Splinter Cell Essentials First Look--A Sam Fisher Retrospective

Ubisoft's hallowed stealth series will make its PSP debut with a time-trotting look at the career of its illustrious main character.

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Popular console franchises have been popping up on the PlayStation Portable with surprising frequency these last few months--Burnout, Grand Theft Auto, and Prince of Persia to name a few. Thanks to the PSP's technical prowess, everyone's getting a chance to move to a portable format without sacrificing the gameplay conventions and (most of) the graphical fidelity that made them popular on television screens everywhere. Thanks to Ubisoft's Montreal development studio, it'll soon be Sam Fisher's turn to step onto the small screen with Splinter Cell Essentials, the vaunted stealth-action series' first original appearance on a modern handheld.

Essentials won't be the next chronological addition to the Splinter Cell timeline--that duty falls to Double Agent, the upcoming fourth installment in the console series. Instead, the PSP game will take a retrospective look at the entirety of Sam Fisher's career, from his early days as a Navy SEAL to the shady events of Double Agent--and maybe even beyond. Ubisoft tells us the game will use a unique narrative framework to tie all of the missions together, though they haven't divulged yet exactly how this scenario will play out. We do know that these discrete missions won't even be presented in chronological order, so presumably their presentation will serve a greater storyline.

At any rate, you'll visit such exotic locales as Colombia, for a 1992 SEAL mission; Yugoslavia, to take part in Fisher's first mission as a Third Echelon operative in which he helps NATO destroy a SAM launcher; and a factory in Warsaw, Indiana, where he'll retrieve a palette of stolen NSA weaponry in a mission set after Pandora Tomorrow. It's important to note that while many of Essentials' missions are set in or around the time frames of the previous Splinter Cell games, the nine story missions are all newly created for the PSP. Anyone who gets all misty-eyed over Fisher's life and times, though, will be glad to know that three bonus missions ported from past games will also be available.

Sam Fisher, this is your life.
Sam Fisher, this is your life.

The PSP's technical capabilities are shockingly close to the PlayStation 2's, but designing a game for a handheld platform still presents inherent challenges. Luckily, it looks like Essentials' designers have crafted the game with these obstacles in mind, and so far the game looks like it'll be nicely tailored to the portable gaming experience. To start with, Splinter Cell diehards will be glad to know that none of Fisher's trademark abilities or maneuvers have been removed from the game. You can still sneak up behind enemies or civilians to kill, incapacitate, or interrogate them. The first-person aiming and shooting action is intact as well, and there will now be an optional aiming assistance feature that will help you compensate for the PSP analog control's lower precision. In short, Essentials should play exactly like fans of the series have come to expect from past entries on the bigger consoles.

That means Ubi Montreal hasn't sacrificed any of Splinter Cell's controls or accessibility. For instance, you'll still have 360-degree camera control, though you'll have to stop moving to adjust the perspective. When you hold down the circle button, you can use the analog stick to move the camera, effectively giving you the same viewing freedom as you have on the consoles. Other concessions have been made to the PSP's control layout to maintain the gameplay--an example being the use of the square and circle buttons to strafe quickly when you're in first-person aiming mode. It seems like some of these minor changes will take a little while to get used to if you're coming from the previous Splinter Cell games, but once you've gotten everything down, you should be able to crack heads with the best of them.

Finally, the internal game mechanics have evolved slightly to accommodate gamers on the go. For one, the designers know that getting Sam Fisher through a dangerous mission unscathed requires you to use all your senses, especially hearing. So what if you're playing Essentials on the bus and you can't hear the footsteps of that approaching guard? Essentials will augment the heads-up display with a new bidirectional sound gauge that will give you a visual cue as to the strength and direction of ambient sounds. So if you see the sound meter suddenly spike to the right, you know something crucial is going on in that direction. The HUD remains otherwise unchanged, showing you how much noise you're making and how well hidden you are. Lastly, and thankfully, you'll be able to save at any point in a mission--rather than just at the predesignated checkpoints like in the previous games--so you can get through one short part of a mission and then come back to it later.

Yeah, I didn't need that groin anyway.
Yeah, I didn't need that groin anyway.

From what we saw of Essentials, the game seems to be maintaining the series' high graphical standards on the PSP. The game's technology is based on the PS2 Pandora Tomorrow engine, which has been pulled apart and reworked to run well on the portable platform. All the series' trademark effects are here, from the night and thermal vision modes to the dynamic lighting that facilitates many of Fisher's hiding places. As on the consoles, many lights can be shot out to give you even more hiding places. The levels and characters look to be a little less detailed in terms of geometry--which is to be expected from a PSP game--but otherwise, this is unmistakably a Splinter Cell game.

Ubisoft hasn't committed to a firm release date for Splinter Cell Essentials yet, though it's said to be due out in the first quarter of the year, which leaves plenty of time for us to check out more of the single-player game (not to mention find out what kind of multiplayer plans the Montreal team has cooking). In the meantime, check out a bunch of new videos for Essentials, including gameplay footage and an exclusive developer interview.

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