The Splinter Cell series is one that has some gamers divided. While no one will ever argue that the series isn’t pretty, there has traditionally been a difference of opinion when it comes to the merits of the series’ gameplay. While some people really enjoyed the first two games’ level of tension and the palpable sense of danger, others argued that the punishing level of difficulty turned the games into a frustrating exercise in trial-and-error. The folks at Ubisoft seem to have taken some of those complaints to heart when it comes to the latest installment in the exploits of Sam Fisher—Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Unlike its predecessors, Chaos Theory puts more emphasis on Fisher’s lethal side, and it lowers the stakes when it comes to slip-ups that may occur when you’re slinking through the shadows. While these changes were implemented to win over those who did not have the patience for the last two games, at the same time, Ubisoft has run the risk of alienating established fans of the series. Like the Splinter Cell games before it, Chaos Theory takes place in the near future, with a story that could easily be found in tomorrow’s papers. A group of terrorists have unleashed an insidious wave of attacks on the world’s information systems, creating blackouts to mask their dealings, and hijacking vulnerable weapons systems in order to start World War III. Once again, Sam Fisher—Third Echelon’s most seasoned lone operative—is sent into harm’s way to quietly and anonymously prevent the apocalypse. His exploits will send him around the globe, uncovering a twisted conspiracy that just may strike a little too close to home. Veterans of the first two games will have no difficulty at all getting right into the action. In fact, since it lacks an integrated in-game tutorial, Chaos Theory assumes that this is not your first foray into the world of Sam Fisher. In addition to the abilities you’ve seen in his previous games, Fisher can now execute a number of new moves, such as switching hands while aiming to get a better view and grabbing people while hanging, as well as reaching over railings and through walls to grab his enemies. In addition, Fisher is now armed with a knife that will allow him to intimidate his captures, as well as terminate them with quick brutality and a minimum of commotion. There are also a few handy new additions to Fisher’s equipment, including an attachment for his pistol that allows him to remotely interfere with electronic equipment, as well as a new visor that lets him see powered objects. Of course, the split jump, the SWAT roll, and non-lethal ammo all make a return appearance, but sadly, all of Fisher’s moves—even the new ones—are horribly underutilized. With its dialed-down difficulty and rather bland level design, the game simply doesn’t demand that the player have a command over Fisher’s skills, and as a result, the game really loses a lot of the excitement that the previous games had in spades. Fisher is allowed to be a lot more lethal this time around. Few missions have restrictions on kills, and even when you do violate those rules, they almost never result in mission failure. To be honest, there is nothing really stopping you from barging in and opening fire with wild abandon, but doing so would pretty much violate the understood objective of the game. Still, the ability to be more liberal with lethal force does make the game a whole lot easier. In the previous games, you often had to study your environment, get a feel for patrol patters, and devise a path to sneak up behind an enemy without being noticed. Alerting your foes to your presence would often result in disaster, which made taking out every pawn seem like a vital experience. In Chaos Theory, most of the enemies seem to work alone, meaning that as long as you stay behind your target, you needn’t keep to the shadows, since no one else will see you. In addition, whereas the previous games’ enemies were rather savvy when it came to the survival department, the enemies in Chaos Theory tend to travel mindlessly into the shadows, making them easy targets. Can’t get behind them for a silent grab? Well you can still slice them from the front, killing them dead before they even know what happened to them. And, in the unlikely chance that you do alert others to your presence, you can make short work of them, and proceed, even if you’ve activated an alarm or two. Yes, this relaxed gameplay does reduce some of the occasional frustration and trial-and-error gameplay that made the past two games problematic at times. But, in letting the pendulum swing so far in the opposite direction, the designers at Ubisoft have eliminated almost every shred of tension that made the other games so great. They have removed nearly every incentive to perform your tasks with precision and skill. In essence, the game tolerates failure. The designers have sought, however, to up the challenge of the gameplay for those who choose to accept it, and they have done this in two separate ways. First, they have included in most missions optional “opportunity objectives,” which can be completed at the player’s discretion. These side tasks often require you to search every nook and cranny of a level. However, these quests very rarely amount to anything more than repetitive scavenger hunts, and though there is occasionally a hint that completing these objectives will add to the plot, they never do. Secondly, your performance is graded at the end of every mission, giving you points for remaining hidden, for not tripping alarms, and for completing opportunity objectives. Conversely, points are deducted for exercising lethal force, and for tripping alarms. However, since the only real consequence of playing poorly is a bad score, this evaluation process really does nothing to raise the tension of the gameplay. In a seemingly promising move, most of the levels have been designed to be non-linear, with multiple paths. Supposedly, this allows the player to choose their own way to tackle a level. But, to be honest, most of these alternative routes are small detours at best, and none of them significantly change the way a level plays. Also, the mission briefing allows you to choose from a variety of weapon loadouts that supposedly allow you to choose the manner in which you plan to tackle an area. Truth is, no matter what you choose, you will be properly equipped for the mission at hand, making all of the loadout choices practically identical. All told, the lack of challenge, combined with overly-forgiving gameplay that does not make use of Fisher’s abilities, creates a single-player experience that lacks the tension and the excitement of the games that came before it. Add to it a story that lacks the flow typical of a Tom Clancy game, and the gameplay is simply not that engaging. This is, without a doubt, the weakest single-player experience in the series. Of course, Chaos Theory does have some decent multiplayer. The two-on-two mercs vs. spies mode is back, but aside from a slew of new maps, the gameplay is pretty much what you experienced in Pandora Tomorrow’s multiplayer mode. In addition, Chaos Theory does introduce co-op play to the series. These co-op modes require players to work together to accomplish tasks, which is a nice departure from the lonely single-player mode, but the levels are even more uninspired than in the single player, making for a largely forgettable experience. Graphically, Chaos Theory is strong, though not without its faults. Sadly, a lot of the soft lighting effects and that made Pandora Tomorrow so great are muted in this game, as are the interesting color palates that once served to give the levels a grandiose backdrop. In its place is a serious amount of bump-mapping, as well as ultra-sharp textures. The result is a game that looks good, but more rendered and unnatural than its predecessors. In addition, the locales are all rather bland. Compared to Pandora Tomorrows beautiful ocean at sunset and dusk jungle missions, Chaos Theory just lacks the graphical punch that its predecessor had in spades. The sound has always been a solid aspect of the series, and Chaos Theory is no exception. The voice acting is top-notch, and it is served by well-written dialogue. However, some of the foreign accents are a bit over-the-top. The music is very subdued, following the action like your standard movie score. It’s competent, but hardly noticeable. The sound effects are where this game truly shines, from the ambient sounds that really make use of the 5.1 surround stage, to the various footfalls that truly vary with how quickly you tread. The only complaint one could lodge against the sound design is that for some inexplicable reason, when you are walking a captured enemy, the footsteps are remarkably loud (though they don’t register on the sound meter), and no matter which way the camera is facing, they always come from the rear speakers. Logistically, this does not make sense, and until you remember that enemies rarely every share the same space, it’s easy to mistake those steps for another enemy. All in all, Chaos Theory is a solid game, but within the context of excellence set forth by the first two games in the series, Chaos Theory is a disappointment. Though it may look pretty, the game lacks the innovation necessary to move the series forward, and by relaxing the challenge, the gameplay has actually taken a huge step back. If this is where the series is truly headed, then maybe Sam Fisher should retire.