Reviewed: May 30, 2005
Released: March 31, 2005
I’ve always been a big fan of Tom Clancy. Not only is he an excellent writer, some of his work is downright prophetic. Either he has a secret source on the “inside” or the guys in military R&D are basing their work on his insightful visions. Sam Fisher is perhaps one of the most intriguing characters in the Clancy legacy and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, his third and latest adventure not only marks a huge improvement in the series, it easily attains the highest rank in the series to date.
The Splinter Cell series succeeds on multiple levels but the biggest catch has always been the stealth element and all of the high-tech “toys” that go into that style of play. Pandora Tomorrow introduced a phenomenal multiplayer aspect with spies vs. mercs, and now Chaos Theory builds upon that with an amazing new cooperative game mode and plenty of custom multiplayer levels.
I know what you’re saying. Sam works alone, as would any good spy, but the designers have taken great care in crafting levels and gameplay elements that require two people working in unison. Believe me; I had my doubts, but it only took an hour and I was hooked.
Chaos Theory offers three game modes including the traditional single-player story mode, which hasn’t suffered in the slightest, even with the extra attention being put into the multiplayer aspects of the game. Once again, Sam is called upon to serve his county and perhaps even save the world from global disaster.
While Sam has previously relied on stealth as his primary tool, this time you’ll find the game takes on a more action-oriented approach, at least if you want it to. Chaos Theory actually allows you to decide how you want to play each mission. Much like the Rainbow Six games, you now get to equip yourself before each level. You have standard stealth and assault packages or if you aren’t comfortable making the decision you can always choose “Redding’s Recommendation”, a nice mix of items from both packages that is picked based on the mission and it’s objectives. This is a great feature for beginners, but experts will want to customize their own loadout.
Sam has the obligatory handful of new moves and weapons. He now carries a knife (about time) that he can use for interrogations and quick and silent takedowns, either a slash to the throat or a stab to the midsection, and you can also cut fabric to create impromptu exits or entrances.
Stealth kills take on a new dimension with Sam’s new move where he hangs upside down and can grab enemies and knock them out or snap their neck. Of course, Sam will eventually have to engage in combat and his trusty SC-20K has been upgraded with a shotgun and sniper modification. You can also now use your pistol to disrupt electrical fields, and a handy new vision mode allows you to see these fields.
Taking another cue from Rainbow Six Sam can now enter a room in new and stylish ways. You can now stealth-open a door where you use the analog stick to move the door, you can kick down the door and possibly take down anyone on the other side, and you can just plain open a door normally. Of course you can always use your handy optic cable; usually a wise option before opening any door.
The staged alarm system of the previous game has been abandoned in favor of a much more realistic and tougher enemy AI. The enemy is heavily armed and once spotted, Sam can easily be killed in direct combat. Rather than alarms going off and enemies changing their patrol routes, the enemy will now investigate any odd occurrences, a light turned off or on at the wrong time, or anytime Sam leaves the relative safety of the shadows or makes too much noise.
For those of you who enjoyed the taste of multiplayer in Pandora Tomorrow, the new cooperative mode will simply amaze you. This just isn’t a new way to replay the main game; the designers have actually created four special levels for two players to join forces and work together as a team, both online or in a split-screen local mode. These levels encourage teamwork through special environmental challenges and even some combat situations, and best of all; none of it seems force upon you. It's all very natural.
Cooperative gameplay is enhanced with some special moves where characters might have to boost their partner up to a ledge then that player will have to pull the other up. One player may have to hang while the other climbs their body like a ladder and you can even lower rappelling ropes. One player may have to disrupt a camera while the other player moves undetected then returns the favor.
The cooperative gameplay is locked until you have completed the short, but useful tutorial. Best of all, no matter what cooperative move you need to do, it all gets accessed with the black button. Just get in the right spot or position and press it to work as a team. But even when you know where to go and what to do, sometimes it can be a bit tricky getting into just the right position for the move to trigger.
