For every military operation that’s conducted and broadcast on television, there are dozens of secret missions launched and carried out around the world. For every swinging cat like Austin Powers who gets fame and fortune, there are whole groups of operatives that never get any recognition for their deeds or acknowledgement for their actions. And for every smooth gentleman spy like James Bond who always gets the girl, there’s a handful of soldiers whose sole reward is a job well done and a slightly safer world. Welcome to the world of the shadow agent, of covert operations and stealth maneuvers. Welcome to Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell from Ubi Soft.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to enter the boots of Sam Fisher. A highly skilled commando and one man army, Sam is recruited by the NSA to join a new, top secret branch of the organization called Third Echelon. As the organization’s main operative, Sam is tasked with intervening or eliminating geopolitical instability and potential nuclear threats, often placing him in dangerous situations around the world. This elite status does have a high price, however, because every mission that he is tasked with is completely denied by the U.S. government. While this may seem like a clichéd “Mission Impossible” concept, the necessity of plausible deniability soon becomes clear. Like most soldiers, Sam is kept on a need-to-know basis, provided with minimal information for each assignment. Initially sent into the former Soviet Republic of Georgia after two missing CIA agents, Fisher soon finds himself trying to avert World War III.
Fortunately, Sam has plenty of skills and equipment to help him preserve the free world. A large majority of these abilities will be introduced to you in a training mission at CIA headquarters, where you’ll run through the paces. As a trained commando, Sam will go through a lot of climbing drills that’ll come in handy for scaling walls and fences, zip lines and rappelling, among other tactics. It’s on this course where the immediate “run and gun” style of most action titles quickly becomes replaced with an emphasis on stealth maneuverability. Sprinting through areas not only makes a lot of noise, but also attracts the attention of guards. Instead, it’s safer to perform a crouching run or slowly tiptoe down halls or corridors, which is much quieter. This especially comes in handy when he’s attempting to stick to the shadows. In fact, lurking in the darkness is probably Sam’s greatest weapon, allowing him to conceal his insertion into hotspots as well as strike out at enemies.
To aid his invisibility, Sam has an ambient light meter that lets him know just how visible he is to enemies. If he manages to remain hidden, he can operate with relative impunity. Luckily, he has access to both night vision goggles providing him the ability to see in the dark, and thermal goggles, which can read the heat signatures from lights, guns and guards. Successfully creeping up on sentries can allow you to incapacitate them, force them to open doors by retinal scanners, use them as a human shield during firefights or interrogate your newly acquired prisoner.
Oftentimes, this interrogation provides Fisher with additional information that he didn’t originally have at the beginning of the mission. For the most part, Sam (and the player, for the most part) receives briefings and status reports about the current world climate via mock “CNN” news reports and a quick preliminary objective summary. This basic Intel usually won’t give you enough information to fully complete your tasks, such as directions through a heavily guarded area, door codes, or personnel dossiers. In fact, at times you’ll only get a slight idea about what you need to do, forcing you to negotiate locked doors and computers to continue your job.
To safely progress, you’ll come to rely upon many of your gadgets. For example, Sam has an optic cable that, once slid under doors, can provide a view of the other room, allowing you to get a sense of any potential threats lying in wait. Of course, to enter the room, you’ll have to check to see if it’s locked or not. However, Fisher is very adept at picking locks, which comes across as a graphical representation of the pins and tumblers of the lock itself. By manipulating the analog sticks in the correct way, players will actually pick the lock itself, lending a very cool touch to the “breaking and entering” aspect of counterespionage, especially since you’ll have to continually break into at least one door during every mission. As you continue your trespassing, you’ll come across computers that Sam can access, downloading information to data sticks that can be uploaded to his specially modified Palm Pilot. Much more than a typical PDA, Fisher’s Palm keeps copies of important notes, codes, and maps. It also enables conversations between Sam, Lambert (his best friend and boss at Third Echelon) and Grimsdottir (his intelligence contact).
Aside from skulking in the shadows, obtaining information or using gadgets, a spy game wouldn’t be complete without weaponry of some kind. The most obvious one is Sam himself, who can be registered as a deadly weapon. Using a solid combinations of punches, Fisher can quickly render a hapless guard unconscious. Naturally, this requires a face-to-face confrontation; however, if you want to get the “drop” on foes – literally – you can perform one of the coolest moves ever included in a game. If Sam goes into a narrow hallway, he can jump and stand in a split between both walls, giving him a chance to eavesdrop on conversations before pouncing on unsuspecting foes. However, he’s not solely dependent upon his fists. Sam does pack a silenced pistol for defense, which he can use to silently take out enemies who attempt to raise alarms. As you continue in the game, Fisher will wind up acquiring fragmentation grenades, but the true gem of the game is the SC-20K.
