Splinter Cell


Genre:   Action

Developer & Publisher:    Ubi Soft Entertainment

Released:   2003

PC Requirements:    Win98/ME/2000/XP: Pentium III 800 or higher 256MB RAM 8X CDROM 32MB DirectX 8.1 compatible 3D accelerator DirectX 8.1 compatible sound card





by Singer

Step aside, Garrett.  Move over, Denton.  There’s a new sneak in town, and though he hides in the shadows, his game deserves the spotlight.

If seeing comparisons to Thief and Deus Ex in a review sends a shiver down your gaming spine, then perhaps you might want to go fetch your shoes.  You can lace them up while I explain to you why you’ll soon be tromping off to buy Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. 

In this game, you’ll assume the role of Sam Fisher, a field operative for an ultra-secret branch of the NSA called Third Echelon.  As a completely covert initiative, Fisher’s small, independent team (“splinter cell”) doesn’t officially exist.  Intelligence gathering is the foremost task, and espionage the primary means, but under extraordinary circumstances, Sam has the right to protect all other freedoms “by any means necessary”. 

As with all of Clancy’s work, this is very much a “real world” political thriller.  Although not based directly on any of the author’s novels or actual news events, the influence is clearly present in this taut, well-conceived story.  As the game opens, the CIA has lost two agents undercover in the ranks of the new Georgian President, and Third Echelon has been called in to locate them...  What, you want more?  That’s IT!...  Unlike other games that rely on heavy backstories to replace an actual in-game narrative, Splinter Cell starts simply and builds momentum as the game progresses.  I won’t pretend that you play the game just to find out what comes next in the plot, but what the game DOES do is genuinely draw you into an increasingly more complex crisis of terrorism and conspiracy that ultimately threatens the peace between global superpowers.  If that sounds like a stretch, then you’ll have an idea why I’m praising Splinter Cell for developing the story so boldly, if not quite seamlessly.

The plot is advanced largely between the game’s nine sprawling missions by news reports.  These clips highlight not only the terrorist threats and the potential political fallout, but also Sam’s impact on the grand theater.  He won’t be credited for any of it (being a non-entity has its drawbacks), but it’s enough for US to know who’s responsible.  During gameplay, Sam receives periodic audio transmissions from his boss, which serve to round out the story, as well as allow for on-the-fly changes to mission objectives.  These updates also help create the impression that Sam is just the final piece of a much larger picture, but that he alone is the one in harm’s way.

Played from a third person perspective, the whole point of Splinter Cell is to think like a spy.  No no, not the “Fisher, Sam Fisher” type of secret agent, who defeats the villain and gets the girl with nothing but a quip and a flash of the pearly whites.  Typically, Sam’s only chance for mission success (and often survival) is to stay secret and silent.  He comes equipped with a wide array of handy gadgets, and making best use of those at the proper times will be vital.  He’s also armed with a silenced pistol, and a heavier assault weapon, but you’ll soon discover that gunfire is usually the last resort.

Anyone familiar with other sneaker games will be instantly familiar with the visibility indicator.  An onscreen meter will constantly display the extent of Sam’s exposure.  This isn’t entirely necessary, of course, as it’s fairly intuitive (i.e. crouching in the shadows = GOOD, running in the light = BAD).  Equally important, however, is the sound that Sam creates, and you’ll learn to cringe at the racket his footfall makes, on certain surfaces more than others.  Fortunately, you can adjust Sam’s speed effortlessly, going from a walking run to a crouched tiptoe (so to speak) with an easy adjustment of the mousewheel.  Other aspects of the interface can be a little clunky, but this ingenious use of the mousewheel (also used for zooming in/out with a sniper scope) is a tremendous benefit, and quickly became second nature.

Sam’s actions, all performed with superb fluidity, include standard fare such as running, jumping, and climbing, but Splinter Cell is no track meet.  Again, think realism.  Sam is agile, but not superhuman.  The physical demands of his tasks all seem reasonable, and it’s obvious whenever he’s exerting himself. He’ll also need to perform such activities as rappelling, using zip lines, shimmying ledges, and lugging bodies around to hide them in darkness.  In one of the games stronger points, figuring out HOW to proceed is often more challenging than being physically able to do so. 

Of course, advancing in the game will often involve getting past the enemy.  In some cases, it’s simply a matter of sneaking past unsuspecting guards entirely.  More often than not, however, guards will be grouped, so it will be necessary to employ a little strategy.  Sam can creep up on enemies and grab them from behind (for interrogation or forced cooperation), or simply deliver a non-lethal blow to the noggin.  Of course, even to do THAT, it may be necessary to distract one or more of them to even out the odds.  Fortunately for Sam, there’s a good supply of littered pop cans and bottles for him to throw for a quick and easy diversion.  Or, if you wait long enough, their regular patrol route will usually give Sam a small window of opportunity.

Helping to deal with the obstacles, human and otherwise, are Sam’s many gizmos.  The lockpick will be used frequently, and it’s a simple little device that’s easy but interactive, so you’ll really feel like you’re “working” the lock.  Nice!  Most of the other useful items are attachments for his multi-purpose Modular Assault Weapon.  From Airfoil Projectors, which deliver a shock blow to momentarily incapacitate, to diversion cameras that release a knockout gas, these items are extremely helpful, particularly in missions where NO casualties or only limited alarms are allowed.  The other absolutely critical gadget is Sam’s goggles, which offer him both night vision and thermal options.  The former you’ll use extensively, while the latter are used only at specific but crucial times.  Other items aren’t so useful, like the optic cable for seeing under doors, or camera jammers, so the choice to use these may simply be a matter of preference.  These particular tools reward sneaks with more patience than I possess.

