Reviewed: March 20, 2003
Released: February 18, 2003
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell is one of those games that reviewers dream of almost as much as the gamers who play them. For me, the dream began at the 2002 E3 show where I was treated to a personal demo from one of the lead art designers. Even as I watched Sam Fisher gracefully move around with stealthy precision I knew that Ubisoft had a mega-hit ready to explode onto the gaming world.
I had previously played Splinter Cell when it released on the Xbox late last year and instantly fell in love with the game despite a few control issues. When I learned the game was coming to the PC I was admittedly excited about the potential for increased control functionality and higher resolution graphics - not that the Xbox was lacking in that deparment. I'm proud to say that Splinter Cell looks just as good on the PC and plays even better than it's console counterpart.
Before we start analyzing the various components of Splinter Cell let’s discuss the premise and background story. You play Sam Fisher, a former Navy SEAL, former CIA operative, and general all-around badass who is recruited by the NSA to head up a new covert operation called Third Echelon - also the working title for this game. Sam has the authority to execute the “Fifth Freedom”, which is basically the same “license to kill” that Mr. Bond enjoys, and much like the disclaimer that Mr. Phelps gives out at the beginning of every Mission Impossible episode, the NSA will disavow any knowledge of Sam’s actions should he be caught.
The story that drives the nine intense missions is set in the near future; 2004 to be exact, and the geopolitical climate is hostile at best. Terrorists are causing trouble and they are dragging the larger superpowers into the fray bringing the entire world to the brink of global chaos. The story unfolds through mission briefings via your radio implant, cutscenes, and news broadcasts that are ultra-realistic complete with a bottom text-crawl that offers some humorous inside jokes – check out the headline about “Rayman”.
The news reports usually preface each new mission and will often summarize events that took place as a result of your previous mission. It’s humorous and disheartening to see how your recent rampage through a Chinese embassy is credited to “other sources”, but Sam isn’t in this for the fame. Overall, I haven’t seen a news presentation this authentic since Headhunter on the PS2.
Other major plot points are gathered during the mission Resident Evil-style. You will read files, access computers, read email, collect countless data sticks, eavesdrop on guards, and use your high-tech laser microphone to pick up conversation hundreds of feet away. Some of the information is critical to the plot and some only serves to flesh out the game world by creating side-stories and give the supporting cast a bit of history.
Splinter Cell is 90% stealth and 10% combat. Many missions prohibit you from killing anyone or even being spotted, which creates an incredible amount of tension. When it comes time to do the “wet work” Sam is more than up to the task with an impressive arsenal of weaponry.
The first stop is the NSA training facility where you get to learn Sam’s robust library of moves ranging from the traditional third-person running, jumping, crouching, and climbing to some impressive split-jumps, pipe crawls, and zip-line use. The combination of the mouse-look and keyboard was very intuitive and a refreshing change from the awkward (but functional) controls on the Xbox. In order to compensate for the lack of analog control for moving Sam, the designers chose to map his movement speed to the mousewheel, so by rolling the wheel you can change from a stealthy sneak to a rapid jog. My only complaint with this is that it is now all too easy to sneak around in the PC without fear of accidentally moving too fast and getting caught.
The PC interface is flawless with a multi-purpose action button that changes function based on the item or person you are interacting with. You can sneak up on unsuspecting characters and get them in a headlock. You might be able to interrogate that person, use them as a human shield, or dismiss them with a bullet or a neck snap.
Some objects such as doors have multiple actions that can be performed on them. In these cases you can pop-up a list of options such as Pick Lock, Stealth Open, or Open. Stealth Open opens a door just a crack and you can move the camera around to get a limited view of the area beyond. The lock picking is perhaps one of the more ingenious aspects of the game. You are given a cutaway view of the lock and you actually see your lock pick tool working the pins and tumblers inside. You rapidly tap one of the WADS keys until the pin rises then you move on to the next pin. The locks vary in complexity by the number of pins you need to pop to open the door. With only four possible keys to move any given pin it's just a matter of trial and error then rapidly tapping that key until you unlock a door. Even the most complicated lock can be picked in 10-15 seconds
Sam also has plenty of other moves like a wall hug where he flattens against a wall to sneak through narrow gaps or positions himself at a corner to pivot around for a quick shot. He can also do a catlike corner wall jump where he launches off one wall and up to an adjoining wall in true Jackie Chan style. Perhaps the best move in his acrobatic arsenal is the Split Jump where Sam does this nifty double jump in a narrow passage and then does the splits to suspend himself above the floor. The only problem with this cool move is that outside of the training level I never once had the opportunity to use it in the field.
