Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory Impressions - E3 2004

Ubisoft's next Splinter Cell game is on hand at E3 2004--and it looks very impressive indeed.

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We were able to take an advance look at the tentatively titled Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell 3, the next stealth action game in the Splinter Cell series from Ubisoft, at E3 2004. Like the previous games, Splinter Cell 3 takes place in the not-to-distant future (in this case, 2008), and once again chronicles the adventures of elite special agent and stealth expert Sam Fisher.

The demonstration began with Fisher sitting outside of a small manor house in what was apparently the Japanese countryside, being briefed over his headset by his boss, Irving Lambert. As is his wont, Fisher was crouching--skulking behind a rock formation while talking over his transceiver. In this scene, we watched as the camera switched quickly from a full-on first-person view to Fisher's customary partial over-shoulder first-person view (which shows the side of his head, plus his currently equipped weapon at the bottom of the screen) to a fully-third person view that showed an incredible level of detail on Fisher's body and face, up to and including lip-synched facial animations that were perfectly coordinated with his quiet, terse speech.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Fisher then moved in on the perimeter of the manor house, which was surrounded by a rock garden of varying heights. On a ledge above him, a single guard patrolled the area. Fisher stuck to the shadows and crept up beneath this guard, flattening himself against the ledge to remain hidden as he took aim at a hanging paper lantern above the guard and shot it out with a silenced weapon. The guard, who was walking his patrol route with the help of a lighted flare in hand, immediately took notice and called out to see if anyone was there, then tossed the flare down below the ledge to cast light on any intruders. The flare cast a realistic and alarming dynamic light across the rock faces, forcing Fisher to scramble into a crevice as the guard jumped down after his flare to investigate. Fisher quickly came at the guard from behind and placed the guard in a choke hold, quickly snapping the guard's neck and tossing his body aside with no noise other than a faint gurgle from the unfortunate guard.

Fisher then clambered up the rocks and approached the house, which was built from a wood framework with rice paper stretched across the frame for walls. As he approached, we were able to see guards prowling behind the rice-paper walls casting realistic soft shadows as they paced back and forth. A quick switch to Fisher's heat goggles revealed the position of several thugs prowling the hallways, prompting Fisher to creep around the back and take another guard silently from behind before approaching an enclosed room with a single candle burning before a statue of Buddha. Fisher crept into the room and silently extinguished the candle, plunging the room into complete darkness, then used his black-and-white night-vision goggles to creep out of sight as another guard came to investigate and relit the candle, only to have his neck snapped as well.

Proceeding further into the manor house, Fisher overheard the beginnings of an important conversation and climbed into a crawl space just underneath a room in which several thugs were discussing an important-sounding arms shipment. Completely outnumbered, Fisher's only recourse, once he had heard enough, was to sneak past. Just as he was making his way through, we were given a start by a false alarm--one thug had accidentally dropped a pile of yen coins on the ground with an alarming clatter, though the thugs showed no sign of having noticed us, instead taking the opportunity to casually remark that the yen had become so devalued in 2008 as to not be worth the bother of picking up. Fisher made his way through the crawl space to the edge of the manor house, which gave way to some kind of tearoom framed with frosted glass, through which light was realistically deformed and refracted. The tearoom also contained a small arboretum in the center. To distract the patrolling guard, Fisher quietly turned on the watering system to water the plant, then, when the puzzled thug went to investigate, Fisher crept up behind him and did him in. Once he was through the tearoom, Fisher determined that only one other thug stood between him and the exit behind a rice-paper wall. He lunged forward and ripped right through the flimsy paper to snap the unfortunate minion's neck.

