SummaryWhat MGS should have been.
The GoodSplinter Cell is the latest game series released under the "Tom Clancy's" brand name, and unlike the previous tactical fps titles that bore such name Splinter Cell is an action/espionage 3rd person title clearly aimed towards more "consoley" sensibilities. There's no doubt that Splinter Cell makes it's debut gunning for MGS, the reigning action/espionage title for console gamers, but fortunately for the rest of us, Ubisoft made sure that the game lived up to it's stealth-action moniker and provides one of the most serious sneaking titles this side of Thief.
The game casts you as Sam Fisher voiced by mr. coolness himself, Michael Ironside. Being a hard-assed veteran and a strictly professional soldier Sam comes off as a refreshing character from the usual console cliche of faggy supermodels masquerading as secret agents and lends a lot of credibility to the gameplay (yes MGS2 I'm looking at you). Of course, this is besides the real-life spec-ops hardware, realistic gameplay mechanics and more down-to-earth storyline with newcast cutscenes that show how the conflict escalates as you progress through the game.
As I mentioned Ubisoft did their homework when they designed the game and instead of overgloryfied arcade mechanics Splinter Cell incorporates some serious sneaking concepts. First of all sound emission and movement DO make a difference and attract the attention of guards and enemies in a realistic manner, and without handy-dandy radars with line-of-sight indicators or stuff like that you'll have to resort to crouching in the darkness and carefully judge the reactions and movements of your enemies a-la Thief. Finally a console game gets it man! The resulting tension is what sells stealth gameplay and I dare to say that Splinter Cell is the first game to get it right in quite a while, taking it's cues from the best elements of Hitman while adding some of the hardcore elements of Thief.
Of course, Splinter Cell manages to surprise even more as it adds a few twists of it's own, which include an interesting way of controlling movement by using the scroll-wheel (which allows you to easily switch between different movement speeds) and a lot of athletic moves that allow Sam to do everything from slowly opening a door and peeking through, leaning through a corner and shooting while in nearly complete cover (finally!!) as well as more esoteric moves such as bouncing off walls and doing the "Jet Li special" (see "Black Mask") by doing a split along a corridor and remaining suspended over the ground. Borrowing an element from Thief, Splinter Cell also incorporates the option to shoot out lights to aid you, and you can also immobilize enemies swiftly to use them as human shields as well as forcing them to bend over against a wall and activate retina-scanners.
Additionally as you would expect a true spec-ops operative to do, Sam tackles each mission with a full equipment of weapons and gadgets (eat that Solid Snake!) that include the prominently displayed night-vision goggles which you'll use in several occasions as it allows the player to see in the darkness or alternatively use a heat-sensitive vision. Sam also comes loaded with a small fiber-optic camera that allows you to peer through doors as well as a silenced 9mm sidearm and a futuristic-looking modular weapon that can shoot out a series of modules that contain remote "sticky" cameras, tazers and other useful stuff as well as doubling as a sniper /assault rifle when the stealthy approach fails.
Needless to say, this gameplay gimmicks are flawlessly executed and work wonders to increase the potential of the game which soars in terms of gameplay over Konami's MG series. Furthermore, all of these features are realistically implemented, with realistic gunplay that separates the action parts from the arcadey feel of similar games.
As far as production values the game showcases the tremendous resources Ubisoft has at it's disposal, with a graphic engine that allows for some incredible lightning effects (mostly used for subtle highlights, afternoon sunrays through windows and stuff like that) handles some superb animations, and even showcases spiffy effects such as the video noise in the night or heat vision modes. Soundwise the game holds some treats for EAX surround system owners and finally, the game boasts an excellently designed interface themed as Sam's PDA which allows easy access to all of the game's features, plus putting the final crimson ribbon over a true class-act of a game.
The BadThere are some minor annoyances that detract from the overall experience, first of all the plot is consistent with the usual military-masturbatory crap that Tom Clancy's novels are usually about, meaning a lot of potentially true scenarios and situations based on real world stuff acted out by cardboard characters. I mean, who were the bad villains in this game? I dunno, I barely remember Sam Fisher because of Mr. Ironside's always impressive work, let alone the goons that surrounded him. In any event, while it may be interesting for military maniacs, the plot leaves a lot to be desired and I personally feel shafted, I mean, why do we have to settle for either this serious but lifeless military scenario or the cheese-filled completely ridiculous melodramas of MGS? Can't we have a middle ground? Dammit...
Anyway, moving on, the game suffers from a little lack of focus in the level design, which clearly had a basic idea of what they were doing but didn't adequate the layout and the challenges to satisfy Sam's skills. The result is that a lot of the wonderful stuff that you can do are barely ever used... The "Jet Li Special"? I used it ONCE in the final level just because I was bored of knocking out my enemies and tried to avoid one with this method. The "shoot-the-tazer-into-a-puddle-of-water-to-shock-multiple-opponents" trick? Once, in China. The remote cams? Once in the building site... Peering though a door? Why if I have that little cam? Retina scanners? I can count their number in the game with one hand... etc. etc. etc.... Basically you'll just use some of the advertised features and forget about the rest.
Finally there are some issues with the less serious elements in the game, minor details that detract from the experience solely on the basis that they break your suspension of disbelief and which include auto-closing doors, really stupid and "forgetful" guards that can have a firefight with you, but if you hide for enough time forget about you ever being there... Oh, and lest I forget: Splinter Cell apparently went to the "Deus Ex School of international characterization" as the game takes you through Russia, China, and lots of other countries populated by people that talk only in badly accented english. I mean, I don't want to be that kind of a bitch but It really kills the mood of a "super secret serious stealth action game" when you eavesdrop the bad chinese general and his henchmen discussing their masterplan in plain english! And let's not even mention the private e-mails and logs that you upload to your pda through the game...
Thief veterans are gonna breeze through this game, with only some idiotic jumping puzzles to offer a challenge to the seasoned Garrett fan.
Oh, and in the endgame the president says "There's no problem American Ingenuity can't solve" :D that line alone made my day. Thankfully Sam seemed to laugh at it with as much sarcasm as I did.
The Bottom LineIn a nutshell Splinter Cell is the serious version of the overhyped crap that has passed as "stealth action" in console-land. Basically Sam Fisher is a grown up Solid Snake trading in the cheesy storylines and arcade gameplay for serious espionage mechanics and carefully designed gameplay aimed towards a more serious audience.
A group of minor flaws take a few notches off Splinter's belt, but nonetheless the game is a fantastic experience and a great addition to the library of the stealth gaming aficionado and something to quench your appetite until the next Thief comes out.