like in order to pick off the captors without injuring the captive.
Knowing how high production values Ubisoft keeps with their games, it is not a surprise that Splinter Cell sounds more like a movie score than a game.
First and foremost, Splinter Cell has some of the best voice acting in gaming to date. With Michael Ironside supplying the voice of Sam Fisher, his deep, throaty voice and dry one-liners makes the always-calm, always-collected Sam the coolest of the cool in gaming heroes. Forget the overly dramatic, lovey-dovey drivel of Solid Snake and company, Sam Fisher gets right to the point – answer his questions kindly and you might live, clam up and risk a broken spine.
The sound effects have been kicked up a notch. Most noticeably the sounds of the level surfaces – grass, gravel, carpet, metal grating, tiling – seem to have been tweaked to sound more realistic as Sam creeps from place to place. Thankfully a meter appears on the HUD to allow you to gauge your sound levels in relation to the ambient noises, so you know what kind of pace is safe to keep without drawing attention.
The soundtrack by Amon Tobin is the high quality orchestral fare we’ve come to love from the Clancy games, but with the added bonus of being completely interactive to the gameplay – as the tension level ramps up, the music seamlessly begins to build in intensity. It really lends to an immersing experience, especially when you realize that the hairs on your neck begin to stand up as you clench down on the controller simply because of changes in the music.
The value of this game is endless. As with any of the Splinter Cell titles –you have so many ways to complete a mission, to take out guards, or to simply sneak around. The graphics are killer, the story is believable, and it makes you question your own morality. Save for the Grand Theft franchise, there really isn’t a better set of games on the PS2 more worth your $50 than Splinter Cell, period.
A must for stealth fans.
It doesn’t get much better than this folks. Regardless of whether or not the online is just a rehash of the last, or that the levels aren’t quite as large as the Xbox’s title, and even if the co-op is only split-screen – Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is the best of the best on the PS2. It looks great, plays great and has tried and true story and online play. In my opinion, Chaos Theory is the preeminent stealth adventure of its time (sound familiar?).
As for my old friend Snake – sorry pal, but you can be eating crocodiles and fishes, cause Sam and I are here to party!