Regardless of what anyone tells you, no matter what you've heard, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell is not the next Metal Gear Solid 2. The upcoming third-person action game from Ubi Soft has about as much in common with Hideo Kojima's memorable series as fire does with water. Whereas Metal Gear Solid 2 was seen by many as a story-driven game that was occasionally interrupted with moments of stealth-based action, Splinter Cell is a stealth-based action game that's occasionally interrupted with moments of plot progression. You won't find any long-winded codec conversations or dissertations on nuclear proliferation in Splinter Cell--this is purely a stealth game, and it's the purest stealth game since Looking Glass' Thief series.
That isn't to say that Splinter Cell won't have a compelling plot. Far from it--in fact, the game's setting is extremely relevant to the current political climate in the world. Splinter Cell is set two years in the future, and it focuses on a splinter government in the ex-Soviet state of Georgia. As you probably already know, you'll play the role of one Sam Fisher, an operative for the National Security Agency. This real-world organization is America's center of cryptography, and its job is to ensure that the nation's intelligence signals are secure while attempting to crack those of other countries. In the game, however, the NSA takes a somewhat more proactive role in gathering enemy intelligence by sending heavily armed one-man armies to places where they shouldn't be. In Fisher's case, he's sent into the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two CIA field officers. While there, he'll uncover a plot by President Nikoladze, the leader of this new splinter faction, to obtain and use a nuclear device against the US. Throughout the early stages of the game, Fisher will uncover more facets to this conspiracy, including Nikoladze's genocide campaign in Azerbaijan and involvement from the Chinese. If the public ever caught wind of these transgressions, the world would be suddenly steeped in World War III. And so, the weight of the world is placed on your shoulders, and as Fisher, you'll be tasked with cleaning up this little mess in the Caucasus as discreetly as possible.
And you'll have to do it alone. While you'll be in constant contact with a support team that will feed you necessary information through an earpiece, you won't have any kind of physical help during your mission--no squadmates to back you up, no extraction team to save your skin, and no partner to watch your back. Thankfully, you will have an assortment of gadgets and a bagful of acrobatic moves to help you dispatch guards, break into locked offices, and remain hidden from prying eyes. As has been the recent trend in action games, Splinter Cell starts you off in an obstacle course that will serve to familiarize you with Fisher's many different abilities. You'll have to climb over walls, rappel down ropes, shimmy across beams, slide down poles, and scoot through tight spaces in order to reach the end of the level. In all, Fisher has nearly a dozen different moves that you'll need to use in the game in order to get past certain obstacles. One mission, for example, takes place aboard an oil platform on the Caspian Sea. Fisher is inserted into this misson on a plank connected to a pipeline that leads to the platform, and he'll have to use nearly every move at his disposal--from hanging off ledges to scaling walls--in order to successfully traverse this precarious area. One false step, and Fisher will be sleeping with the Caspian fishes.
With Fisher's large cache of moves, you're probably expecting the game's control scheme to be a complicated mess, but it's actually fairly straightforward. Splinter Cell makes use of every button, analog stick, and trigger on the Xbox controller, but the game's layout is quite intuitive. As you'd expect, the left analog stick controls Fisher's movement, while the right controls the camera. For the most part, Splinter Cell gives you complete control of the camera and doesn't bother rotating, zooming, or panning it on its own. With the right stick, you can move the camera in a complete circle in any direction around Fisher in order to get a better perspective of the action around you. This will come in especially handy around corners, where you'll be able to plan your next move without exposing Fisher to any cameras or patrolling guards. When you whip out a gun, however, the camera will immediately move to an over-the-shoulder perspective, and the right stick will control your aim, similar to the way it's done in Halo. While in this stance, Fisher will move noticeably slower than he otherwise can, and a targeting reticle that denotes accuracy will expand or shrink depending on his movement. Unlike the characters in other action games, Fisher will have access to only two weapons, one of which won't become available until about halfway through the game. His standard-issue firearm is a 5.7mm silenced pistol that does a good job of felling nearby opponents and destroying pesky cameras. You'll need to group between two and three shots in the center of your target in order to take it out, or conversely, a single headshot will also do the trick.
A Veritable Hardware Store
Later on in the game, you'll come across the SC-20K, a high-tech, multipurpose rifle that should make Fisher's life a whole lot easier. This gun fires 5.56mm rounds in its standard mode of operation, but it also doubles as a utility belt of sorts. The SC-20K has a second barrel that uses compressed air to fire secondary, nonlethal ammunition like ring air foils, electric stun darts, and smoke grenades that will incapacitate and confuse enemies, buying you time to sneak by undetected. This rifle can also shoot tiny cameras that stick to almost any surface, letting you assess your tactical situation from a second angle. These cameras can even switch between regular, night vision, and thermal lenses, and they can also emit buzzing sounds to distract any nearby guards. Unlike the pistol, the SC-20K has a scope attachment, which makes it ideal for taking out enemies at a distance. With the rifle equipped, you can bring up the scope using the Y button, and then holding down the left trigger will make Sam Fisher hold his breath for a few seconds, which has the effect of steadying the gun for more accuracy.
Even with the availability of these two weapons, Splinter Cell is not a run-and-gun action game. Once you fire a shot, other enemies will be alerted to your presence. Some will even call out for help or activate an emergency alarm that will have soldiers from other parts of the level swarm your area. If they spot a body on the ground, they'll tell their comrades to be on the lookout for an intruder. Some of the later missions will even pit dogs against you. While these canines can't actually attack you, their sense of smell is excellent, and they'll be able to detect you long before their human owners do. The ability to stay hidden from the enemy is a key aspect to this game, as detection can often be more trouble than it's worth. Sam isn't a superhero, nor does he carry any kind of armor, and to that effect, he can take only a few shots from enemies before dying.
Staying hidden won't be a problem, though. As has been previously mentioned, Splinter Cell uses an enhanced version of the latest Unreal engine to render gorgeous and extremely atmospheric environments. One look at any screenshot or video clip, and you can instantly see the impressive use of real-time lighting and shadows to create a world that not only looks realistic, but functions that way too. You'll be able to spot people's shadows around corners, for instance, or shoot out lights to increase the cover of darkness. You'll have a light meter in the lower right-hand corner of the screen that functions similarly to the light jewel in the Thief games. The more visible you are to others, the higher the meter will reach. When the meter is empty, you might as well be a ghost as far as enemies are concerned. As you move underneath shadows or near windows, you'll notice the meter increase or decrease accordingly.
Some areas are so dark, in fact, that you won't be able to see a thing yourself. Thankfully, Sam has night-vision goggles and thermal goggles that can be used in low-light situations, and you can toggle between these two items by flicking the D-pad in either direction. You can reduce your visibility to others by crouching (B button) or by leaning up against walls (clear button).
When we first saw Splinter Cell earlier this year, we were taken aback by its impressive graphics, but we were skeptical about whether or not the game would have any substance to complement all the eye candy. After all, the game is being developed by a studio that, in the past, has been responsible for Rayman and Disney games--not exactly hard-core military fare. Nonetheless, Splinter Cell has shown itself to be a well-executed action game and one that has great implementation of stealth gameplay mechanics. The state of the build we've been playing bodes well for the outcome of the final game, and we're sure that fans of the increasingly popular stealth genre will flock to Splinter Cell. Currently, Ubi Soft Montreal is putting the finishing touches on the Xbox version of the game, which is scheduled for release this November, with a PC version to follow a few weeks afterward.