Reviewed: April 24, 2005
Released: March 28, 2005
In 2007, the world is... well, not all that different from what it is now, in 2005. People still smoke, guns still fire bullets and separatist guerillas still maraud in parts of South America. But what has changed is that the technology of tomorrow - not twenty years from now, but literally tomorrow - has been incorporated into more than just experimental applications.
Welcome to the world of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, the third in the well-regarded series of near-future clandestine ops games. Sam Fisher, fifty-year-old secret agent for the U.S. government's top-secret Third Echelon task force, makes his latest appearance with better graphics, refined gameplay and more skills than ever before. He'll need them, too, because Third Echelon isn't the only organization using advanced technology. And not everyone who has access to it wants to use it for good..
Chaos Theory begins with a classic spy story convention: the small event with ominous undertones. Sam Fisher's latest mission starts with a rescue and reconnaissance trip to South America. The target? A man named Morgenholt, one of the world's foremost computer geniuses, who has been kidnapped by members of a radical Peruvian guerilla group for unknown reasons.
The plot begins to twist and turn almost immediately, though, as one thing leads to another and eventually almost all of the Pacific Rim becomes involved in one way or another. To talk extensively about the plot would be to ruin many of the surprises that await players as they guide Sam through the increasingly perilous missions. Rest assured, even though some of the revelations are obvious from a mile away, the story contains many genuine surprises. It also manages to be just believable enough to really hold the player's attention.
This isn't rocket-packs and steamy femme fatales - it's near-future science fiction wrapped in a stylish spy thriller. The technology is believable, the motivations are current and the tensions between rival nations during the latter two-thirds of the game are all too close to reality for comfort. It makes for a riveting tale, and it's finely told, with good pacing throughout and decent, if often cheesy, dialog.
As usual, Agent Fisher himself comes with an arsenal of awesome skills and gadgets, almost all of which are absolutely vital to his survival. Old standards like the wall-brace jump and tri-vision goggles are back, as well as a few new mechanics, including the much-hyped ability to hang upside-down from a pipe and snap an enemy's neck (which is unfortunately only doable in a couple of levels, thanks to a lack of exposed pipes in most of them). Also as usual, despite the wealth of lethal and non-lethal assault options he has, Sam's best ally in battle is stealth.
Psychological trickery, distractions and hiding all play an important part in Chaos Theory, and never have they been so well implemented. Sam wears non-reflective materials and can blend seamlessly into the shadows near an enemy. This is easily done with the help of a visibility meter in the corner of the screen. A sound meter measures the sound Sam makes versus the ambient noise level in an area - make more noise than it can mask and the guards might be on to you. When you've reached a point just behind an enemy (a pulse-pounding moment, I might add), you can grab them and drag them silently to a safe location for interrogation, incapacitation or outright elimination.
Some of the finest, most sensitive controls I've ever used make everything easy to pull off, without diminishing any of the tension of pulling a risky maneuver. Even the camera (which is easily rotatable) worked more or less flawlessly, instead of hindering gameplay as it easily could have.
The A.I. in Chaos Theory is superb. One of the reasons it pays to snatch enemy combatants from the shadows rather than drop them from a distance is that their companions, as well as any cameras in the area, can and will spot a prone body on the ground. While many soldiers react by yelling and trying to flush you out, many others will sound an alarm, which makes Sam's job much more difficult. A body caught in the eye of a camera will always cause an alarm to go off.
On the other hand, Sam can do a lot with his environment to turn the tables in his favor. In fact, the amount of stuff he's able to do is quite staggering. From silently knocking out lights and cameras with the new OCP electronic scrambler, to remotely hacking retinal scanners with a wireless hacking tool, Chaos Theory really lets the player believe that one guy could actually do all of this amazing stuff.
Combined with tricks like the Sticky Camera (a device which can be shot onto a far wall, manipulated to scout ahead and attract nearby enemies, and detonated to release a cloud of knockout gas) and more straightforward tools of destruction like motion-sensing mines, the game lets players control a one-man army who does things that conventional wisdom says cannot be done - and almost believe that they can.
The GameCube version cannot offer online connectivity thanks to Nintendo's unfortunate refusal to support online gaming; however, the fine folks at Ubisoft haven't just ripped the online component out and thrown the scraps to 'Cube gamers. Instead, they've taken care to cater to us in a way that few multi-platform releases do. Not only does Chaos Theory for the GameCube feature a split-screen co-op mode with its own levels and challenges to face, it also offers GBA connectivity in the form of at-a-glance map and menu screens for those with equipment to access them. Does it add a lot to the game? No, not really, though the ability to monitor a sticky camera on the GBA while moving Sam freely on the main screen cannot be undervalued. But it does make oft-embattled GameCube users feel well treated by a major software publisher for a change, which is nice.
It's unfortunate; however, that due to space constraints, the GameCube version of the game restricts which light fixtures Sam can shoot out (the Xbox version is unrestricted). Only fluorescent tubes and naked bulbs can be put out with a well-placed bullet, which detracts from the realism that is the game's strongest point.
