It's easy to see why Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell is one of the most highly anticipated Xbox games of the season. For one thing, it features some impressive production values, including hands down the best lighting effects seen in any game to date. For another, its main character has a surprising variety of moves and gadgets, all designed to help him stay hidden from his enemies and dispatch them quietly or get by them cleanly. So the game's definitely got a lot to like about it. However, you should know that Splinter Cell is not the genre-redefining game it claims to be (don't believe the "stealth action redefined" bit that's written on the box), but rather another in an increasingly long line of stealth games that incorporates all the good and bad traits of this love-it-or-hate-it action subgenre. Splinter Cell's actual gameplay is very similar to that of other stealth games, including 1998's Thief: The Dark Project, which proved that sneaking through the shadows and using clever gadgets to avoid or eliminate powerful enemies could make for a memorable experience, or the recently released and equivalently good Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. Comparisons aside, Splinter Cell is a great game on its own merits, and it offers a slick and rewardingly suspenseful gameplay experience that's sometimes reduced to frustrating bouts of trial and error.
The title of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell refers to the unusual role of its main character, Sam Fisher, a highly trained and experienced commando working for a top-secret military organization, Third Echelon, that's attempting to rid the world of a high-tech terrorist threat. If he's caught, the US government will disavow its affiliation with his mission. Worse yet, one false move and Fisher may inadvertently instigate World War III. So the pressure's on, but Fisher's as cool as they come. Though he's skilled as a soldier, stealth is his only real option, and the fate of the free world hangs in the balance as he undertakes a number of highly dangerous, high-stakes covert operations.
The game's plot, which is set in the near future, is straight out of a Clancy thriller and involves Fisher taking on Clancy's favorite tag team: the Russians and the Chinese. The story is rather disjointed (perhaps purposely so), since between missions you'll just see snippets of fake newscasts that supposedly help you understand what's going on. These rather unimpressive cutscenes unfortunately aren't up to par with the game's other visuals, and they aren't nearly as interesting as some of the conversations Fisher will eavesdrop on during the actual gameplay. At any rate, don't go in expecting Splinter Cell to be Tom Clancy's answer to Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid games, as the storytelling and gameplay of Splinter Cell are completely different from the story and gameplay of that series.
Despite being Third Echelon's right hand, Sam Fisher is on a need-to-know basis and is largely kept in the dark about the exact nature of his objectives. Fortunately, he's extremely resourceful, armed or unarmed. A preliminary training scenario will familiarize you with the basics of being Sam Fisher, but you'll nevertheless need a lot of practice to become truly proficient in the role. Throughout the game, the right analog stick lets you freely move the camera, which generally works well to give you a good situational awareness but sometimes gets cramped up in tight spaces. The other controls also take getting used to but work effectively, enabling you to perform an array of maneuvers that collectively make Splinter Cell feel like a pretty believable super-spy simulation.
In fact, aside from the pretty lighting effects, the variety of moves at Fisher's disposal is probably the highlight of Splinter Cell. Sam has something for every occasion: He can run swiftly or tiptoe carefully depending on how far you tilt the left analog stick forward. He can also move quite quickly from a crouched position, and if you tread carefully while crouching, you'll be almost invisible and almost silent. Fisher can climb ladders, chain-link fences, and more. He can rappel down walls (and kick through glass windows while doing so), climb hand over hand (or using all four limbs) across horizontal pipes, and zip across downward-slanted ropes or wires. He can put his back against a wall and lean or shoot around corners, he can peek around doors that are slightly ajar, and he can make soft landings or perform evasive rolls. Fisher can also kick off a wall in mid jump, and his coolest move (though it isn't very practical) allows him to stand in the splits atop a narrow passageway and then either shoot unsuspecting opponents or drop down to deliver a stunning blow.
Sneaking up behind an opponent allows Fisher to either knock the foe unconscious with an elbow strike or a pistol whip or grab the enemy and take him hostage. Fisher can then use the opponent as a human shield against other enemies, or in some cases interrogate him or force him to do such things as activate retinal scanners that otherwise prevent passage. He'll eventually have to dispatch his hostage one way or another, and then he can pick up and move the prone body out of sight of enemy patrols. Fortunately for you, unconscious foes will awaken only if discovered by their allies.
