Release Date: March 30, 2005
Nintendo fans, let us face the cold, hard facts: The GameCube is a dying platform. The Xbox has wilted considerably (Conker: Live and Reloaded is the post-Halo 2 swan song for the console), too, so this is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is an increasingly obvious fact. The Twilight Princess will be the final day for the lovable lunchbox, with all following releases serving as little more than a post-mortem where the masses are concerned. So, being the Nintendo fan that I am, I'm going to take a big, long stretch here and say that late multiplatform releases on the console are a good thing in these hard times, as they give single-console-owning Nintendo die-hards a few more solid titles right now that they might have been done with months ago.
(That's the best I could come up with. Ubisoft, you've shafted the 'Cube with these late releases like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Of course, I've got the PS2 version sitting about twelve feet behind me, so I don't actually care that much. [End of soapbox-style commentary.])
So now, we have Chaos Theory. Unlike Ghost Recon 2 before it, its arrival on the 'Cube is one suited for applause. Though it is based on the inferior PS2 version, Chaos Theory on the GC is still a solid release, mostly because the PS2 version was extremely competent this time around. The game is Splinter Cell with more gadgets, more moves, and more missions, which sounds familiar after Pandora Tomorrow (and it is), but manages to be different enough to warrant a new release.
In a time when the bulk of the Tom Clancy brand seems to be aging without grace, Chaos Theory shows that tense, realistic action can still be just as captivating as a player's first time booting up Rainbow Six on the PC. Though the GC version lacks the crucial, incredibly innovative head-to-head modes, Chaos Theory stands as a competent stealth thriller.
The one thing Ubisoft failed at was making Chaos Theory the "true sequel" that it is supposed to be. The plan laid out by the publisher was to release one "normal" Splinter Cell game, followed by a more experimental run based on the previous game (Pandora Tomorrow), then back to a more accessible, but brand-new experience (Chaos Theory). The latest in the series does not seem to move into any new experience, though it is more accessible than the tough-as-nails Pandora Tomorrow. The only wholly fresh item in the game is the new co-op infiltration mode, which will be covered more in-depth later. Other than that, the game seems to erase the mistakes of Pandora Tomorrow - namely the graduated alert system - and replace them with slightly more sensible concepts.
The new alert system focuses on pre-alert notices, making it more of a "suspicion meter" than anything else. As enemies grow increasingly close to discovering our gray-haired hero Sam Fisher, the meter graduates to the appropriate stage. Simple enough, and it goes a long way towards making each move feel ever more important.
Equally important - if not moreso - is the acoustics meter. Nothing more than a bar showing how much sound is made, this meter will often make or break the most tense moments in the game depending on how often the player's attention is put on it. Completely straight-faced, I can say that I've spent probably a third of my time with Chaos Theory with an eye closely fixed on this meter.
The arsenal has also been adjusted for a greater incline towards stealth over violence. While nothing has been expressly removed from the game, Sam is rarely armed to the teeth this time around. Weapons are no longer the useless tempters they once were; now they are more likely to be on hand when needed. Sam's new best pal is his trusty knife, which will prove more useful throughout the game than any projectile weapon ever could. Couple this with the brand-new rappel functions, and you've got some of the best stealth gadgets ever seen in videogame history. Bloodthirsty types be damned; this is how Splinter Cell games should be!
What isn't how Splinter Cell games should be are compromised environments. The fantastic lighting, ultra-high polygon counts, and consistent framerate are all greatly appreciated, but I could have lived without the fancy bump-mapping had the environments not been shrunk on all but the Xbox versions of Chaos Theory! While many of the missions play just fine, mostly similar in most regards to their Xbox granddaddies, the innate feeling that certain hallways have been slimmed down feels like a slap in the face when a guard with a very large machine gun has suddenly noticed you and a place to hide is needed right freakin' now! (Ahem.)
But, I digress, because when we're looking at the sheer graphical prowess of Chaos Theory, it is easy to see why a developer might say, "Shrink the level. Now." The tech team wouldn't want their baby to be ruined! Dark, smooth, often bump-mapped textures blanket complex geometry. None of the graphical work is over the top, given the traditionally conservative art direction in every Tom Clancy game, but what is here looks worlds better than what is expected of any other game to hold the Tom Clancy brand. It's all almost worth having the levels shrunk down.
To edge off the incredible production values of this game, every single sound anywhere in Chaos Theory is a sonic treat for the ears. Not a single other series with a penchant for realism can touch the perfect quality of the voice clips, gunshots, footsteps, and ambient sounds to be heard in Chaos Theory. Distance, direction, angle, environment - the number of variables that affect the way a sound is heard are incredible. Kudos to the sound art direction team on their fantastic work on this game.
And the final aspect of Chaos Theory: co-op. Developed as a completely separate experience from the single player missions, the co-op mode, as you've already assumed, challenges two Sam Fisher-esque infiltrators to meet objectives in short missions with increased difficulty. For the GC version, the levels have been shrunk further from the previously shrunken Xbox co-op maps, giving the mode a truly claustrophobic "appeal." To top that off, the team tactics rarely result in anything beyond giving a buddy a leg up by pressing the A button. The mode is good for a single run through, but not much else.
For a GameCube fan with little else to play, picking up Chaos Theory might be a great idea, as long as multiplayer sessions aren't needed. The missions are tough enough to keep players busy for weeks, and while there are a few flaws (shrunken levels) that are hard to ignore, none of it detracts from the experience enough to truly bring down the value of the game - except, of course, for the missing head-to-head modes, which could have extended the replay value of the game to a few months, not just weeks. Nonetheless, if you can't play the game on another console, it's still a great buy.