Written by  :  Ola Sverre Bauge (241)
Written on  :  Nov 04, 2004
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  2.43 Stars2.43 Stars2.43 Stars2.43 Stars2.43 Stars

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Not bad.

The Good

I'm naturally suspicious of anything called Tom Clancy's Insert Pretentious Title Here. But on the other hand, there was the tantalizing prospect of feeding my Thief addiction.

The biggest downside of the Tom Clancy label is, as you'd expect, the patently ridiculous story taking itself far too seriously: Georgia suddenly decides, for no apparent reason, to wage "information warfare" on the US; cue cutscene of TV news detailing the dangers of a computer virus spreading into the water supply. Which is perhaps all too representative of how real newscasters treat computer threats - now, it might be "technically impossible" as you say, but imagine the chaos that would ensue if people came down with general protection faults in the middle of traffic!

--in fact, you're probably best advised to skip the faux broadcast collages altogether and concentrate on the meat of the game.

The game itself is basically right in the middle of the intersection between Thief and Deus Ex, with bits of Project IGI thrown in. You do carry a gun, but it's rare that you fire more than a hundred bullets on any level. A new twist is that, in addition to knocking people out, you can grab them by the neck and put a gun to their head - and then knock them out with your elbow when they've told you what you need. Amazingly, everyone in the game are smart enough not to cry out in surprise at having the barrel of a gun against their temple.

Our hero isn't quite as suave as Garrett; he's called Sam and is some middle-aged guy with stubble - though he does look good wearing night-vision goggles, something the packaging revels in. Since this is based on some Tom Clancy nonsense, he works for the NSA, but at times, he has an almost gentleman-thief air about him. A gentleman thief with black fatigues and military hardware, that is.

Being a specialist in infiltration, Sam has a wide range of special moves like sliding on steel wires, rappelling, climbing pipes and hugging walls. Which is all very nice, but it does give that flight simulator feeling of hunting around for rarely used keys at times. This is especially true for the "split jump", the athletic feat of bracing your legs against two opposing walls: while it looks very cool in screenshots, it's hardly ever used, and by the time you need it, you'll have forgotten it among all the others.

The best of Sam's moves is easily peeking around a corner and drawing his pistol. From this position you're minimally exposed, and can take on three times the numbers you'd normally be able to. This isn't just a cool move culled from the movies; it also helps you feel more part of the environment, less like a heavily armed upright soapbox on wheels. It's also a word in favor of realism, as the first thing you look for in a firefight is good cover.

In what might be a first, you control walking speed with the mouse wheel. There are four speeds; you'll probably spend most of the game crouched on the second-slowest speed, but there's a time and place for all the combinations of crouching, sneaking and running, which gives a nice feeling of nuanced control.

Your goggles provide two additional modes of sight, night vision and infrared. Both look pretty cool; the 3D engine observes the way bright light "bends around" edges - I think "bloom" is what the industry calls it - anyway, it means a 40-watt lightbulb shines like the sun through night-vision, while a well-lit room is blinding bright. The infrared is primarily useful for seeing people through bookcases and such, though it does look very nice and has received adequate attention; notably, you can use it to see which guards are unconscious and which are room-temperature - pop a bullet in someone and you'll see the body heat fade away. All this makes the game feel bigger than it actually is, since each level can be seen three ways.

Splinter Cell has the most play on shadow and light I've seen yet, almost to the point of a ridiculous number of scenes with the sun shining through blinds, lamps through grilles, etc. Sometimes, things in a bright light exhibit that plastic toy look, but most of the game is spent in the lovely gritty light-amplified mode, or the graphically impressive infrared. The night vision is in black-and-LCD-cream, which is quite attractive; and the added video noise works well, surprisingly. The fact that I spent a lot of time looking at the game in monochrome, hardly even noticing, should tell you just how well it works.

The Bad

The title movie. When I saw the sheer amount of people who had worked on it, I wanted their job. I mean, I could do it better. Most ten-year-olds could do it better. And that music! Agh!

The ingame music is, unfortunately, not much better. You'll be wishing for cheesy Deus Ex tunes before soon.

The blend of sneaking and shooting while not giving the same degree of freedom as in Deus Ex means the game winds up being a bit off; by far the most enjoyable level is the one where you're not allowed to kill a single soul, yielding the tightest, most intense gameplay. On most of the other levels, the easiest route is often to just shoot people from a distance whenever you have the opportunity and then stroll right past their dead eyes, picking goodies out of their kit.

Murder is usually justified, e.g., after seeing a gang of mercenaries gun down an office full of helpless programmers, you're handed a bunch of grenades and a license to kill, but towards the end of the game, you just don't care anymore; I eventually found myself shooting security guards out of laziness and annoyance.

The sound effects are competent, but they're not as delicious as either Thief 1 or 2's; Splinter Cell is more visually oriented, for better and worse.

Oh, and there are a couple of jumping puzzles which call for the annoying-to-perform move of kicking off walls.

The Bottom Line

Adequate snack for sating Thief abstinencies, with some fresh gains of its own. Certainly worth it at reduced price.