In Splinter Cell, the use of deadly force is more of a convenience than a necessity. Toward this end, Fisher's arsenal is fairly limited but nonetheless effective. To start with, he has a trusty silenced pistol that can kill with a shot to the head and can also be used to shoot out certain lights to make for a more-favorable situation for Fisher and his night-vision goggles. Later on, he'll find a high-tech experimental assault rifle that becomes his mainstay. Featuring both single-shot and fully automatic firing modes, the SC-20K also sports a silencer and a muzzle-flash suppressor, making it perfect for Fisher's purposes. This modular rifle even has a magnifying scope, allowing for precision shooting--in a great touch, Fisher can hold his breath while looking through the scope to temporarily steady his aim. The SC-20K also supports a number of alternative types of ammunition, such as special rounds that can be used to incapacitate foes rather than kill them. In a number of Splinter Cell's missions, casualties are strictly prohibited, so this feature isn't just for sympathy's sake.
More interestingly, the SC-20K can be used to fire remote camera probes, nauseating smoke bombs, or a distraction camera that can be used to lure guards away from their posts and then give them a mouthful of knockout gas. Such funky devices aren't always strictly necessary for finishing a mission, but they're fun to use and can help you avoid getting into a tight spot. Besides his guns, Fisher can also get his hands on frag grenades, though high explosives aren't really his style. Throwing cans or bottles to distract foes is more up his alley.
Picking locks is definitely his style, too, and he can use his trusty lock picks to bypass any locked doors. The game presents a really great simulation of lock-picking in which you rotate the left analog stick until you find the pin (you'll feel the controller vibrate), wiggle the stick until Fisher nudges the pin loose, and then repeat the process as many times as there are pins in the lock. Some of Fisher's other neat gadgets include an optic cable that can be slid under doorways to give you a gander at what's on the other side, camera jammers that disrupt security cameras, and emergency flares that can draw the fire of automated heat-sensitive gun turrets. Fisher is basically a high-tech government ninja, what with all this stuff, and what with his all-black body suit and night-vision and heat-vision goggles. The odds are always against him, but he's got a big-time element of surprise. His moves and gadgets aren't just for show, either, as Splinter Cell will require you to make use of almost all of Fisher's various abilities in most every mission.
All of Fisher's missions may be different, but all are pretty similar in how you must proceed in them: Stay out of sight, stay out of harm's way, and engage hostiles only when necessary. This is easier said than done, and despite Fisher's impressive list of moves and exceptional skill, you'll invariably draw your enemies' attention in every mission you attempt. If caught in a firefight, Fisher can be killed with just a few shots, though his foes tend to go down much more quickly. Nevertheless, ammunition is limited, and Fisher's aim strays wildly if he tries to shoot while moving or tries to shoot in rapid succession. More importantly, being discovered will often cause a guard to raise the general alarm, which in several missions makes for automatic failure.
In other missions, the alarm can go off several times before Third Echelon pulls the plug on you. In what's easily the most frustrating aspect of Splinter Cell, sometimes the alarm will go off at scripted moments if you've killed or knocked out too many guards leading up to that point. This can force you into a perpetual mission-failure cycle, ultimately forcing you to restart a mission from scratch and then try to avoid contact rather than dispatch foes. While it's plausible that Fisher needs to leave behind no evidence of his passing, it's too bad that Splinter Cell so strictly forces you to play a certain way, when the recent Hitman 2 did such a fine job of letting you opt for either stealth or deadly force as you saw fit.
You won't always end up restarting missions from scratch, but you'll invariably be screwing up and restarting different sequences constantly, perhaps dozens of times per mission. Trial and error to some extent goes part and parcel with most gaming experiences, but in Splinter Cell (and other stealth games), sometimes it can get to be a little too much. Part of the problem, as it is with most every stealth game, is that the missions are heavily scripted and play out exactly the same way each time. The suspense is almost nonexistent by the time you reach your fifth attempt at sneaking through that heavily guarded alley, and any sense of urgency is undermined when you realize that the truck you're desperately trying to catch up to or the assassination you're desperately trying to prevent are events that won't be triggered until you cross certain thresholds. Enemy patrols are also triggered at specific points. You can wait forever for that guard to come around the corner, but you won't see him do it until you step forward those last few inches.
