Reviewed: May 30, 2003
Released: April 11, 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.
By the time the PS2 version of Splinter Cell arrived I had already played and finished the Xbox and PC versions, so I was already comfortable with the gameplay and had much of the content, enemy locations, and strategy already imprinted in my brain cells. That over-confidence is perhaps what led to many of the surprises (pleasant surprises) in this latest version.
I knew going in that the PS2 was offering some exclusive content but I had no idea how much it would impact the overall game or the experience I had playing it. There are four exclusive new levels on the PS2 version but the total mission count is only one more than any of the other formats meaning that three levels were actually replaced with new ones. That leaves one new level, the nuclear power plant, which is really good in and of itself. The fact that the designers were able to incorporate this level into the existing storyline without it seeming like an obvious add-on is a tribute to their design skills.
The 30-minutes of new CG movies are incredible, both in content and quality and really fill in a lot of the plot gaps and backstory to the game including Sam's relation with his daughter. The other major change is the opening score, now performed by the Praague Orchestra. It's a bit more professional than the synthetic house music of The Crystal Method on the previous versions.
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 ten 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. The new CG movies go along way in carrying the story between the major sections of the game.
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 Dual Shock is put to perfect use and the controls make perfect sense. The X button is your multi-purpose action button whose action is 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 pressing X will 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 rotate the stick around in a circle until you get the right position then you jiggle the stick until the pin rises and 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. There’s actually a bit of skill and finesse in doing this that relies more on your skill than Sam’s.
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 you tap the button and send 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. Also exclusive to the PS2 version are new binoculars that allow Sam to recon the area and plan his next action.
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. The interface is both good and bad in that it checks off the items as you view them but new data sticks are 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 previously viewed sticks to get to the unchecked ones. It would have made much more sense to put the new items at the top of the list. 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 where your next objective or course of action isn’t entirely 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.
There's only a few variances in gameplay between the PS2 and other version outside the new levels of course. Some doors that previously required codes (like the backdoor to the police station) can now simply be opened. Larger levels have been scaled down in size and complexity making it a bit easier to get from point A to B, but this also cuts down on the number of encounters and the strategic possibilties for avoiding or eliminating them.
Obviously, the PS2 isn't capable of delivering the same quality graphics as the Xbox or a high-end PC, but I was totally impressed with what the programmers were able to coax out of the PS2. This is by far the best looking PS2 game to date. There were many sacrifices that had to be made in level design, but unless you have played the Xbox or PC versions you probably wouldn't notice and I probably shouldn't spoil your fun by mentioning them here.
Most are superficial changes that don't adversely affect the gameplay. Early in the game you zip line into a burning building. In the Xbox and PC the interior of this building is much more complex and your path is longer to reach the final goal. Later you are sneaking into an apartment. On the Xbox and PC this apartment has a terrace overlooking the street below but on the PS2 there are three walls around the terrace. The windows that you could look through and monitor the guards inside the apartment on the Xbox and PC are now boarded up on the PS2. The interior of the apartment on the Xbox and PC had a kitchen and a bathroom. These are gone on the PS2 and the medkit you used to get in the bathroom is now in the hall leading to the bedroom. Later, you are making your way to the police station and you pass through a large courtyard. The PS2 version has been scaled down greatly and the stairs and upper level entirely removed.
The PS2 has done an admirable job of recreating the realistic lighting effects that the Xbox and PC were able to deliver. There are no unaccounted for light sources and 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.
Special effects are really good but there was a noticeable lack of fire, especially in the first level when you have to escape a burning building. In the Xbox and PC the entire building is engulfed in flames and there is billowing smoke and those little glowing embers floating around like pixies. The PS2 has little pockets of flames here and there and not a lot of smoke. I just never felt threatened. I was impressed that the PS2 did offer that distorted heat effect above the flames that blurs and wobbles the background. That was something they didn't do on the other versions.
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 own visibility. To make matters a bit worse the PS2 version of the night vision and thermal visiom modes, while functional, are no where near as nice as the Xbox.
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. The texture maps are just a slight step down from the quality of the PC and Xbox, but they are still stunning for the PS2. Combined with the 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 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.
Wow! Where do I start? How about Michael Ironside (Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Top Gun) as the voice of Sam Fisher. How about a majestic score from the Prague Orchestra to get your adrenaline pumping before you even pick up the controller. How about an amazing Dolby Pro Logic II surround mix to let you hear every footstep, conversation, and any other sound effect in amazing detail in full 3D space.
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 lines of dialog (substantially more in the PS2) 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 sounds 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. There is no real branching plot paths or reasons to replay the game other than the simple fact that the game kicks ass and you will probably want to replay it anyway - maybe not right away but soon.
There's no support for PS2 Online either for multiplayer (which none of the versions support) or new content, which is disappointing since Xbox owners get to download new levels using Xbox Live. As it stands, there is plenty of original gameplay content in the standalone game, probably more than you would find in the latest Metal Gear Solid game and I'll bet you'll have more fun playing as Sam than Snake.
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.
If you own multiple systems then you have a big decision to make and I recommend you read our versus review to make the most informed decision you can. The PS2 offers some original content to offset some trimmed down levels and other levels that had to be completely swapped out for whatever reason. Splinter Cell is still one of the best games you can currently buy for you PS2 and 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 stealth combat games.