Of course, at some point it will be necessary to dispense some permanent justice.  In a Clancy trademark, Splinter Cell does employ a one-shot-can-kill mentality, so there isn’t much margin for error.  As always, the best method for Sam is to remain stealthy and use the sniper feature.  When zoomed in, the camera switches to a first-person perspective, and Sam’s breathing will interfere with the aim, forcing him to hold his breath momentarily.  A well aimed headshot will do the job nicely, but missing the mark will probably bring about a firefight you can’t afford.  Even a successful shot will likely draw attention (the weapon has a suppressor, but quiet isn’t the same as silent), so you’d best be prepared for company the minute you become trigger happy.  All this serves to increase the tension by reinforcing the need to ACT like a ghost, lest you become one.

As you’re watching the action unfold, one thing is certain – you’ll be wowed by the graphics.  Splinter Cell is one terrific looking game.  I won’t bore you with the techno-babble (which is my way of saying I don’t understand it either), but the bottom line is that if you’ve got the horses to turn on all the bells and whistles, the graphics are a treat.  I say this with some reservation, mind you, as black ops tend to land Sam in locations that are anything but “scenic”, or even well-lit, for that matter.  But the clarity of the backgrounds, realistic animations, and terrific effects all do a wonderful job of drawing you into the world of espionage.

One thing I thought I’d never do was fall into the predictable habit of praising a game’s lighting and water effects, but… well… Splinter Cell has amazing, shall we say, illumination and liquid depictions.  The reflective water surfaces are eye candy only, but the use of lighting in the game is of paramount importance, and this game handles it brilliantly.  There were also lots of other nice touches, like a broken spider web moved by the breeze, or a moth hovering around a lamp.  These weren’t necessary, but it’s the sort of unheralded feature that good games provide and mediocre games overlook.

In a game where an inopportune noise can result in mission failure, the sound also needs to excel in Splinter Cell, and it does.  The game has realistic effects, an excellent soundtrack and top-notch voice acting.  Sam himself will be immediately recognizable as Michael Ironside, and his voice is perfectly suited for the role – deep, gravelly, and no nonsense.  Unfortunately, he’s so good that you’ll wish he talked MORE, but that would be out of character (and, um… he’s usually alone).  Although I didn’t recognize the names of any other actors, the rest of the voice acting was wonderful across the board.

Supporting the voice acting is a solid script, and Sam comes across as a true modern age hero – cool under fire, ruthlessly efficient, yet with a wry sense of humour, concern for his team, and a soft spot for his daughter.  I sound like a film critic by talking about such things as character development, but quite literally, Splinter Cell would not be out of place as a big screen movie production.

Most other aspects of the game are rock solid, as well, including its stability.  I played the game unpatched (though one now exists), and experienced only a single lock up.  Getting into the game is a snap, as it opens with a comprehensive tutorial that will have you feeling familiar with the functions in no time.  The interface is unintrusive, and the default keyboard/mouse configuration is common in action titles.  The mouse movement controls the screen rotation, so you can almost always view a scene from any 3D perspective.  Believe me, you’ll WANT to do this, just to see more of the game in all its glory.  There are three difficulty settings to choose from, should you find the game too easy or challenging.  Between that and the handy dandy save-anywhere feature, you should have no problems getting Sam through his missions.

Well, maybe NO problems is an exaggeration.  Fortunately, Splinter Cell’s enemy AI struck me as reasonable.  Guards reacted appropriately to hearing noises, or finding bodies I had indiscriminately left in the open, and they would investigate any disturbances until they were satisfied that the threat was gone.  Although they all seemed to show similar abilities, some had advantages over others, such as guards with flashlight helmets, or others accompanied by dogs.  Their marksmanship was equally balanced, and particularly when together, proved to be a decent opponent.

Of course, this game is not without its faults.  Although partially overcome by its tight plot, the game is extremely linear, and at times this leads to frustration.  I don’t mind if a game leads me along, so long as it does so convincingly (which Splinter Cell does).  But occasionally the game bogs down at a few chokepoints, and since there is only one way through, resorting to trial and error led to frequent reloads.  Yes, that increases the challenge, but twiddling my thumbs waiting for a guard to pass, only to take one for the team and wind up twiddling again moments later doesn’t make for a happy spy.

The game did have a few other drawbacks, but all relatively minor.  A few jumping sequences proved awkward and unintuitive, the concept of personal “intel items” appeared to be borrowed directly from NOLF, and graphic inconsistencies occurred occasionally.  Really, though, I’d have to say that my greatest criticism is also my highest praise – it’s too darn short!  I realize this is the trend in action games, and I actually support it if it means better quality games.  On the other hand, there are fewer than 15 hours of playing time in Splinter Cell, and another couple of missions would have felt perfect.  In a frustrating reality for PC gamers, there are downloadable missions in the works for Xbox-ONLY!!!   But here’s hoping for those to be ported to PC, as well. 

Even as a shorter game, I have no problem recommending Splinter Cell to…pretty much everybody.  This game may be the current standard for production value, and really its only “failing” was in what it didn’t TRY to do.  Had that produced a lesser result, my criticism would be much stronger, but what Splinter Cell DOES do, it does most impressively.  There’s action, there’s strategy, problem solving, suspense, and drama.  The missions are nicely varied, and applying tradecraft in a modern, real world political thriller is far more exciting than I expected it to be.  I’m not the greatest fan of stealth games, as they tend to strain my patience, but this game kept me hooked and never let go. 

Aren’t your shoes on YET? 

Final score:  87% 

(The only time I’ve ever qualified a score – with another 4/5 hours of gameplay, it would have scored in the low 90’s easily.  Bring on those free missions, Ubi!!)

Played on:

Win XP

P4, 2 GHz

512 MB RAM

GeForce 4

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Please write to: Singer

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