The guards in Splinter Cell are believable enough, but they all move in predictable fashions and don't exhibit any complex behavior. They'll investigate noises and shoot on sight, but in hostile situations, they'll blunder headlong into kill zones and will sometimes see you even when the onscreen stealth meter is telling you you're completely invisible. Yet though the guards aren't smart and aren't particularly difficult to dispose of, Splinter Cell is still a hard game, since sneaking past enemies (rather than taking them out) is usually the order of the day, and that's a tall order to fill. Fortunately, most missions take place in the dark, where your night vision gives you a huge advantage. But just as you'll start getting comfortable in your sneakiness, you'll find yourself up against guards with flashlights, which don't just reveal you lurking about but can temporarily blind you if your night vision is enabled.
Splinter Cell looks superb, but its visual presentation isn't perfect. As mentioned, some of the cutscenes stand out as being rather ugly. Also, at times the game's frame rate will noticeably start to chug, and you'll notice some collision detection and clipping issues, such as when a felled opponent's feet can be seen sticking straight through a door. All this is enough to slightly mar an otherwise incredible visual presentation, the highlight of which, of course, is that lighting. The game's real-time lighting isn't just for show, since making use of the light and shadows in each area is a critical part of the gameplay. But still, it's real eye candy when you see things like warm sunlight seeping through Venetian blinds, or a floodlight beaming through a chain-link fence, looking for you. The rest of the game's visuals are also very impressive. Fisher's movements are extremely lifelike and highly articulate, and they almost seem as if they were motion captured, even though they weren't. The game's modern environments aren't exactly scenic, but they're still beautiful in their size, complexity, and detail.
The game also sounds terrific--especially if you have a 5.1 surround sound setup--and as with any self-respecting stealth game, the audio is integral to the experience of Splinter Cell. You'll actually hear Fisher making a bit more noise the faster he moves, so you'll learn to be your own worst critic as you try to move about silently. All his subtle actions, from lock-picking to drawing his different weapons and gadgets, has a suitably soft sound to go with it, creating the sense that Fisher is extremely skilled at being silent, but still runs the danger of making too much noise. Also, Splinter Cell's bass-heavy ambient music is excellent, and it grows louder and faster when you're spotted or caught. But much like in some other stealth-based games, the way the music picks up or quiets down depending on the circumstances has some unintentional side effects that almost feel like cheating: You'll learn to trust the music for knowing whether or not any enemies remain in your vicinity. The coast is clear when the music says so.
Of further note, Splinter Cell has a good amount of speech in it, though disappointingly, the Russians and Chinese speak in English using lame, stereotypical accents rather than in their native tongues. It's implied that Fisher is multilingual, so it would have been great if he'd simply translated for you in the context of the dialogue--especially since you'll really like hearing him speak. He's voiced by Michael Ironside (Starship Troopers, Free Willy), who's absolutely perfect for the role, with his naturally gravelly, gruff manner of speaking. Simply put, Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher makes Metal Gear's Solid Snake sound like a wuss.
Though Splinter Cell seemingly has a small number of missions, they'll take you some time to get through. The replay value of the missions is limited due to their scripted, linear nature, but there's a hard difficulty mode that really stresses the game's stealth aspect and should be a fun for those who master the default setting. Additionally, there's some pretty extensive DVD-style "making of" footage available for your viewing pleasure, the highlight of which is probably the mock interview with none other than Sam Fisher himself. Splinter Cell is also compatible with Xbox Live, not because the game has online multiplayer features (it has no multiplayer features, online or off), but because the broadband service allows you to download additional content for the game in the form of new missions, though none are available at this time. The promise of more Splinter Cell is pretty tempting, but what's important is that you get your money's worth out of the box, and you do.
If you're easily frustrated by games, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell probably isn't for you. Yet it's undoubtedly one the best examples of a stealth game to date, and it will surely appeal to those who've enjoyed similar games in the past. These players will have a great time with Sam Fisher's variety of moves and gadgets, and the game's lengthy missions should give them a significant challenge. Meanwhile, if you haven't played a stealth game before, then of course Splinter Cell is a perfectly good place to start, especially since its theme is less objectionable than Hitman 2 and its contract killings (it's OK to kill for the country, right?). Just don't expect the life of a secretive commando to be easy.