Publisher: Ubi Soft
Developer: Ubi Soft
Release Date: 11/17/2002
Standing in the courtyard of the CIA headquarters on a rainy, pitch-black night, you slip in through a temporarily exposed ventilation shaft, night-vision goggles in their full and upright position. Your goal: to snuff out a suspected mole in the agency that is believed to be part of a recent technology-based terrorist attack. Time is crucial, and lives are at stake. You maneuver through the winding catwalk until reaching the end of the shaft and spotting a maintenance worker to your bottom-left. Stealthily, you position yourself in a dark corner as he tinkers away, but the creaking metal beneath your feet alerts him to your presence. Not good. If he reaches the alarm before you can get to him, the mission's over. You know what you have to do. You are Sam Fisher, a Splinter Cell ... small, sharp, and nearly invisible.
We’ve all been staring at breathtaking screenshots of this game since last spring, and while there was certainly no doubt that it looked pretty, it was hard to believe that this wasn’t simply another Metal Gear Solid 2 rip-off, another Headhunter, if you will. And while Tom Clancy’s game division has its share of tactical squad-based shoot-em-ups, a solo-operative adventure game was nowhere to be seen. Enter Splinter Cell, a game where stealth and logic are necessary to succeed. You won’t be chasing any 80-ft tall Metal Gear Rexes in this baby. If you want to succeed, you’ll have to put aside fanciful preconceived notions of unrealistic Solid Snake-style settings and saddle up to the fact that everything in this game is based on existing technologies and gadgets, which are far superior to conventional anti-terrorist swag, mind you.
Ex-CIA, ex-Navy SEAL, you are Sam Fisher and the game begins as you are called upon by the National Security Agency to protect your country, by any means necessary. You are one of the few, the brave, and if ever you are discovered, the non-existent. The upshot is, as a Splinter Cell, you are given the “fifth freedom”: the right to spy, steal, destroy, and assassinate in order to ensure that America’s freedom is kept intact. This means you’ll be occasionally deployed into hostile territory with an objective and the brutal means to achieve it. The setting: March 10, 2004, geopolitical tension has reached its boiling point, and war seems unavoidable. A clandestine government agency known as the Third Echelon has been secretly constructed in light of recent terrorist events, their function: elite intelligence-gathering via lone field operatives supported by a remote team.
The story begins as you are sent to the Soviet Republic of Georgia to find out what happened to two CIA agents whose communications have mysteriously stopped. Alarmed at the possibility of their lives being forfeited to terrorist effort, Third Echelon has activated a Splinter Cell agent (that would be you) to get to the bottom of things and evaluate the situation. Doing so is going to take more than conventional elbow grease and sleuthing skills, however. In order to function successfully, you must make sure you leave no trace of your existence, and sometimes this means choosing between leaving a witness or a corpse, but to Sam Fisher, this is no choice at all.
It is hard not to compare Splinter Cell with the Metal Gear Solid series because their similarities do, after all, outweigh their differences. Both are stealth-based third-person action games that focus on a combination of espionage and action. To make such a comparison, however, would be doing this game a grave injustice. While it is true that the two games share similar qualities, Splinter Cell refines what MGS had started. All those same tension-filled moments of intrigue are recreated with Splinter Cell, but it achieves it differently. For example, there is no fictitious radar that fills you in on enemy positions and their line-of-sight. If you want to scope out the situation, you’ll have to dive right into the thick of things and assess the circumstances up close and personal. It is never too much to handle because events are usually pre-scripted, and you rarely need to backtrack or puzzle over what method of approach you should take.
You’ll begin a mission with a few central objectives, but as you progress, you’ll pick up and discover new clues and information that will inevitably lead to a change of plans. In the CIA HQ mission, for instance, you’ll start out with your objective being to access the CIA central server and plug a leak in classified information that the terrorists have been siphoning. As soon as you gain access to the server room and pilfer the required data, you discover that an unsecured computer somewhere in the facility is actually the culprit. By tracking it down, you reveal the alleged mole in the agency, who you must now kidnap and transport to Third Echelon authorities without being detected, and so the story goes.
