One of the most popular, most successful, and best looking games for Microsoft's Xbox is now on the PC, and in some ways it's even better than the original version. In most ways, though, it's exactly the same. And that's great news on both counts. Reminiscent of games like Thief: The Dark Project and last year's Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell is a stealth-driven action adventure that sends you, as operative Sam Fisher, around the globe on numerous highly secretive and very dangerous assignments. It all goes down like something straight out of a Hollywood action thriller, replete with an intro set to alternative music and big-budget special effects featuring quite possibly the best lighting effects seen on the PC to date. The game isn't above reproach: Just like its Xbox counterpart, Splinter Cell for the PC is a relatively short single-player-only game consisting of heavily scripted missions that can sometimes turn into exercises in trial and error that undermine the game's otherwise pervasive sense of suspense. On the other hand, the improved save system and the unique and effective mouse-and-keyboard control scheme make Splinter Cell for the PC far more than just a straight port of the console version. At its core, it's a truly great action game, one that's already met with tremendous acclaim on the Xbox and promises to be very well received on the PC.
Sam Fisher is the splinter cell--an ultrasecret commando working on highly classified assignments. The title of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell refers to the unusual role of its main character, a highly trained and experienced soldier 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 fighter, stealth is his only real option, and the fate of the free world hangs in the balance as he undertakes a number of 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.
Despite being Third Echelon's right hand, 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, though you'll nevertheless need a lot of practice to become truly proficient in the role. At any rate, you'd never guess that these controls were adapted from a console game, since they work extremely well on the PC. For the most part, Splinter Cell plays like a typical first-person or third-person shooter, but it makes innovative use of the mouse wheel, allowing you to fine-tune Fisher's movement speed from a slow, silent crawl all the way up to a brisk run. This works great, though it arguably diminishes some of the challenge found in the Xbox version of the game, where you needed to gently move the analog joystick in order to make Fisher tiptoe. The other controls, such as for drawing your weapons and using the context-sensitive menu, take some 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 move quite quickly from a crouched position, and if you tread carefully while crouching, you'll be almost invisible and almost silent. He 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 behind 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 the 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. 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. Here the game presents a clever rendition of lock-picking in which you must tap the proper directional keys on the keyboard to nudge loose as many pins as there are 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 has 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.
Fisher's missions may all be different--one takes place on a seemingly unassuming oil rig in the middle of the ocean, while another takes place within the headquarters of the CIA--but they're all 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, and sometimes there's no alarm to worry about at all. In what's possibly 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 and failed to completely hide their bodies. 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 with rather than dispatch foes, or at least do a better job of cleaning up.
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. The abilities to quickly save your progress anytime, anywhere and to quickly load your saved game if caught in a pinch--features that aren't in the Xbox version of Splinter Cell--do much to alleviate the potential frustration factor of the game's lengthy missions, though they may take away from some of the challenge if relied upon too heavily. In any event, you'll eventually discover that the game's 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. Still, as long as you don't get too hung up at any given point in the game (and the unlimited save system should see to that), the mission scripting won't seem so transparent.
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 can still be a tough 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 also temporarily blind you if your night vision is enabled.
Splinter Cell looks incredibly good on a fast system with a high-end graphics card, though its visual presentation isn't perfect. The prerendered cutscenes don't look nearly as good as the in-game graphics. The game's frame rate can noticeably start to chug in areas that are particularly heavy on lighting effects, 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. We also experienced some texture glitches on two different test systems. All this is enough to slightly mar an otherwise incredible visual presentation, the highlights of which are the lighting effects and Fisher's animation. 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. In what may be the strongest testament to the quality of Splinter Cell's graphics, even those levels that take place in seemingly boring officelike areas somehow manage to look interesting.
Splinter Cell also sounds terrific, and as with any self-respecting stealth game, the audio is integral to the experience. 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, have a suitably soft sound to go with them, 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, Top Gun), who's absolutely perfect for the role, with his naturally gravelly, gruff manner of speaking. Ironside got a good script to work with for Splinter Cell, and he brings Fisher's character to life with a suitably no-nonsense attitude and plenty of dry humor to round it out.
Splinter Cell consists of only nine missions, though each of these is long and involved. Disappointingly, the locations of the missions are all revealed from the very beginning--it's like looking at the chapters on the DVD of a movie you've never seen before--though only the first training level is unlocked. You should be able to finish the game in about 10 to 15 hours, and beyond that, Splinter Cell's replay value is limited due to its missions' scripted, linear nature. Still, there's a hard difficulty mode available that really stresses the game's stealth aspect and should be a fun for those who master the default setting. Unfortunately, the PC version of Splinter Cell lacks the Xbox version's extensive DVD-style "making of" footage, and it offers no content that wasn't in the Xbox version already. However, Ubi Soft has stated that a bonus mission will be made available for download for the Xbox version of the game via the Xbox Live service, and the PC version may possibly get something as well. 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.
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell is 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. Or, if you like the idea or even just the look of Splinter Cell but haven't played a stealth game before, then this is a perfectly good place to start. Either way, chances are you'll really enjoy the experience for as long as it lasts. You'll have a great time experimenting with and effectively using Sam Fisher's variety of moves and gadgets, and the game's lengthy missions should provide a significant challenge. Overall, Splinter Cell easily ranks in the highest echelon of single-player action gaming on the PC, and considering the numerous other extremely good games in that category, that's a remarkable feat.