Reviewed: April 16, 2006
Released: March 21, 2006
Being the resident ďgo to guyĒ for Tom Clancy reviews, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would get to play one of those franchise titles on the PSP. I had always assumed it would be a Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six title though. I certainly wasnít expecting a handheld version of Splinter Cell.
Up until this point my PSP has been occupied with countless hours of SOCOM and most recently, Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror, which sets a very high bar, even for Sam Fisher to follow. Splinter Cell: Essentials is perfectly titled in that the game has only the barest essentials to even classify it as a game. I found nothing on the surface or lurking beyond the surface that came close to the greatness this franchise has achieved on the console and PC.
Iím not sure what Ubisoft was thinking here. The potential is here and the PSP is certainly up to the task, but Essentials just feels forced upon the hardware and the gamer. There wasnít any consideration to the controls or gameplay to really suit the PSP, and when you are coming in just a week off the heels of Dark Mirror, you are already in a losing battle.
Splinter Cell: Essentials is a mix of good, bad, and ugly with a heavy does of bad, peppered with maybe a dozen moments of pure brilliance throughout the entire experience that makes you wonder why the entire game couldnít have been that good.
The ugly definitely crops up with severe performance issues, poor framerate, clumsy controls, and awkward gameplay. I havenít played that many PSP games but this is the first that really made me miss my right analog stick, and I really wanted another pair of trigger buttons.
For those willing to suffer along with this crippled installment in the series you will find that Sam Fisher is still the master of stealth tactics and covert operations. He has all his classic weapons, trademark goggles, and all sorts of cool gadgets that help to make him a one-man army. Plus, the PSP manages to incorporate all of Samís gymnastic moves into the game including the split-jump, drop attack, and shooting while riding down a zip line.
But just having all these moves and being able to actually perform them reliably are two very separate matters. The controls are sluggish with an awkward lag between the button being pressed and the action happening on screen. Sometimes the move might not even work at all. This unpredictability makes for some very tense gameplayÖfor all the wrong reasons.
Essentials further complicates matters by having two input schemes depending on whether you gun is drawn or holstered. When put away, you move around with the analog pad much like any other action game on the PSP, but to look you must press the circle button and use the same analog pad. That means you cannot look and move at the same time. And when your weapon is drawn you move with the A-pad and look with the face buttons, which serve as an awkward replacement for a second stick. The design works, but it takes much longer to figure out and master than it should.
The story spans the entire Splinter Cell series, often filling in some gaps left open by the console versions of the game. Itís a nice tie-in for those who have played the other games. Missions are varied with multiple objectives, most of which can be resolved in 10-15 minutes, creating some logical stopping points for those who like short bursts of gaming. Essentials autosaves automatically throughout the mission but you can always perform a manual save anytime you like.
Objectives are varied but nothing we havenít already seen in other Splinter Cell games. Youíll perform all sorts of covert ops, rescue hostages, acquire sensitive data, disarm bombs, and kill countless bad guys. The levels are impressive, both indoors and out, and are designed to make the most of your wide range of stealth and combat skills. Enemy AI is right up there with the console games providing some challenging encounters.
Multiplayer is a bust, especially when compared to the almost cult-like following of the Spies vs. Mercs modes on the console version. The PSP offers two-player support for Spy vs Spy only, and only with Ad Hoc mode Ė no Internet. Splinter Cell is primarily a stealth game so trying to force it into an action-style deathmatch is just awkward. Combine that with poor multiplayer level design and weapons that are level specific and you have a multiplayer mode that will be quickly abandoned.
Iíve found that the PSP is perfectly capable of creating visuals that are right on par with the Xbox, but Essentials doesnít come close. It barely manages to live up to the PS2 quality, although that might be saying more about the excellent PS2 art than this version.
Textures are probably the worst offender, with everything being muddy and usually too dark to see what is what. The game is very difficult to play in any type of natural light, especially on some of the indoor levels. I would actually find myself using my various vision modes even in parts of the game where you probably werenít supposed to, although this monochromatic view further complicated matters making it even harder to identify key elements of the level. There are all sorts of technical glitches, clipping problems and abundant camera goofs that would be amusing if it wasnít so sad.
On a positive note, the character design and animation is still solid with smooth and lifelike hand drawn animation versus the more traditional mo-capped stuff. The clothing and gear is also expertly modeled and looks just as good as the console versions.
There arenít any fancy CG movies or cutscenes, but the game does make excellent use of still images and moving comic panels to tell the story between levels. Menus and splash screens are excellent as are the various interface screens youíll use during the game.
The soundtrack for Essentials is totally authentic and I felt like I was playing a console version of the game, or at least my ears did. There is a good variety of music, mostly of a military theme that slips into something more atmospheric or drops out entirely during the game, only to resurface during intense moments of combat or to enhance a story moment.
The sound effects are equally as good with accurate weapon sounds as well as all the incidental effects like footsteps, clattering gear, and environmental effects like burning fire, wind, water, or wildlife.
Michael Ironside is back to lend his distinguished voice to Sam Fisher. There is plenty of dialogue, both in cutscenes and throughout the missions. The rest of the voice cast does a surprising job of working alongside Samís raspy dialogue.
Most gamers can finish off Essentials in 10-12 hours once they figure out the controls. There are a few nice bonuses but nothing worth spending too much extra time on or replaying the game.
The multiplayer is neither fun nor that easy to even get into thanks to no Internet support or Game Sharing. I would have also liked to have seen some connectivity between the PSP and the PS2.
Splinter Cell: Essentials is just that, the bare essentials required to put Sam on the PSP and milk the consumer for $30-40. While the designers did an admirable job of putting all of the ingredients into the game, they forgot to make it functional. Poor controls, glitchy gameplay, and lackluster graphics make this one assignment best left for only the most diehard of Sam Fisher fans.
The potential is here Ė the game just needs to cook for a few more hours before itís ready for consumption. Hopefully any forthcoming sequels wonít be as hastily rushed out the door. Sam and his fans deserve better.