But it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ll need to remain undetected through scores of opposition and high-tech surveillance. This is where the game focuses on lights and shadows: if you don’t stay out of well-lit areas, you are as good as dead. On the flip-side, if you stick to darkened areas, you are as invisible as a ghost. In order to conceal yourself from the enemy, you’ll need to do more than just stay out of view, you must always be mindful of the shadows you cast, the bodies you leave, and the sounds you make. There are any number of variables that you must take into account, lest you provoke unneeded attention. Sometimes, alerting a foe can be worked to your advantage. Various objects can be picked up and thrown, prompting the guards to leave their location, at which point you can safely slip by or take them out without consequence.
Aside from the obligatory guards, there are also security cameras that must either be deactivated or avoided altogether. Squeezing off a round or two into these devices renders them useless, unless they are the kind of security cam with bullet-proof casing, in which case your only option is to maneuver around it. If you are caught on camera, an alarm will immediately go off, and soldiers will be deployed to your last known location. Some of the time, you can simply hide in a darkened area until things look safe, but some guards will continuously investigate until you are either found or they are rendered dead or unconscious.
As ex-CIA and ex-Navy SEAL, Sam Fisher has a wide assortment of maneuvers at his disposal. These include the ability to quickly scale obstacles, perform a double-jump split concealment move, shimmy around with his back against the wall, cling onto overhead pipes and move hand-over-hand or lift his legs up and around it to avoid prying eyes, zip-line down sloped wires, evasive rolls, drop attacks, peek through cracks in a door, rappelling, using enemies as human shields, forced cooperation (used on retinal scanners), and interrogation. These are only some of the things you’ll be able to pull off throughout the game, and while the sheer possibilities may initially seem intimidating, you can rest assured that every move in Sam’s arsenal is easy to execute and increasingly intuitive as you become familiar with the gameplay system.
To further add to the amount of immersion, nearly every object in the numerous environments can be interacted with on some level. Computer terminals can be hacked. Locks can be picked. Light sources can be shot out in order to produce new hiding spots, or if you prefer, you can use the conveniently located light-switches. Your surroundings are comprised of things to grab onto, or to hang from, etc. Combustible objects can be shot to create deadly explosions. The level of depth in this regard is downright staggering.
That doesn’t even include the plethora of gadgets that Max will have access to in each mission. Every device in your inventory is there for a reason, but most of the time, it is completely up to you whether you use them or not. Not sure whether it is safe to open the door without an enemy catching sight of you? Simply slip a fiber optic camera under the door and look around. Need to make your way through a brightly lit corridor/corner without being seen? Shoot a remote sticky camera into the corner wall and watch as both visuals and audio is pumped directly into your head-mounted OPSAT device, complete with full pan/zoom capabilities, night-vision, and heat-vision.
If you’ve read this far, it should be obvious that Splinter Cell is one of -- if not the -- best stealth/espionage action game on any platform, but the deal gets even sweeter once you see the amazing visuals. I’m talking about a lighting and shadow system that is so realistic you’ll be looking at the backside of your television set just to make sure that what you are seeing isn’t real. Every light-source in the game casts eerily-believable shadows on every object in the environment, and they aren't products of some pre-rendered slight-of-hand trick, either. It’s all done in real-time, and the shadows react accordingly to, say, a gust of wind that rustles the blinds hanging in a window sill. There is no way to do justice to the lighting in this game with mere words or screenshots; it literally has to be seen to be believed.
The lighting and shadow system alone is impressive enough, but UbiSoft went the extra mile and included diaphanously rendered cloth-like textures that can be fully interacted with. For example, say you are standing beneath a wall-hung flag, part of that flag might be resting on Sam’s shoulder while another part of the flag might be dithering around behind him. As he moves, so will the flag give way to his movements.