Gun enthusiasts take note, because you’ll be seeing the SC-20K in the hands of the armed forces and law enforcement in the next few years. Currently considered an experimental model, many people regard this rifle to be an impressive up and coming weapon to the American arsenal because of its incredible versatility. That’s because the SC-20K is functional as a sniper rifle or fully automatic assault rifle with muzzle flash suppressor and silencer, or non-lethal round deployment weapon, and can be quickly customized and changed to meet the challenges of any situation. During his later assignments, Sam will often use the lethal rounds to take out distant threats without the possibility of detection. However, there are moments when he’ll need to render them unconscious. Luckily, he can fire ring airfoil rounds that can immediately knock out their target, fire sticky cameras that adhere to walls, providing additional surveillance of unexplored areas, or launch knockout gas canisters to clear a room, amongst other less harmful methods.
In the preview I did for this game, I said that this is one of the titles that you’d want in your library as a demonstration of the Xbox’s power. Well, I said it then and I’ll say it now: This is one of the most detailed, most impressive, most exquisite titles on the system to date. The final product even manages to surpass the preview code that I played, with realistic environments and nicely mapped levels from start to finish. This is one of those titles that could easily have taken location scouting from previous Tom Clancy movies and fully imitated their look, their feel and their size. For example, exploring the oil refinery in the middle of the Caspian sea feels appropriately industrial, while the earlier missions in the republic of Georgia has a thick, Eastern European flavor to it, one that still hasn’t assented to the post-Cold War world. But it’s not just the overall settings that are impressive, but also the minutia that have been included to fully flush out the world. For instance, in the morgue, the shelves are stacked with bottles of medicine, anesthesia and other medical paraphernalia. Offices typically have items that make them seem lived in, such as flags, picture frames, stacks of paper and Coke cans arranged on walls and desks.
As I said in the preview, there will be many times when you’ll wind up using the furniture and environs as cover to protect Sam. But the most important environmental cover is the real-time dynamic lighting that the game manages to track so well. Aside from fully measuring light sources, such as the angle, intensity, and distance from Sam (along with its lens flares), the game’s engine also manages to detect what happens to an area’s level of light as each bulb is broken. While it affects your in-game visibility, which is an important factor of gameplay, what is even more impressive is how realistic shadows and light behaves. You can detect differences in the quality of light and how a figure’s shadow is cast. Even more impressive is the seamless transitions between night and thermal goggles versus normal vision.
3D models are truly amazing as well, with incredible details that make every persona look very lifelike. Guards and sentries do not suffer from the dreaded video game disease of carbon copyism; instead, each person within the game is an individual person with their own look, body shape and mannerisms. Sam is just as detailed, from the graying hair at his temples that suggests an older age beyond his years to the furrow of his brow and steely glint in his eyes when he aims at a target. Even taking a quick glance at his character model reveals pouches, gun holsters, and other equipment packs that a one-man army would need.
There are only a few hang-ups with the graphics in the game. For one, the cutscenes aren’t as impressive as the gameplay. Seemingly filtered through a foggy lens, these moments seem a little out of focus in comparison to the rest of the title. The second hang up is that the game seems to be so meticulous in its details that it sometimes slows down, especially during major gunfights. Tracking the individual bullets as well as calculating potential background damage while at the same time rendering the background and individual characters seems to tax the system’s resources intensively. Finally, and probably the most noticeable of the three issues, are the clipping problems that you’ll find. Quite a few times, you’ll incapacitate a guard and place him in an area, only to watch part of his body phase through a door, bookshelf or other solid object.
If you’re into sound, and you’ve got a stereo setup for your system, then Splinter Cell is definitely a gem for you. Featuring Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound, you’ll soon discover the need for silent movement as Sam attempts to infiltrate buildings, primarily because of the echo. Floors, for example, can alert guards based solely on how loud a footstep reverberates upon its surface. Because of this simple fact, you’ll often find that you’ll begin to emphasize quiet, cautionary movements. Even minor, simplistic motions such as accessing a computer or throwing a can will quickly seem like a deafening roar when they occur. The Surround Sound really comes into play in gunfights, where you’ll hear bullets whizzing past you at all angles as you try to “pacify” your foes.