Fisher then proceeded to the outer edge of the manor house to a small courtyard, where a few guards prowled around a parked automobile. Off in the distance, Fisher overheard another conversation going on in another wing of the house, as two anonymous figures discussed some sort of weapon that would "make a shipment of nuclear warheads look as dangerous as a bunch of arrows in comparison." The figures paced back and forth, causing their shadows to lengthen realistically along the height of the paper walls, until one of the figures turned on the other, drawing what appeared to be a curved Japanese sword and cutting down his former partner. As soon as this happened, Fisher received a frantic missive from Lambert informing him that the mysterious murderer had suddenly become Fisher's primary target and that Fisher could not allow him to escape.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

His hand forced, Fisher crept up behind the nearest guard with his knife drawn and gutted him like a fish (grabbing him by the throat, whirling him around, and plunging the knife into his innards), then whipped out his submachine gun and began firing on the other guards. The demonstration's music, which had previously been a quiet theme scored with stringed instruments to suggest veiled tension, suddenly changed to a loud and fast-paced techno tune as Fisher alternately lunged for cover and fired on his enemies, tossing the occasional grenade to clear out enemies hidden behind stone pagodas and the car in the courtyard (quick use of his heat goggles helped him draw a bead on hidden enemies).

We then watched a separate demonstration of the game's impressive-looking weather effects, which include heavy rain that actually forms rippling puddles, soaks characters and objects to give off a realistic "wet" look using dynamic specular mapping, and actually affects the behavior of some characters, who may move from their patrol areas to avoid the rain. We watched Fisher begin a new mission atop a ruined seaside tower behind a guard just as the rain began to fall. Fisher quietly crept up behind his enemy and placed him in a choke hold, then casually tossed the thug off the edge to his death. He then silently waited as another guard climbed down a set of spiral stairs out of the rain, getting soaked himself in the process (Fisher's suit became realistically slick with rain), then sneaked across the shimmering stone floor and down the stairs and gutted the guard with his knife.

After this, we watched a demonstration of Fisher using his knife as more than just a weapon. In another level, Fisher crouched silently on the edge of a dingy kitchen in a ruined tenement in which a group of thugs watched a droning, black-and-white television. Fisher carefully kept out of sight of the thugs, sticking to the walls and using his knife to silently slit open the thin veil of insulation foam that hung across the hallway and his objective.

We then watched a dramatic sequence in which Fisher appeared on top of a guard tower in driving rain. Climbing to the edge of the tower, Fisher lowered himself so that he was hanging onto the lip of the tower, then moved hand over hand to a patrolling guard. As soon as Fisher was directly beneath the guard, he reached up a single hand and grabbed the soldier by the throat from the front. The surprised soldier was able to do little more than cry out a confused "What the...?" before Fisher had yanked him off his feet and hurled him downward to his death.

As if this demonstration weren't enough, we were then able to witness some of the new game's multiplayer options. Splinter Cell 3's multiplayer will emphasize teamwork even more than the play modes featured in Pandora Tomorrow. We watched as two players, each playing as spies, infiltrated a building. To get over the outside wall, one player knelt beneath the wall to give his teammate a boost. This player then fired a sticky camera high up on the wall of the building, which let him use his voice headset to warn his teammate of any approaching guards as the teammate scaled the building to the roof. This teammate then lowered a cable to the first player, who carefully climbed up the face of the building past several offices, some of which were occupied. The climbing player was able to use his vantage point to ask the rooftop player to shift the cable to the left or right to avoid detection as needed, then climbed onto the roof. Once the teammates were in, they found their objective behind a door, in an office with a sleeping guard. After using a cable camera under the door to determine that the guard was not a threat, one player leapt up to a ventilation shaft and held onto the edge while his teammate grabbed onto his ankles, then climbed up along his teammate's back to enter the shaft above the office. This player then carefully lowered himself upside down into the room to reach the computer that was his goal.

The entire Splinter Cell 3 demo looked fantastic--not only has the series' trademark use of lighting and shadows been greatly enhanced, but the demonstration's character models were incredibly detailed and looked completely convincing. Perhaps most impressively, the game ran at a brisk and even frame rate with no noticeable hitches at all (though it was clearly running on extremely high-end hardware). Surprisingly, this very impressive-looking game is scheduled for release later this year. Expect to see more coverage on GameSpot in the coming months.

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