Aside from that, and the fact that the game is two discs long (which isn't really Ubisoft's fault, Nintendo...) my only real complaint about the game is that there were a couple of times where, by all rights, Sam should not have been detected and he was - when he and an enemy were at opposite ends of an S-curved hall layout, for example. With such an overwhelming emphasis on stealth, this shaky detection could have become a serious problem. Luckily, I only encountered two or three isolated incidents of it.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory has some of the finest graphics yet seen on the GameCube. Dynamic lighting, realistic effects and gorgeous textures all combine with spot-on architectural and character models to create an eye-popping visual experience. One of the most impressive things I noticed was the way shadows are rendered, in real-time. When Sam walks in front of a light source (and thank goodness, there are few times when he has to), the most realistic in-game shadows I've ever seen are cast onto the floor and walls. Watching an elongated shadow shrink as an enemy approaches can give Sam a serious advantage in an ambush or tell you when to move him to safer territory, too.
The motion-capture work is top-notch, and the amount of different motions available to the characters in the game reflects that. From crouching on a ledge to breaking an enemy's neck, everything that the people in this game do looks convincing. Though I hope they didn't actually motion capture the neck-breaking thing.
The FMV is similarly top-notch. It's so "realistic" that it looks a little odd at first - something I call "plastic people syndrome". However, the raw quality of the scenes can't be denied. And nothing looks overly artificial or out of place. Sam, his friends, enemies and faithful support team back in America all convince so well, it's hard not to connect with them the way we do with characters in a movie or, say, a Tom Clancy novel (how about that?).
Again, the only thing keeping Chaos Theory from coming out perfectly in the graphics department is a minor glitch or two. Most noticeably, shadow outlines of bodies can occasionally be seen quite clearly through walls - sometimes through more than one wall. This is very uncommon, but annoying enough to detract from enjoying the game. And in a stealth game, there just isn't as much excitement when you can "see" the enemy well before they reach your position, even if it doesn't happen much.
There are some great sound effects in this game in the form of both ambient noise and local effects. The sound of an ocean in the background segues gently to the echoing quiet of a sea cave at low tide. Boots make different noises depending on what terrain they're on. Long and varied background loops simulate settling floorboards, busy offices and creaky cargo ships perfectly. Of course, all the standards (gunfire, the sound of a rope sliding between Sam's gloved hands) are in place, too.
There isn't a whole lot of music in Chaos Theory, but what's there is nicely done. Most of it is stock spy-movie stuff designed to heighten tension and excitement when the going gets particularly dangerous. It works well, though it can become annoying when you, the player, wish to overhear a conversation that Sam is overhearing between two NPC’s. There's no way to remix the volume for louder voices, either, so sometimes you'll just be left guessing at what's being said until your team (who remotely view everything Sam sees) relays new instructions to you afterward.
Voice acting is rock-solid, as always. Michael Ironside is perfect as the sardonic, intense Sam Fisher, and the rest of the cast backs him up well. There's no comparison to a game like GTA: San Andreas, of course. But there's nothing wrong with the voice work, or any of the sound for that matter, in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.
Not having online capability is a definite blow to the lasting value of Chaos Theory. The idea of playing such a fine-tuned, fun to play game with three other players online is mouthwatering. But there's no use worrying about it: things are the way they are, and that's that. Since no GameCube game has online capability to speak of, the point must become moot.
The single-player mode took me about twelve hours to play through, which I think is a pretty average time. I could see a bloodthirsty, heavily armed maniac dropping that time to as low as eight hours by just razing everything to the ground with grenades and shotgun blasts - but only on a second or third play-through. As always in the Splinter Cell series, Chaos Theory ranks players after each mission completed, with a success rating using percentages based on a number of factors. The opportunity is always there to go back and replay any mission again to try and get a higher score. If perfection is your thing, this game should occupy you for a long, long time - the highest rating I've earned so far is 89%, but that wasn't exactly easy.
On top of that, the co-op mode, while short, provides a decent option for friends to sit down and enjoy this game together, and adds a few hours to the base playtime of the game. There are special co-op moves to learn in this mode, as well, for those players not satisfied with Sam's already vast arsenal. And don't forget the GBA connectivity, which at least adds some extra options to playing the game, even if it's not exactly a score-breaker in the value department.
Besides everything else, this game is just staggeringly fun to play. It's the type of game where after playing through a level, you feel compelled to brag about "your" counter-terrorism exploits. Trying to figure out the absolute best way to do everything is a challenge that doesn't get old, since even the worst way to do something is usually pretty fun. And when you find the sweet spot for a particular problem, the sense of satisfaction garnered is as real as it gets.
Overall, the experience of playing Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is akin to reading a good spy thriller or watching a good spy movie. It's involving, at times surprising, and vastly entertaining throughout. The tight controls, the amazingly large skill set that Sam has, and the carefully woven tale of double-crossing and high-tech terrorism all combine to make this game one of the best spy-fiction titles available anywhere. And graphical polish to spare just makes the whole package even better.
I highly recommend this game not only to fans of the Splinter Cell series, but also to every gamer out there looking for a serious challenge and a damn entertaining story all in one. This is the type of genre game that could even make a believer out of stealth action haters, and everyone else should have little trouble finding a place for it in their permanent game libraries.