Vocally, Splinter Cell is nicely done, headed up by the voice of Sam Fisher himself, Michael Ironside. His curt, hard as nails voice makes Fisher sound as though he eats glass and razor blades every morning for breakfast (for fun!), and definitely gives you the impression that this is a man that you really don’t want to mess with, unless you want to risk severe bodily injury. Other characters, such as the overly analytical Grimsdottir and officious Lambert, fit their graphical counterparts to a tee. You’ll also pick up on the Russian and Chinese accents from the enemies, and if you’re observant enough, overhear a joke or sentries talking smack about their superiors.
There’s a heavily flavored techno soundtrack to Splinter Cell, which isn’t surprising considering that the Crystal Method helped provide some music to the game. Intentionally low key during much of the action in the game, the bass line and break beats accelerate to a pumping, driving level as you’re discovered or get into a firefight. As a great backdrop to onscreen action, it gives you a definite sense of how the game could play out if this was a movie. However, the raise in music also is one of the game’s strongest downsides, because you can also tell when specific events are going to happen based solely on the music cues. If the music rises suddenly, you know that someone is around the corner, or some specific circumstance is about to happen. This does, unfortunately, remove a bit of the surprise from the game.
However, don’t be too worried about the loss of surprise, because Splinter Cell is one hard game. I mean Hard. Insanely hard. Even with your tightest game face and greatest skills, you’ll still wind up replaying a mission at least three or four times before you get the hang of navigating through each level’s shadows, finding specific hints, clearing newly acquired objectives and discovering codes that you’ll need to progress through. I’m making this statement to those of you who frustrate easily: you may want to either take a patience course, or pass this game up, because you will wind up running over certain sections multiple times.
I think that I should also make a discretionary comment to those of you who’ve played other stealth action titles: Stealth is highly emphasized and preferred to direct combat, and is actually enforced in two very specific ways. Ammunition and item restriction is strictly imposed upon the player for each mission, not each level, meaning that once this equipment has been exhausted, you’re completely left to your own devices on how you’ll survive. Remember, you’ve been disavowed by the government, meaning that no one will come to bail you out if you’re in trouble, no reinforcements will come, no back up will cover you – you’re on your own. Running in with your guns blazing will only leave Sam bleeding profusely with no ammunition, no medical kits to staunch the wounds and plenty of lights fully turned on.
The second way that stealth is enforced is a certain amount of unsteadiness in Sam’s aim. While he can kill enemies with well placed shots to the head or multiple body hits, Splinter Cell is not an arcade shooter so much as a geopolitical thriller simulation. Apparently, even though Fisher is a talented commando, it’s just as hard for him to hit a headshot on a running target as it would be for anyone else without a sniper rifle and a moment of calm. (And if you’ve got an enemy running away from you, you probably don’t have much calm going on.) Instead, what seems to be a much more effective use for your bullets would be as light prevention, eliminating potential threats to your visible detection, distracting guards with well thrown bottles and killing people only when absolutely necessary.
Technically this shouldn’t be too difficult, because the AI will continually assume the same scripted path of movement through a level no matter how many times you play it. Granted, they will perform a search if they believe that they’ve seen something amiss, such as a knocked out guard or a fleeting shadow, or possibly call for help if they’ve heard a sound from a thrown bottle. However, for the most part, an observant player can continually play through sections of a level, studying how and where each guard moves. This merely reduces a certain amount of success in a mission to rote memorization, forcing you to simply remember the pattern of guards, cameras and other enemies to succeed in your objectives. An astute player may be able to navigate their way through the game quickly, especially since there are only 9 missions (albeit rather large missions). This leaves merely the hope for newly downloadable content as promised by the Xbox live feature; however, there hasn’t been any new levels available as of late.
Despite these minor flaws, Splinter Cell is still an amazing title. In many ways, Tom Clancy’s magic with storytelling has provided gamers with a title that could be translated into a summer blockbuster. Fortunately, we have access to the game before Hollywood can get its hands on the story, and can savor a unique story that’s just as compelling as one of the author’s books. Plus, considering the number of military conflicts arising in the world, it’s not unreasonable to believe that this scenario could arise later this year or even next. Ubi Soft has a title for best Xbox game of the year on its hands, and PC owners won’t be disappointed when it hits their systems later in January.