Splinter Cell Chaos Theory Update

Microsoft gives us an updated look at the latest version of Sam Fisher's latest Xbox adventure.

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LAS VEGAS--During a showcase of upcoming Xbox titles at its CES booth, Microsoft showed off an updated version of Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, the third entry in Ubisoft's stealth action franchise. The game appears to have come a very long way since we got our first look at it months ago, and in many ways, it bears little resemblance to that initial glimpse.

The level demoed for us was set around the Punta Blanco Lighthouse. The action followed stalwart hero Sam Fisher as he did what he does best: sneakin' and killin'. However, there have been a significant amount of tweaks to the experience. The briefings Sam receives at the start of a mission have been changed and expanded to give you a richer perspective on what you're doing. For example, the briefing before the lighthouse mission included the standard pep talk from your commanding officer, but he was just one of several individuals on hand to offer information. You'll now see a list of names that, once highlighted, will call up different character portraits and information based on their perspectives of what you're doing.

Once you're past the briefing screen you'll come to a loadout screen wherein you can choose different themed sets of equipment for Sam to use, such as stealth or assault, which feature unique combinations of supplies that are geared toward a particular style of play. Although we should note that "assault" could be a bit misleading, since going through the game Rambo-style with your guns ablazin' is just asking for a spectacular, bullet-riddled death thanks to the wicked artificial intelligence that's looking particularly wily this time out. Your foes will once again be a paranoid lot that will react to sound and often alert comrades if things seem out of place. So if you're a fan of shooting out lights and trying to creep behind your foes for some quiet ganking, know that you best be quick, or you'll get some rude surprises.

While your skittish foes can be a problem, it's not like Sam is a stranger to this business. You'll find a pleasantly rich set of moves available to Sam for dealing with enemies, and they're both quiet and efficient. Quiet, stealthy killing is his stock in trade, and Chaos Theory finds the veteran hero in fine form. You'll be able to sneak around in shadow, taking advantage of terrain and using your various goggles that provide different vision modes, such as infrared and ultraviolet, to clear obstacles between Sam and his objectives. Microsoft reps also showed off some nice new bits of interactivity that will help to enrich the experience, namely in the form of being able to slice the walls of tents open to make your own entrances or hiding spots when needed, in addition to the ability to change Sam's weapon stance to right- or left-handed by clicking in the left thumbstick.

The graphics in the new version of the game sparkled with polish and a hefty dose of normal mapping that's a significant leap over the still-impressive Pandora Tomorrow. The environments around the lighthouse featured a pleasing, organic layout that included an uneven cave area with two distinct paths through it and an outpost that was in disrepair. The cave was an especially impressive set piece to the level, because the last time we saw it, it was a fairly low-key place. In this version of the game, however, light and shadow had been bumped up several notches, and the interior included flourishes such as luminescent moss. Additionally, light patterns subtly reflected from water running along the ground. As for the outpost area that leads to the lighthouse, the haphazard layout offered the now-trademark Splinter Cell light-and-dark dynamic with areas that ran the gamut from being brightly lit to cloaked in shadow. What was most visually interesting were the spaces whose lighting fell somewhere between, as there's a bevy of cool, subtle effects on display. You'll see the shadow of a prisoner and his torturer cast behind you as you sneak about to the cell where a decidedly unpleasant interrogation is going on. Once you're outside in the lighthouse area, the game show's off a little with the slick sheen on the environment used to reflect an ongoing rainstorm. The effect is used to good effect and adds a wicked, gritty look to what you're doing as you creep around taking people out. As with all the previous Splinter Cell games, Sam moves with a fluid and deadly grace, whether he's catching a foe to interrogate him or simply snapping some necks courtesy of nicely handled animations. Despite all the visual improvements crammed into it, the game purrs along at a smooth and pretty consistent frame rate, from what we've seen, which is always a good thing.

The audio was on par with the level of quality in the previous versions of the game. The ambient noise is shaping up to be an immersive mix of audio that brings the nuanced world around you to vivid life. The voice in the game is well done, especially Sam's dry banter, which is once again provided by Michael Ironside, who sounds in fine, surly form. The banter from your foes helps you keep track of them and also fills you in on information relevant to your mission, just as before. Just make sure not to rely on it too much, because for every chatty foe you encounter who alerts you to his presence from miles away, you'll find a quiet and deadly foe who's silently going about his business.

Our demo of Splinter Cell left us suitably impressed that Ubisoft's development team is going to town and then some on Chaos Theory. The game is looking sharp, and the gameplay appears to be headed in a positive, evolutionary direction that has us hankering to try it out. Odds are that if you've been a fan of the Splinter Cell series before, Chaos Theory will make you jump in all the right places. Given the difficulty level of the enemy artificial intelligence, we have to say the game may prove a little challenging for newcomers to the franchise. However, there's still a lot to appreciate here. Splinter Cell Chaos Theory is due out this March for the Xbox, so look for more on it in the coming months.

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