Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is the third title in the Splinter Cell series. The first title was a smash-hit from Ubisoft’s Montreal office. The second title, Pandora Tomorrow, was created by Ubisoft’s recently-formed Shanghai team where a multiplayer mode was added for the PS2 and Xbox versions of the game. We’ve gone back to Ubisoft Montreal for the third title in the series. Can the Montreal team re-capture the originality of the first title while fixing the issues present in both of the original games? No…that’d be too easy, they’ve pulled off more than that.
The story behind this edition of the Splinter Cell series is less about tracking down terrorists and more about the new age of terror – cyberterrorism. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a healthy dose of double-crossing and stealth, just that the threats are less obvious. The cloak-and-dagger story is heavy with techno-jargon, rife with political intrigue, and finally contains a balanced storyline that keeps you engaged from the beginning to the end of the game.
The first Splinter Cell was original and fresh and introduced us to a very gruff Sam Fisher and his handler, Lambert. The second title showed us a more aggressive but reserved Sam and the storyline never really came together as cohesively as the first. This third installment of the series balances out the story of Sam Fisher, giving him a dark sense of humor as cracks jokes at the expense of the people he interrogates or the situations he encounters. It lends a more realistic bend to the game and strikes a chord with me as an ex-military member. Everyone I’ve ever known in the military has been a wise-cracking smart ass, why should Sam be any different?
Chaos Theory is not just a rehash of the previous games using the previous engine – a great deal of work has been done to enhance the look of the game. The game looks like it could easily have been designed for a next generation console. From the subtle glisten of Sam’s suit under the rain or the subtle glow that the red lights on a missile housing cast off, the attention to detail is jaw dropping. Sam’s chiseled features are better defined and the environments are more detailed with items such as candles, paintings, and the personal radios the guards turn on and jam out to.
The animations are running on overdrive for this installment, it looks like the Montreal team did not re-use any of the motion capture from the previous game. Sam now re-adjusts his stance if he is left in an awkward position for too long. Additionally, Sam will sheath his knife with one hand while carefully lowering a recently-choked enemy with the other. The whole animation system seems a lot more fluid, and not just for Sam. The enemies also received upgrades to their animations and now will hunch over on a bed and tap their feet along with the music they are playing. They will also pick up clip-boards and read them while chatting to each other about shipments and other mundane tasks.
The only real knock against Chaos Theory is a lack of variety in enemy faces. I’m not sure what sort of genome soldier program the enemy is running, but almost every character has the same face. It is certainly not a dealbreaker by any stretch, but it does break the immersion a bit.
Sound is incredibly important in a stealth title. Chaos Theory has added a bar to help you measure how much sound you are making to ensure that you are staying invisible both audibly and visibly. There is a threshold marker within the bar that you will have to watch as each surface is different and each guard is different. Some guards are more alert and some are just dock-workers and lackeys who really are just trying to get through their day.
All of the previous voice actors have returned again for their voiceover work, most notably Michael Ironsides reprises his role as Sam Fisher. As I mentioned earlier, Sam has more of a sense of humor as he jokes with Lambert, Redding, and the rest of the support staff. Sometimes he’ll play along with the reactions of the people you hold at knife point. One particular soldier seemed to think it was a drill and Sam plays it off like he is just a part of the exercise. It adds to the overall realism the rest of the game presents and makes it a bit easier to stomach. The game is less grim as a result and even takes a few opportunities to poke fun at itself – specifically Sam whines that he knows that if he sets off the alarm three times its game-over and Lambert corrects him that it’ll just make it more difficult as ‘its not some video game!’ It is a lot of fun and it brings some levity to the grim subject of fighting terrorists.
As with previous Splinter Cell titles, the enemy carries on conversations that might help you accomplish your mission. Occasionally they may mention some tidbit about a door code or where your primary target is located. They also carry on about their latest date, shipping logs, and other mundane day-to-day conversations. It makes the game worth playing slowly as you can listen to the life and times of the people you are going to ‘interact’ with instead of just gunning them down like fodder. It might impact your decision to stab them in the gut or just knock them unconscious.
Pandora Tomorrow changed the control scheme from the first title, remapping some buttons and tightening the camera a bit. Chaos Theory tweaked the controls a little further and added some choices for you to make. Fisher now has the option (via the triggers) to kill or incapacitate anyone unlucky enough to end up in his grasp. This is accomplished by a quick knee-strike to the spine or a rear hold choke. As an added bonus, Sam now slings the enemy over his shoulder automatically unless you tap the B button to tell him not to. It makes eliminating and dragging out an enemy a much faster process.
The knife is your new best friend as it allows you to deliver a lethal gut thrust to your enemies to very quickly take them out before they have a chance to react and run for an alarm panel. Also changed is the very underpowered elbow strike, now replaced with a far more lethal upward-angled palm strike to the face. Not to rely on one strike, Sam can also deliver a extremely painful looking strike to the side of the head which sends your opponents to the ground rather quickly. If you are given the opportunity, you can still straddle the walls and drop down on your opponents, although Sam now runs up the wall to get there instead of the awkward leap of the first two titles. You can also swing down and snatch your opponents from a pipe or rope to choke them out from above. While I’ve not had a lot of opportunity to use that new move often, when it works it works well.
