Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell

Review

posted 3/15/2003 by John Yan
other articles by John Yan
What happens when Solid Snake meets Tom Clancy? A star’s bound to be born and this time his name is Sam Fisher, the star of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, one of the freshest and most impressive games to arrive on the Xbox scene.

The first time I came in contact with Splinter Cell was in one of the backrooms of Microsoft’s Xbox booth at this year's E3. A representative was showcasing a few of the ‘must-have’ Xbox titles of the Holiday season and she was very adamant about demo-ing SC for us. After she finally managed to boot up the game I must say that my jaw hit the floor only to stay there for the remainder of the expo. The game was extremely impressive, featuring breathtaking visuals, intuitive gameplay and a main character worthy of starring in his own major motion picture. For those three days everywhere I went the focus of a conversation would somehow steer its way towards Splinter Cell, no matter how far-fetched the topic may have been.

After the successful Xbox release, Ubi Soft decided to release the game on other platforms. The PC version hit my desk coming in at 3 disks. Where other companies are only giving CD sleeves with their releases (Unreal Tournament 2003, Neverwinter Nights), Splinter Cell comes in a nice large jewel case to keep your CDs nice and protected. I wish more companies would take Ubi’s lead and not skimp on the jewel cases.

Starting the game was chore right from the get go. Well, a patch was released as the game hit the shelves so that should tell you they needed some more QA work on the game. Anyways, installing on my nice AMD 2200+ system with a Geforce4 Ti4200, ABIT KD7-G motherboard, and up to date drivers, I started out with the training mission. After viewing the introduction video, the game popped me to the desktop of Windows XP with an error. Well that’s not a nice way to start off a review. After numerous unsuccessful tries with the crash occurring right after the end of the video I took the game to my Ati All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro and MSI motherboard system with the same CPU. The game worked without a hitch there but I was never able to diagnose the problem with Ubi Soft. And from what I’ve read on the forums this is not an uncommon problem. Ah the joys of porting a game to the PC: you have to program for every configuration possible and have to work hard to resolve conflicts instead of focusing on one hardware spec like the Xbox.

Tom Clancy inspired games have really come in to their own during the past five years. Rainbow Six was one of the most impressive games of its time and has since found a permanent place on my personal favorites shelf. Rogue Spear was an excellent title that really helped propel the genre forward with better tactics, better AI and better overall gameplay. Then came Ghost Recon, the epitome of everything that a squad-based shooter typified. With every seceding title, Red Storm managed to advance the genre and propel it to a whole new level. With the exclusion of The Sum of All Fears, all of their games have made a significant impact on gamers everywhere. It is for this very reason that I feel that Splinter Cell fails to exude that Game of the Year aura that it initially held. Most portions of the game feel too similar to another and after a few hours of gameplay you’ll start to come down with a bit of déjà vu.

The storyline is what you’d typically expect to derive from a Tom Clancy novel. You’ll assume the role of Sam Fisher; a top agent whose duty is to stop acts of terrorism in their tracks. Working in secrecy for Echelon 3, he is proficient in lethal arts and munitions but his most valuable asset will be stealth. Since this is a Clancy novel, the story has you doing battle with the Russians and the Chinese because, as always, they’re EVIL! The story unfolds via sequences of disjointed news clips that really cause more confusion than they should. I’m not certain as to their purpose because I was given the impression that they’d help advance the story. Instead I was scratching my head, wondering exactly what in the hell was going on.


Gameplay will no doubt draw some comparisons to Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 2 and rightfully so. The game draws its inspiration from that and another well. The well in question is Eidos’ excellent stealth-based game, Thief, an amazing title that forced the gamer to rely on stealth and wits as opposed to brawn and power. You’ll have a stealth meter to let you know how visible you are to your enemies. Of course your goal will be to keep yourself as concealed as possible. When the game begins you’ll be treated to a tutorial that will familiarize you with the game.

There are quite a number of moves available to you. Fisher seems to be a mesh of Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme (pre straight to video days) and Arnold Schwarzenegger except that he speaks much better English. He can do the splits across two objects and rain fire upon his enemies, he can sneak up behind his foes and deliver a swift blow to the head, he can run towards walls and kick off of them in the midst of a jump. He can even take an unsuspecting terrorist hostage and use him as a human shield if need be. Some of the moves are very impractical and seem to be included to help bulk up the cool-ness factor and in this respect, the designers have succeeded.