Physical prowess aside, Sam comes equipped with a vast array of weapons and gadgetry that would make Q proud and James Bond envious. While Sam might not have the latest in laser-beam Rolex’s he does have those signature goggles that allow him to use various thermal and night vision modes for lurking around in the darkness. And don’t think for a minute that these vision modes are in place for some kind of a unique hook. You will really need these goggles on more than one occasion. There are rooms cast in total darkness that require night vision and a part of one level takes place in a misty meat locker where you are totally blind without your thermal vision. Later in the game you will need to use your thermal vision to analyze keypads for heat signatures on the keypads. Only by looking at the various intensities of the fingerprints and reversing the sequence can you figure out the code and gain entry.
One of my favorite gizmos in the game has to be the Distraction Camera. While it doesn’t offer the diverse vision modes of the conventional sticky cam you do get to make a distracting noise to taunt unsuspecting guards into investigating. When they get close enough a tap of the alt-fire sends a cloud of knockout gas into their face. Cool! Almost as cool is the Optic Camera that lets you peer under doors. This is the perfect way to recon a room before opening the door.
Your most useful tool in the game is The Palm OPSAT (Operational Satellite Uplink). This is where you read your objectives, browse your inventory, view maps, and check out the contents of the dozens of data sticks you pick up along the way. For some reason the PC version does not check the items/data sticks you have previously viewed. This was more than moderately annoying, especially since the Xbox did this. And another minor gripe that still bugs me is that new data sticks are still added to the bottom of the growing list of data sticks. This means that when you want to review new information you have to bring up the OPSAT then scroll through a long list of data sticks and without checks you don't even know which ones you've viewed. It would have made much more sense to put the new items at the top of the list. At least once you read a data stick any important information like door codes is conveniently re-listed in your Mission Info section for quick review.
Keeping a low profile is paramount in Splinter Cell. You have a Stealth Meter that shows your current level of visibility based on current lighting conditions. You can keep to the shadows and even shoot out lights to create new areas of darkness. Some levels require total stealth and these present some of the best challenges in the game.
The difficulty in Splinter Cell is a smooth progression that builds on skills you learn in training and expands on them a bit further in each new level. There were a few parts in this game that sent me scrambling for the strategy guide, but this wasn’t because the game was too hard, just that my objectives or next course of action wasn’t clear. You are usually given a map of each level but these are worthless. They are not to scale and not even remotely accurate for use even as a crude floor plan. It’s basically a numbered flowchart of key locations and objectives, so don’t count on using it if you get lost.
There are also times where you simply don’t know what to do and unless you stumble on the location that triggers a prompt you could get hopelessly stuck. In one mission I started on the roof and was supposed to get inside the building without touching the courtyard below. I dropped down to a balcony only to find the door was locked. Reload. I explored the roof for quite some time before getting close enough to a vent pipe that offered me the first time option of “Rappel”. Rappelling down a wall was never covered in training, so this wasn’t even something I considered or was looking for. Perhaps a “rope” in my inventory would have given me the clue I needed. There were other areas and instances where my path was not always as clear as it should have been. I certainly don’t mind puzzles or challenging gameplay but aimlessly wandering around until I got discovered, captured, or shot, was not very fun.
The graphics of Splinter Cell have been hyped to death and while the visuals are impressive on several levels, the much touted lighting and flowing fabric textures are so overdone that it actually gets distracting in places. You’ll be saying “Wow” and “Cool” during training and maybe the first few missions but much like a 12-hour fireworks display, you will be yawning all too soon. A good example is in the very first pre-training cutscene where Sam is getting briefed on the new division of the NSA. Sunlight streams through the Venetian blinds creating lighting effects that look like a Pink Floyd laser light show. To distract you even further is a large paper map on the wall that billows like a flag in a stiff breeze. And if that weren’t enough there are papers on the main conference table rustling about. It’s almost as if the designers are saying, “Look what we can do!” There is something to be said for subtlety. Sometimes less is more.
Most of the time the lighting works and is quite realistic. There are no unaccounted for light sources. All levels are lit based on environmental lighting that exists in that room or area and thusly can be altered by your actions. If you need to get down a brightly lit passage you can snipe a few lights to plunge the hall into darkness. Some lights are protected by a metal grille and cannot be shot. Other light sources include computer monitors, vending machines, fire, and one of my favorites, a slide projector in a dark theater where the rays of light actually show the color of the slide being shown on the screen.
Where there is light there are shadows and you often spot your enemy by the shadow they cast, but what works for you also works for the enemy, so you always need to be very aware of the light sources and the direction your shadow is being cast. Darkness is your best friend in Splinter Cell and it became almost a ritual of turning off light switches and shooting out lights in case I needed to make a hasty retreat. Some puzzles revolve totally around light and darkness like the shipping yard with roving searchlights. You need to avoid the spotlights and move from crate to crate hiding in the shadows they cast when the spotlight shines on them.
While all this emphasis on lighting is great for stealth gameplay it actually lessened my enjoyment of the game graphics. Many levels require you to play large portions of them using thermal or night vision modes. This means that rather than enjoying the original art design of the game you are playing in a monochromatic or “predator vision” filter. It’s also virtually impossible to determine light from shadow in the night vision mode, forcing you to rely heavily on that Stealth Meter to determine your visibility. For some reason the thermal vision on the PC was not nearly as good as the Xbox version. It still worked but there was something that didn't look right about it.
