E3 2002: Splinter Cell impressions

Check out the latest details on the playable build of Splinter Cell at this year's E3.

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Though we had a chance to check out Splinter Cell a few weeks before E3, we didn't actually get to play the game ourselves. But now that we're at the show, we've been able to play it at Ubi Soft's booth on the show floor. In the game, you'll take on the role of Sam Fisher, an operative in the National Security Agency's Third Echelon Division--a group so secretive that the NSA would disavow it as a splinter cell organization if any of its operatives were discovered. As such, Sam is basically a one-man wrecking crew, capable of infiltrating installations and killing most of the people inside without making the slightest noise.

The E3 demo gives Sam two major objectives--to infiltrate an enemy compound to prevent a terrorist from running a program via his computer and to disable two surface-to-air missile launchers so that Sam can be extracted. The first part of the mission places you in a dark parking garage where the only sources of light are from a room off in the distance where a lone guard stands watch and from behind a slowly rotating fan which produces amazing lighting and shadow effects. At this point, you have to decide what you want to do with the guard located in the other room. You can try to run into the room so that you can take a better shot at him and risk detection, or you can try to pick him off from a distance with Sam's FMP 2000, a modular assault weapon. In this case, the easiest option is to just take him out from behind one of the vehicles, so all you have to do is take careful aim before you shoot. Scoring a head shot is especially important since it will kill an enemy immediately, whereas a shot to the hand, leg, or chest only incapacitates him for a few moments.

If you're moving around in the garage, you'll probably notice a small meter in the bottom right side of the screen that moves from left to right. This is Sam's stealth meter, and it basically gives you an indication of how well you're hidden in relation to any enemies within the immediate area. Keep that in my mind because you may think you're safely hidden behind an object when in fact a guard has a clear line of sight to put a bullet in Sam's head.

After taking out the guard, you can move into the next room and go over to his body. The game says that you have the option to either search the body or pick it up and move it into a secluded area so no additional enemies are alerted after seeing one of their fallen comrades. Searching enemies can be quite useful since many of them carry health packs and other items that Sam might need to use over the course of the missions. When you're done, you don't have to worry about moving this particular body because the area is cut off from other enemies.

To the right of the dead guard, you'll see an air vent. If you move over to it and press the jump key, Sam can grab onto the ledge of the vent and pull himself through the opening. As you might expect, it's incredibly dark inside the vent, and there's no way to tell if there's a guard waiting inside (it's certainly possible), so you're told to activate Sam's night vision goggles, which is done by going through his inventory and equipping that specific item. The effect produced by these goggles is truly amazing, as the screen is covered with a hazy gray layer. As Sam crawls through the vents, he'll come across additional vents with huge beams of light pouring through (light intensity is magnified when night vision goggles are equipped). You can wait over these additional openings and try to take out guards with Sam's silenced pistol, or you can continue toward your objective.

When you climb through the vent, you step out onto a wooden balcony that wraps around a large room where, down below, the terrorist hacker is frantically working. Here, you have to learn to use Sam's completely silent creeping walk--which makes wooden floorboards creak--rather than his normal jog. Indeed, sound plays an incredibly important role in the game. As you're walking along the side of the balcony, you'll see broken bottles of glass. If you walk over the bottles, you'll more than likely alert any guards that are in the area. Eventually Sam will reach a staircase that will bring him down to the area where the hacker is, and like with much of the game, there is more than one way to accomplish this--you can either sneak up on him or just run directly for him. In any case, if he sees you, you'll have 30 seconds to grab him before he launches the computer program.

After successfully grabbing the terrorist and putting a gun to his head, Sam demands that the terrorist shut down all of the security programs in the building. Then suddenly a group of guards storm into the room and begin firing at Sam. You can either hold onto the terrorist and use him as a human shield or use Sam's pistol to take out the terrorist guards--or you can pistol-whip him to the floor and pull out the FMP 2000. In this particular firefight, you can also use Sam's thermal goggles, which yet again produce a very realistic effect, because they can see through the wood and help Sam pinpoint where the guards are located. Fortunately, there are only two or three guards, and while they're fairly skilled during a firefight, they can be dealt with in a matter of minutes.

With that room cleared out, Sam finds out that he has gained a security password that will grant him access to a security door in the back of the room. If you go through this door, you have a much better chance of getting a drop on the enemies within the next room, but going the alternate route is a little more fun. On the north side of the room, there's a door that leads into a courtyard with two guards, but of course, at the time, you don't actually know that. This kind of a situation is perfect for Sam's fiber optic camera, which he can place underneath doors to scan the next area. What's especially cool about this device is that it actually functions like a cable in that it bounces around on the ground and it's not especially maneuverable. When the guards are looking the other way, you can deactivate the camera, burst through the door, and come out firing. It's not the stealthiest tactic in the world, but it's a lot of fun.

The two guards in the outside area shouldn't pose much of a problem, but it's where you run into the game's only glaring problem. It's not entirely clear where you're supposed to go next. If we weren't told to climb up a pipe next to one of the buildings, we would probably never have found it. Anyway, after climbing the pipe, you have to do a little Tomb Raider action by clinging to a ledge and moving to the side where there's an opening for Sam to pull himself up to safety. There are no cool action sequences in this section of the game, but to give an idea of how much detail there is in Splinter Cell, there's a curtain that actually responds to Sam's movement as he climbs through a window into a new building. Inside this new room, you'll get a good look at some of the game's dynamic lighting effects as a lamp swings back and forth in a room filled with various objects.

At the corner of the room, there's a door that leads into a hallway with two guards. This gives you the perfect opportunity to try one of the more useful features in Splinter Cell, the stealth door opening. Instead of just busting down the door, Sam can open it just enough that he can peer through a small crack and see if there are any enemies on the other side. It's probably one of Sam's most useful skills.

One of the most important parts of Splinter Cell is the environment and your awareness of it. In the hallway, if you take the time to look around, you'll see a light switch on the wall. If you're feeling so bold, you can turn out the lights, put on Sam's night vision goggles and shoot the guards. Later on, there's a zip line that Sam can grab onto and use to slide to the building located on the other side of a courtyard. You have so many different options in the game that you truly get the sense that your primary objective is to remain undetected, but you can engage the enemy face-to-face if needed.

The graphics in Splinter Cell are very well done. The textures are very crisp, the character models (especially Sam) are all quite detailed, the lighting has to be seen to be believed, and the environments are filled with all sorts of detail. Add to that a stealth element that literally puts Metal Gear Solid to shame, and you have an Xbox and PC game that people should definitely be looking forward to. We'll have more on Splinter Cell as it becomes available.

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