The SC-20K, Sam’s rifle, has now become modular similar to that of the new Land Warrior weapons the Army is testing. As you are now allowed to choose your loadout, you can select attachments based on how you’d like to tackle the game. If you chose the foregrip attachment, your aimed shots have a lot less drift and you are able to very rapidly recover from your shots. If you pick up the shotgun attachment you’ll find that it functions like a real shotgun in that accuracy is not the watchword at a distance but will still damage your enemies with the scatter. At close range it goes in like a watermelon and comes out like the whole patch throwing your target backwards in the finest ragdoll fashion. As you move into the latter missions you can even get a sniper attachment that gives the SC-20K a bit more reach for some long range lovin’.
Just as in the previous two titles you can pick locks. Unlike the previous two titles, you also can hack computers, retinal scanners, door locks or almost anything else with a circuit. This is accomplished with a large list of ‘ports’ that you must cipher through to find the one that is open. (These aren’t ports, they are IP addresses, but lets not get caught up in the details) It doesn’t take but a few moments of practice and you’ll be popping open locks very quickly regardless of whether you pick them or hack them. For an even more low-tech solution, Sam can also jam his knife into the edge of the door and break the locking mechanism. This is certainly louder and guards will notice a semi-broken door and become suspicious.
With as much attention to Sam’s new movements and a more robust monitoring system to see how loud or visible you are, you’ll find that you have to use the wall-lean moves far less. I didn’t use the wall lean at all until Mission 5. Its part of the choice that the Montreal team is trying to give you in this game, and it works well. Play it how you like, the choice is yours.
The folks at the Ubisoft Montreal have taken note of the primary complaint of this series – the game is linear. They went back to the drawing board and opened up the game alleviating the frustration of trial-and-error gameplay. The game usually has at least three ways to accomplish your objective. This is even seen when you use your pistol – do you shoot out the light or use the alternate fire mode to simply give it a good jolt temporarily disabling it. There is a great deal more interactivity in this title than the previous. All lights can be disabled, cameras often cannot be destroyed and may have infrared sensors or be encased in a 360 degree hard bubble, and the enemies carry flashlights or flares to scout for you - the enemy is wise to your tricks and they are ready to counter.
To go along with the new non-linear gameplay, Chaos Theory does away with the ’3 alarms means mission failure’ issue present in the first two games. This means that the game is a bit more forgiving in difficulty. While the enemies will still don Flak Jackets and helmets at alarm level 3, it does mean that it doesn’t get any worse than that. If you run around with the shotgun blasting your way through the missions you will quickly find this out. This also means that if a body is found it doesn’t mean that the mission is over, but it will impact the new tally sheet that comes up at the end of every mission. This performance evaluation keeps track of how many times you were identified, how many civilian casualties were incurred, and if you completed your primary, secondary, and target of opportunity mission objectives. The ability to use an assault loadout, stealth loadout, or a balanced loadout also changes the way that you might replay the game. All out assault may work on normal difficulty but the enemy will have none of that on the higher difficulty levels.
The 10 single-player missions are punctuated by cutscenes showing the events that shape the storyline. Additionally you can play through a parallel set of missions in a co-op fashion. The co-op mode is a great deal of fun and new implementations help immerse you in the world of being a spy. For instance, if you speak to your friend too loudly over Xbox Live the guards will hear you and come to investigate. In addition to that cool little feature, you can also pull off a few superspy moves like a barrel-roll throw that you can use to throw your partner through laser fields or similar barriers. You can also help your partner up a wall and then climb up him like a ladder to reach otherwise unreachable areas. The areas are filled to the brim with security so coordinating with your teammate is paramount, as it should be. The only letdown is that it becomes obvious that some areas were built around a specific special move, so everything is geared towards that special rope-drop or ladder jump move which can make it feel a bit artificial. The experience is a great deal of fun when you play with friends, but is spotty at best when you play with random players – this is of course no fault of the game but more with some of the players online that try to Rambo their way through the missions without your help. It pans out just like every other Live title…playing with people from your friends list is recommended.
In addition to the co-op missions you can also play the four-player versus mode introduced by Pandora Tomorrow. As before, one side plays the spys in 3rd person view and the other side plays the 1st person Mercenaries. There is a brief ‘test’ of sorts to ensure you are at least a marginally competent spy before you can jump into the online fray. There are a ton of maps although some are updated version of maps from the previous game. All in all there is enough to keep you engaged, if you enjoyed the Spy vs. Merc. play in the previous title, without re-inventing the wheel. Quite a few of the maps are larger than they were in the previous games but now they have a ‘story’ element to them. The story parallels the single player game with objectives that have to be completed in a certain order rather than just objectives everywhere. There is even a mode that feels a bit like capture the flag and a new vanilla deathmatch mode. With this much improvement in the online mode after just one new game, I think Ubisoft will knock our socks off on the next generation of hardware.hy does a game this good have to end so fast? Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory can be completed in roughly 10 to 12 hours. The good part is that all 10 to 12 hours are fun with no ‘filler’ levels thrown in to artificially extend the game. The multiplayer adds a whole different dynamic to the mix but the co-op modes feel ‘set up’ so its not as smooth as it should be. I suspect that this game will have more longevity to it as the try-and-try-again gameplay has been fixed, however the single player still suffers from a short single-player element.