Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory Co-op Hands-On - Panama

We go behind enemy lines in the newest stealth action game from Ubisoft...this time with backup.

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Cooperative play in a stealth action game seems like something of an oxymoron. After all, such games cast you as a single covert operative who's charged with getting in, getting the job done, and getting out without anyone finding out. You'd think sending in two agents would just double the risk of raising the alert, but as we've discovered while playing the co-op mode in the Xbox version of the upcoming Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, two silenced pistols really are better than one. In fact, having played just one level in this mode so far, co-op is already one of the things that has us most excited about Chaos Theory's impending release.

Chaos Theory's cooperative mode seems like one of the best new reasons to try the game.
Chaos Theory's cooperative mode seems like one of the best new reasons to try the game.

In the single-player game, you'll again reprise the role of grizzled elite agent Sam Fisher, who's been around the block a few times and can handle just about anything Third Echelon can throw him at. In the co-op mode, however, you and a friend will take control of two wannabe splinter cells who are being sent on a number of test missions to prove their mettle to the organization. But if these guys are green, they sure don't show it. They can pull off all the same tricks and use the same gadgets and weaponry as Fisher himself. The basic controls and gameplay are identical in the co-op mode, from night and thermal vision to the ever-popular SC-20 multipurpose assault rifle. If you've played a Splinter Cell game before, or even if you're just coming from Chaos Theory's campaign mode, you'll feel right at home with the controls in co-op.

The cooperative mode gives you a number of ways to link up with a friend. You can play with a second player on the same Xbox, with the screen split vertically, or you can each use your own via system link. The third and potentially most popular option will be to play over Xbox Live, where you'll be able to look for available co-op games the same way you would multiplayer matches. We played in the split-screen mode on the same Xbox and found it to be quite playable, though we would have liked an option to change the screen to a horizontal split. Regardless, split-screen will still be a perfectly viable way to play Chaos Theory's co-op if you don't have Xbox Live.

There are a number of factors to consider depending on which way you choose to play. Being able to see both players' views in the split-screen mode made things easier in some ways, such as, for instance, when one player used night vision to feel out the darkened surroundings while the other used thermal vision to keep an eye on any enemies moving in to the area. On Xbox Live, you can use the headset to communicate verbally to each other. However, this audio is positional in the gameworld, meaning that if you talk too loudly, nearby enemies will hear your voice and come to investigate. From our early play testing, it seems the designers have put a lot of thought into the subtle mechanics of the co-op mode.

Playing alongside a second agent confers a number of advantages, the most obvious of which is the ability to literally use each other as tools to accomplish certain objectives. To initiate a two-person move, one player must get into position and hit the black button, which will enable the second player to approach and complete the maneuver. If you see a ledge that's too high to jump up to, no problem. The other player can kneel down and boost you up to it. But how will the second agent get up there? The person hanging from the ledge can act as a ladder, letting the player on the ground climb up. We also got to try out a gymnastics-like move where one player launches the other like a projectile at an unsuspecting enemy. Another of our favorites had one agent lowering the other downward into a room so that the hanging player could survey the room and even interact with any objects located directly below him.

You can literally use your partner as a ladder when you need to reach a higher perch.
You can literally use your partner as a ladder when you need to reach a higher perch.

Each of the levels in Chaos Theory's co-op mode can be played separately from the others, and each contains its own discrete mission goals. In the Panama level we got to try out, we were tasked with infiltrating a high-security facility and accessing data archives to uncover evidence of the vice president's corruption. The flow of the co-op missions is quite similar to what fans will be familiar with from the single-player Splinter Cell model. For instance, once we reached the archives, we found out that the data had been transferred, requiring us to update our mission objectives to find some servers located elsewhere in the complex. You'll receive radio briefings from Lambert throughout the mission, just as you would in the single-player game, giving the co-op mode a dramatic feel similar to what you'll find in the campaign.

Dancing in the Dark

In some cases, both agents will have to hack a computer locking system at the same time.
In some cases, both agents will have to hack a computer locking system at the same time.

All those dual-agent special techniques are a lot of fun to use and can help you get past otherwise impassable obstacles, but beyond these special moves, playing Splinter Cell with two people is just a whole lot of fun, and it can make for some intriguing stealth possibilities. For instance, we encountered one area in the Panama complex where a guard was facing a well-lit area that we had to pass. Obviously, there was no way to get past this area without the enemy seeing us, so one player created a diversion by making some noise in one direction, causing the guard to leave his post and wander over to investigate. As soon as he turned his back, the other agent snuck up behind him from the other side of the room and stealthily dispatched him. We expect there will be a number of such free-form stealth techniques that will only be possible with two players working together.

The Panama level had a number of other obstacles that required the full cooperation of both agents. For instance, a security camera overlooking a well-lit area would have raised an alarm had we entered its field of view, but one player was able to jam the camera briefly with the handy microwave emitter while the other player snuck by and then took out an overhead light so the first player could then proceed in darkness. We also encountered a pair of retinal scanners that required both players to drag the appropriate enemies over to unlock the associated door. However, a second option let both players attempt to hack each panel simultaneously instead. This required extreme precision, because if even one player failed to break the code, an alarm would sound and bring enemies in to investigate.

We probably don't need to mention again that Chaos Theory is not only the best-looking Splinter Cell yet, but also one of the best-looking games to date on the Xbox. And that high standard is impressively maintained in the split-screen version of the co-op mode. Despite that two scenes are being rendered side by side, we didn't notice any frame rate problems, and the overall level of detail seemed to be consistent with what we've seen in the single-player game. From the shadowing and bump-mapping to the still-impressive visual filters for the thermal and electromagnetic vision modes, Chaos Theory is one nice-looking game.

Co-op has some neat little extras, in terms of presentation, that enhance the gameplay, too. Your agents give you a number of amusing and useful cues when they're trying to execute tandem special moves. For instance, if you're not in the correct position to pull off the proper move, your agent will shake his head no. But once you do get in position and hit the right button, he'll make a quiet comment about being ready for the other agent to execute the move. Again, we've been impressed so far by the little elements the designers have included in the co-op mode that enhance the overall experience.

Chaos Theory looks just as good in co-op as it does in the single-player mode.
Chaos Theory looks just as good in co-op as it does in the single-player mode.

Cooperative play may sound like a throwaway feature in a lot of games, but we can say with confidence that the co-op mode in Chaos Theory is going to be one of the best reasons to try the game. At this point, the basic Splinter Cell formula is entrenched, so anyone who's played the previous games should know what to expect in terms of controls, interface, and basic abilities. It should speak highly of the co-op mode's design, then, that we felt like we were playing something entirely fresh and new as we infiltrated the Panama complex and rooted out the corruption of the country's elected officials.

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