Release Date: March 21, 2006
It's not hard to forget that Metal Gear: Ghost Babel — released in the U.S. of A. as simply Metal Gear Solid — was a good game. It really was! I promise! Go play it! It's true: The handheld version of a high-production valued property managed to not completely stink up the place. But Splinter Cell Essentials? This one takes us right back to where we started, oh so many years ago before portable Metal Gear games proved us wrong.
The problems here are nothing new; they are but a continuation of the Official PSP Curse, better known as "lack of innovative game design when downgrading an existing console title to a handheld experience." We all knew the single analog stick problem was going to be a major issue; we didn't think the problems would persist so long, did we? But this should have been expected. Why redesign a game when you can simply shove it in a smaller box? Never mind the damage such an act would cause; developers are more than happy to leave it to their audience to reprogram their intuition, to react in situations as their brains scream at them not to.
Before reviewing some games (those that I receive after the release date), I habitually read as many reviews as I can, especially from users, not journalists as I can to make sure that I don't miss any details during my own play through that might affect people who don't play through games the same "way" that I do. I didn't find many of these for Essentials, even now, weeks after release. I did find that a certain publication gave three extremely disparate scores to this game, which worried me greatly: how could a single product be simultaneously praised as a proper interpretation of its genre as well as one of the worst examples of its type in history? I thought my reaction to this would be as it always is: middling. When people are polarized, I often find myself able to see both sides of the debate, weigh them out, and lend a fair amount of credence to either side. Not with this game. If anything, I see it as worse. Many reviewers' misgivings lie firmly with the single analog-stick controls. Mine go deeper than that.
After playing Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror — a mediocre single-player experience at best, although the online is superb — the low framerate and blocky, glitchy, unfinished geometry in Essentials is inexcusable. This isn't just a cosmetic complaint. Many areas, usually somewhat tight spaces, disallow any usable camera angles due to strange "sticking" glitches. Some of these are small annoyances; others are game-killing moments that, in the sensitive situations Splinter Cell throws at players, inevitably lead to death. One of the worst examples had the camera placed firmly within protagonist Sam Fisher's skull, allowing me to see the mirror image of his facial texture.
Splinter Cell already pushes conventional controllers to their limits. On the PSP, things are pushed to a head-throbbing level of memorization and non-intuitive operation. For example: to press up against a wall, hold left on the d-pad. To use night vision, press left on the d-pad. You can see how confusing situations can arise from this.
And, of course, there is the oft-maligned camera. Pressing Circle to have full control over the camera seems innocent enough. Then you realize that, in a normal Splinter Cell game, camera operation is as important as, if not more so, actual movement control. This translates to much of the gameplay boiling down to holding Circle and looking around, helpless to react swiftly to oncoming enemies (the A.I. remains comparable to previous Splinter Cell games, which is arguably a negative in this case).
The multiplayer is the same game, with a few partner tricks a la Chaos Theory's co-op play; there isn't much here, and the maps are just as irritating as the rest of this game is.
The single tragedy of Essentials — that is, the one good thing that makes me wish this wasn't an overall ignorable mess — is the storyline, which should prove to be incredibly interesting to fans. The narrative is the usual Tom Clancy motif, told through cryptic scrolling mission directives and badly rendered CGI cut scenes. The subject matter is interesting, however: Fisher is being hunted for a vague set of acts leading to treason and is finally caught during the surprisingly creative tutorial level, wherein he tries to visit the grave of his daughter, who has been killed by a drunk driver. It's all very human stuff, considering this is a Splinter Cell game, and makes me all the more interested in the upcoming sequel, which seems to be Clancy's take on the terrible television show Jailbreak.
I can't wait to see what happens with this series when it moves further away from high-technology hijinks; in the meantime, Essentials, as a lead-in, is a great hype tool, but the missions themselves, which are mostly dumbed-down versions of previous missions from the original through Chaos Theory, are such a pain to play through that it would be a better move to scan forums for some poor Splinter Cell fanboy who forced his or her way through this mess. Let the victims give you the good bits, and let Ubisoft know that this game isn't worth the time or money.
This game should have been as good and as much of a departure as the upcoming Splinter Cell is; instead, its gameplay piddles around with everything the series has already established. It is an off-tune swan song for the Sam Fisher of the past, introducing the rough, angry, apish creature that adorns the cover of this game. But don't let that shift in graphic design fool you; this is what you've already dealt with before, in the worst form it could ever possibly be in and still be recognized as a proper retail level game.
It looks like Dan Hsu was right. I never thought I'd say that.