While there was some 3D modeling used for reference work all of the animation you see in Splinter Cell is hand drawn and easily the best animation I have ever seen in any game. The artists have perfectly captured the human form right down to the way a person walks, runs, and shifts their weight under varying circumstances. Crouch rolls, tumbles, wall hugs, and that killer split jump are beautifully animated. If you watch Sam rappel down a wall you would swear they mo-capped a professional mountain climber or member of a SWAT team.
The levels are perfectly crafted with realistic architecture and gritty textures that create a convincing environment. Combined with the ultra-realistic lighting effects you won’t get any closer to a virtual real world than this. You can even see subtle effects like little dust clouds when Sam is shimmying along a dusty ledge or sneaking across a dusty wooden walkway.
My only complaint with the graphics aside from the “rub my face in the lighting and fabric textures” were a few camera problems and clipping issues. Admittedly, the clipping only reared its ugly head when moving the camera around in tight locations. The framerate was pretty consistent and smooth with the exception of a few levels where they took a small but noticeable dip, but never to the point of being unplayable.
The only thing I have to warn you about on the graphics is the high price of admission. If you want to run this game and have it look anywhere near the quality of the Xbox you are going to need a hefty system and an above-average 3D video card. If you want to run the game at ultra-high resolutions you have to have a video card with 128mb ram. Those with only 64mb will have to settle for 1280x1024, which is still lightyears beyond the Xbox version in sharpness.
Wow! Where do I start? How about Michael Ironside (Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Top Gun) as the voice of Sam Fisher. How about some killer tunes from The Crystal Method to get your adrenaline pumping before you even pick up the controller. How about an EAX surround sound mix to let you hear every footstep, conversation, and any other sound effect in amazing detail in full 3D space. While the EAX isn't quite up to the clarity of the Xbox Dolby Digital mix on a high-end home theater, it does quite nicely on a 4-6 speaker system hooked into a good PC audio card.
The supporting cast including your NSA contact, Lambert are all professionally voiced. The news anchor could have easily been dragged in off the CNN set and all of the foreign characters offer thick and realistic accents from their respective countries. Even the few lines of dialog from Sam’s daughter are pretty convincing for such a bit part.
The story and script are expertly written and while I couldn’t find any writing credit indicating that Tom Clancy actually took part in the creation of this game, the quality of the writing is right on par with any Clancy novel. Sam is given a lot of witty dialog that he dispenses during mission briefings or when “interrogating” certain people held in a headlock. It's not as forced as a Bruce Willis one-liner but just as funny since it’s so subtle and cleverly delivered.
There are also plenty of conversations worth listening in one. This is nothing new to stealth-based games, but in the case of Splinter Cell you can actually glean useful info by listening to guards and other people in the game.
Sound effects are excellent with each of the weapons offering realistic sound effects for reloading and firing. The distraction camera makes little bird chirps or whistles and you hear the tapping as Sam hacks into various computers. Sound intensity ranges from thunderous explosions to the subtle cracking of glass as you tiptoe through a barracks strewn with broken vodka bottles.
The game music does a good job of making a tense game even tenser. Much of the game is played in total silence, which is absolutely necessary when trying to eavesdrop or listen for approaching guards. When the music does swell you know something exciting is about to happen, like somebody shooting at you, and this is my only complaint. It is all too easy to use the music as a “crutch”. When it increases in tempo and volume you know to run and hide in the shadows and when it subsides you “know” it’s safe to come out. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had music in real life to indicate when danger was approaching?
Splinter Cell is a single player story-driven experience that will take you 12-15 hours to finish. The game checkpoints frequently and you can save whenever you like. While the Xbox only allows you three save slots you have unlimited game saves on the PC. Big bonus points for this as I always like to save and keep a game at the beginning of each level just so I can go back and play it later if I want. A chapter menu would have been a nice feature after you have finished the game but at least through creative saving you can still accomplish the same thing.
I can thing of plenty of things the designers could have added to lend some replay to this game - things that are used in games like IGI2: Covert Strike where you are ranked on each mission based on time, kills, stealth, etc. As it is, once you finish the game you probably won't go back to it anytime soon except to show it off to your friends. The Xbox version is seeing some bonus missions available for download so hopefully the PC version will be appended to with future downloadable content. I know it won't take much to make me break this game out again.
Splinter Cell was everything I imagined and so much more. While the game is heavily scripted you are given a surprising amount of latitude in how you accomplish your missions. The story is engrossing, the script professionally crafted, and the game features missions that rely more on stealth and covert tactics than combat and aggression.
Splinter Cell is the showcase title for the PC, the stealth genre, and gaming in general. It has already been nominated for eight 2003 Gamers’ Choice Awards here at GCM. The bar has been set and this will be the new standard to beat for all future tactical combat games on any platform.