And if you are the type who just doesn’t work and play well with others then you might want to check out the versus mode. There are 11 new maps that put the Pandora Tomorrow levels to shame, all combined with the unique third-person Spies versus the first-person Mercs. The levels are much larger and far more interactive than anything we have seen so far, and all are tuned to multiplayer action, both stealth and combat.
Versus gameplay comes in three variations; a rich story mode with multi-objective based gameplay, Disk Hunt, which randomly seeds the level with computer disks that you must collect, and the traditional Deathmatch rounds out the multiplayer experience. The teams are balanced both by regulation of their equipment and their innate abilities, so neither side has a clear advantage.
I wouldn’t have imagined gaming could get much better on the Xbox, especially with the Splinter Cell franchise, which seems to only improve with each new installment. The model for Sam is so detailed you would swear you are watching digital video. The hand-drawn animation is so smooth and each piece of equipment is individually modeled and animated to dangle from his person with real-time physics.
The environments are even more detailed than before, featuring real-world locales and architecture, all populated with realistic objects and subtle details to bring them to life. The levels are now integral to the gameplay with a level of interaction that we haven’t seen before, especially in the multiplayer games.
Textures literally leap off the screen. Just one look at the opening beach level with the moonlight bouncing off the sand and stones will convince you. It doesn’t get any better than this. And the random flashes of lighting and distant echo of thunder are almost like a relaxation video.
All the visual special effects are back and better than ever. Lighting is real-time and dynamic so just about any light source can be shot to provide more darkness and opportunities to use your vision modes. Lights also cast real-time shadows, not only for Sam but for everyone and everything in the game. The vision modes are just as cool as ever, and the new EM mode is especially creative and tied to the new electrical disruption mode of your pistol.
Chaos Theory abandons the Pro Logic IIx mix from the previous game and returns to the standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which immerses you in a soundscape that you would expect from a big-budget Hollywood feature film.
The soundtrack by Amon Tobin rivals the quality of any action film score. The music slips into the background during gameplay only to surge during alerts or combat situations. It not only drives the emotional impact of the game but also helps in your situational awareness. This is one of the first games where I actually went out and bought the official soundtrack CD.
The 3D sound is put to excellent use with detailed sound effects. Environmental sounds are incredibly convincing, especially the weather effects, but it’s the sound that Sam makes you need to worry about, more so now than ever. Every footstep is heard and changes based on whether you are running, walking, crouched, and also varies appropriately with the surface you happen to be on. You can judge how loud you are with a new sound meter much like your light meter, and the enemy can and will hear you if you get too loud.
Michael Ironside is back to lend his weathered voice to the lead character, Sam Fisher, but Dennis Haysbert (FOX’s “24”) passes the vocal torch of Lambert to Don Jordan who turns in a quality performance. The rest of the supporting voice work is highly professional and totally convincing.
If you are playing online you will certainly want to make use of the supported headset features that allow you to chat with your teammate or whisper in the ear of your enemy as you slit their throat.
The campaign is divided into ten multi-objective levels or missions, each quite substantial in length, and all with multiple paths giving the game some great replay value. This is the first game in the series that I actually played through three times, each time being significantly different.
Of course, no matter how long you spend in the solo mode the true meat of this title is undeniably in it’s multiplayer, and even if you don’t have Xbox Live you still don’t have an excuse for not trying the innovative split-screen co-op mode. Of course, if you ever needed a reason to get Xbox Live, this is it. And with downloadable content on the menu, it’s only a matter of time before we can add to those multiplayer levels.
I had few complaints with Pandora Tomorrow, but Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory still managed to address them all and create what is nearly a flawless gameplay experience. Even though the game offers a choice of playing styles I still felt I was being coerced into more action and combat than I would have liked for a stealth-oriented title.
Even so, Chaos Theory has it all. A great solo campaign, cooperative and versus multiplayer with online and local support, and all of the audio and visual presentation value of a feature film. No matter what kind of gamer you are or what kind of game experience you are looking for, Chaos Theory has something for you.