Next, I’d like to note the immense amount of detail that went into every surface, object, and character in the game. Sam’s wet-suit, for example, is completely true-to-life and every object that is affixed to it, be it his head-set, item pouches, or the hanging straps, all move independently and react accordingly. A good case in point is how he deals with donning his night vision headset when his hands are busy carrying an enemy in a chokehold. He simply snaps his head forward to make the headset flip down over his eyes. It is a minor detail but, like everything else in the game, it is believably justified.
The whole graphical presentation is literally unreal. Graphically, the only other game out there that can compete with Splinter Cell is Metroid Prime. After playing the game for many hours straight, my Xbox locked up while making a loud squelching noise from the last heard sound-effect. I’ve seen this before on PC games like Unreal Tournament 2003 when the video card and CPU are working too hard and overheat. I can only assume the near-identical-to-PC-architecture of the Xbox hardware locked up for the same reason. So it goes without saying that this game truly takes advantage of the Xbox’s hardware. I’m gonna go out on a pretty safe limb and say that Splinter Cell sports the best visuals ever seen in any videogame to date.
Unlike the game that Splinter Cell will inevitably be compared to, Metal Gear Solid 2, the camera system at work here is totally free-form: while the computer almost always does a good job of positioning the camera so you can get a good view of the action, you always have the option to “un-latch” the camera and rotate it 360 degrees in order to scope out the environment and potential threats and hiding areas. This is the first game I’ve ever played to have absolutely nailed the third person perspective issue. The camera system can be quite aptly described as flat-out perfect.
Just to put the final nail in the coffin of complete and utter immersion, the audio presentation consists of beautifully orchestrated music that dynamically shifts in tempo and style depending on location and circumstance, excellent voice-work across the board (especially Michael Ironside’s portrayal of Sam Fisher), and 3D-positional sound effects that give you an aural representation of everything going on around, behind, and in front of you. Every object you interact with emits eerily authentic sounds. What most caught my attention was when Sam would pick up an aluminum cola can and then drop it, the can would hit the ground but would bounce once or twice, and sometimes it would bounce around a couple of times before rolling into the side of another object, all the while making the exact sound that it would make in real life, and never repeating.
As you surreptitiously sneak around the diverse environments, you’ll often come across groups of people chatting to each other about one thing or another. Occasionally, these elements can be easily missed by simply not coming in proximity of the event or alerting them of your presence before you could eavesdrop on their chat, but the amount of work that went into these passing exchanges is impressive. Sometimes it consists of overhearing a one-sided telephone conversation, while other times it might be a couple CIA agents who are listening and re-listening to audio clips on a PC from a terrorist, splicing the audio, rewinding, trying to make out background noises so as to get an idea of the terrorist’s location. It’s all really just gravy on an already-exceptional experience, and it goes to show how much the developers really put their hearts and souls into its creation (and, yes, 5.1 audio is fully supported).
However, despite all this excess of digital splendor, there are a few things that keep you from completely and wholeheartedly believing that what you are seeing is actually real. Intermittent instances of clipping have a tendency of slapping you back into reality. It is hardly noticeable as Sam conducts his business, but one scene that had Sam standing in front of a sprinkler as the water passes right through him had me scratching my head in confusion. In addition, the fact that Sam can’t pick up enemy guns when he knocks them out or kills them was also somewhat disconcerting, especially in the many instances in which I was critically low on ammo but was standing right beside two corpses with full automatic weapons strapped to their bodies. This was obviously an intentional thing on the part of the developers, but still very frustrating. Also, the fact that Sam can be an inch from death yet still run around at full speed, literally unimpeded by the various flesh wounds he has sustained doesn’t help matters either. Nevertheless, these are minor qualms on an otherwise other-worldly experience that deserves the highest praise possible and should be used as a template for stealth-based games in the future.
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