By the time of this review, most stealth-action junkies have already given in and found ways to get their hands on a copy of one of the versions of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow that were released earlier in the year. Those players were treated not only to a continuation of the single player saga of Sam Fisher, but also were given the opportunity to run stealthy circles around online competition. The Gamecube version of SC:PT is the final version of the game to hit store shelves. It must be mentioned right at the start of this review that rather than wait to pack the final version with extras to tempt early buyers, the Gamecube version right away offers less to a consumer by the omission of the acclaimed multiplayer feature. Is what’s left in the box worth purchasing or even playing? Read on to find out.
The game, like its predecessor, is based on stealth. Unlike the Metal Gear brand of stealth which often has players hiding themselves in relatively well lit areas, SC:PT is all about darkness. Not surprisingly, the game itself is very dark. Surprisingly, many of the levels are so dark that they border on on unplayable. I had to adjust the brightness on my television in order to play, and even then was forced to use the night vision goggles in situations that realistically shouldn’t have required them.
The graphics don’t improve much when you can see what’s going on. Textures are washed out and often grainy. It might be a conscious design choice to portray a more realistic world, but the effect only succeeds in calling to mind an earlier generation of hardware. Simply put: based on the visuals, you’d never guess that this was based on a game that put the Xbox on the map for graphical presentation.
Still, some dynamic lighting effects are present, and Sam Fisher does animate very well. The enemies you face and sneak by also manage to look different and move convincingly. Cutscenes are pretty enough, and you can even skip them to jump into gameplay if you’re so inclined. Overall, the graphics don’t detract from the gameplay experience, but they don’t add much either. This is astonishing given how big a role graphics played in the previous Splinter Cell’s success.
Sound is an important part of Ubisoft’s vision of the espionage experience. There is even a meter that calculates how much sound you are making in an area and tells you how noisy you were overall at the conclusion of each level. Knocking on metal, shattering glass, pushing through reeds in a wetland…all of these things are accompanied by a satisfyingly genuine sound effect. Of course, these sound effects can be heard by enemies, so if you’re playing well you won’t hear much beside the ambient noise in each mission.
For an agent tasked with operating in total secrecy, Sam Fisher talks a lot. This isn’t as annoying as you might think, though, because once again he is perfectly voiced by legendary B-list star Michael Ironside. The other members of the main voice acting cast perform their jobs beautifully as well, however the cheesy accents affected by the no name enemies in each level do eventually wear out their welcome.
The music is appropriately minimal, and while it seems technically very competent it is also very forgettable.
While the presentation of SC:PT is certainly above average, the game starts to fall apart when you attempt to interact with it. Sam Fisher is capable of all sorts of stealthy tactics and maneuvers, and if you are really lucky sometimes he’ll choose the one you intended him to perform.
The main problem is that the A button is a general “Interact” button. Approaching an object brings up a menu of options. Hold A to cycle through them, release A and Sam performs the action you chose. Sometimes. Other times, the menu doesn’t come up right away so when you press A the game peforms a default action. This means that sometimes you’ll kick open a door when you meant to use a camera to peek at the guards behind it through the keyhole. It also means that sometimes you’ll use the precious second before a guard spots you to squat, rather than grab him by the neck and keep him from ending your mission. Or you’ll lean against a door whose lock you’d like to pick. Even when it’s working perfectly, the feature makes the game feel like a glorified modern version of Dragon’s Lair in which you tell Sam what to do and watch as he executes it or dies improvising.
Even if one were willing to accept the main interactional style as a facet of the game, the Gamecube version is still severely hampered by the Gamecube controller. It’s not as awkward as a game like Metroid Prime, but it takes a while to get comfortable with the setup. The left trigger, for example, allows you to zoom your binocular view or your weapon’s scope. Unless you pull it all the way in. In that case, it freezes you in place as Sam holds his breath. I know the Gamecube was designed to have one less button per controller than its peer systems, but some of the solutions developers come up with to cover for that are better than others. This fix is usually ok, but when a mission fails because you couldn’t take out a target in time, it will feel quite far from ok.
Lastly, SC:PT gives you full control over the camera via the C-stick. This is nice as it allows you to peek around corners and take in your surroundings, but becomes a problem when quick movement is needed. The game desperately needs an autocamera or at the very least, a quick-center button. Spend some time assessing your environment and forget to manually reset the view when you move out and Sam will completely lose his bearings. This is worst when you need to clear out of an area quickly and have to take the time to swing the camera around to show you your path. After some time with this game, I understood why Team Ninja decided to leave manual control out of the initial release of Ninja Gaiden. I spent as much time babysitting the camera in SC:PT as I did watching my enemies.
Sam Fisher is portrayed as a government operative granted the Fifth Freedom: the ability to do whatever he deems necessary to protect the American way of life. That sounds great. When you actually meet Sam Fisher, you come to learn that he has less freedom than a goldfish in a drinking glass. Missions are meant to be completed in one manner. One indisputable manner. Failure to follow the strict mission objectives results in immediate mission failure and a lengthy reload.
Please allow an example of stealth done properly in a videogame. The PS1 classic Syphon Filter offered a level featuring a lone operative assigned to infiltrate and wreak havoc on an enemy base. If you were spotted, the base would be alerted to your presence and send out wave after wave of enemies to stop your progress. The insurmountable odds made completing your objectives effectively impossible, but you were given the chance to fight your way through. One last shot at a blaze of glory. Invariably you would be killed and have to start again, but the importance of stealth was reinforced by each lonesome death.
Sam Fisher, despite being respected to the point of fear by his own team, is never given an opportunity to salvage a lost mission. If he is seen, the mission is over. We don’t even usually get to see him captured or killed. The mission simply ends. The advertised freedom is simply the choice between whistling to draw a guard’s attention or throwing a bottle. Otherwise the game can only be played in the specific fashion the developers intended.
Even if you are okay with playing your part in the preordained adventure of Sam Fisher, the game itself makes this difficult. The stealth meter on your clothes can be unreliable, showing you as hidden right before enemies spot you for no explained reason. There is no map of any area to help you plan an approach. The game also features what I can only assume are slight bugs, like some lights that for some reason cannot be shot out. It’s constant trial and error and as mentioned above the controls always seem to be working against you. Splinter Cell ultimately is more like playing a game of 20 questions against an Ubisoft level designer than playing a videogame.
Before even considering the game offers, we can dock the value a fair amount by considering what it lacks. Simply put, there is no multiplayer option in the Gamecube version of SC:PT. None. While this may be attributed to Ninendo’s own lack of support for the concept of online gaming, it automatically means that this version of the game is markedly inferior to even other versions of itself. For a purchase or a rental, it’s hard to think of a reason to recommend the Gamecube release over any of the others.
Hypothetically, if you only have access to a Gamecube and were entertained by the highly restrictive action of last year’s Splinter Cell, you might enjoy renting the sequel. There are many interesting locales to visit and gadgets to play with. However, the game is as linear as a meterstick and the graphics aren’t showcase quality, so after finishing the eight levels (not 32 as listed on the back of the box) there’s no reason to keep this one in your collection.