Of course he’ll also have the bulk of the usual spy maneuvers. He can peak around corners, lean against walls and of course, perform forward somersaults for no apparent reason (because what movie would be complete without it right?). The mouse wheel dictates how fast he is moving by setting the speed at which you would like Sam to move, much like an accelerator on a car. In another excellent maneuver, he can actually kick his way through windows. It’s an amazing move that truly has to be seen to be believed. What’s great about Splinter Cell is that it successfully engulfs you in the spy atmosphere. As you progress through the game you’ll really get the feeling that every single move you make can have an impact on the balance of the world. You’ll feel that little adrenalin rush hit you every time that a guard passes by your hopefully competent hiding spot. This game provides the type of rush that comes with being nervous and on edge; my palms were actually quite sweaty when I finally was able to put this game down.

Speaking of having to be seen to be believed, Splinter Cell is an amazing visual treat. Everything (with the exception of those comparatively ugly news clips) has been crafted and rendered with exquisite results. Thanks to some superb lighting effects, everything emits a very realistic feeling that is unparalleled by most of the competition. There are also some neat shadow tricks thrown in as well. Shadows will warp on and around people and objects so if you’re not careful, your shadow just might peer through a slightly open window. On the PC the game looks incredibly great and holds up to the Xbox version very well. Since the PC has many more video options to turn on or off, you can adjust the visuals as you see fit. There are a few problems with some of the texture work and collision detection but overall, this is one beautiful game.

What isn’t so pretty is the game’s general structure. The missions are extremely linear and it really hurts the gameplay quite a bit, not to mention the replay value. Much like the enemies that you’re pitted against, the game is very communistic in nature. Don’t expect to have the freedom to go on a killing spree because it’s just not in the cards. You’re given a very strict agenda and if you deviate from it by say, killing a certain amount of guards, the alarm will magically sound and you have failed. I understand the need to impose some sense of reality in the atmosphere but it really detracts from the gameplay quite a bit. I’m not a big fan of artificial limitations, especially when they’re imposed to keep the gamer on a very specific track. You’ll also notice a lot of scripting in the game, far too much for my tastes. Sometimes enemies won’t go through their sequences until you’ve activated a specific trigger on the level. Most of the time you’ll have to step across a specific plane in order to get the next sequence of guards to go through their paces. This can be quite frustrating, especially when you peer around a corner and begin to wonder when that damn guard will move so that you can get along with the mission. Of course he’ll begin his movements after you step over a very specific piece of the environment.


Most of the frustration from SC can be derived from the gameplay. While at its core, it’s from the same vein as MGS, it’s a little different in terms of execution. Every mission follows the same basic structure, stay hidden, don’t get shot and if possible, avoid confrontation. There is an awful lot of trial and error involved in the game’s general execution. Splinter Cell forces you to use stealth as the primary option in far too many situations. Too often you won’t know what’s coming up ahead and by the time you’ve found out what you’re facing, it’s too late and you’ve already failed the mission. Most of the time, the challenge doesn’t come from making your way through a mission without getting killed; it’s making your way through a mission without being detected. This means that you’ll have to avoid guards rather than dispose of them in a covert manner. Why? Why give me all these cool maneuvers and weapons and not allow me to use them? Might as well just let a fat kid run through a candy store and tell him he can’t eat anything.

Problems also come from the simplicity of the AI. I’m not sure what sort of training one has to go through to become a certified terrorist but in this case, I’m doubtful it extends further than the “turn your head and cough” phase. What happens when a guard sees his buddy walk down an open corridor only to get mowed down by enemy fire? Why he runs headfirst into the fracas of course. What does the next guy do? He too runs into the open to meet his demise. Sometimes it’s ridiculous, you can literally set u shop at a corner and start a pile of dead terrorists. This is a stark contrast to MGS2 where guards would actually move apart from each other and try to divert your gunfire while another attacks.

There are a few moments of brilliance that will truly startle you. Sometimes a guard will magically detect you, even when the stealth meter tells you that you’re completely invisible. Wow, I guess the guards have magically stealth vision or something. Then again, sometimes they’ll do something cool like shine a flashlight in your eyes and blind you. The AI is very hit or miss but because this game is more dependant on your actions rather than your enemies, it becomes serviceable in the end.

You’ll want to make sure to have a nice audio setup for this one because the audio portions are just excellent. They make great usage of the EAX capabilities if you have the proper setup, you’ll be thankful for it. Sound is distributed beautifully through the 5 channels of sound and you’ll really give that subwoofer a work out. If you don’t have a 5.1 setup yet this just might be the game that will force you to upgrade.

A beefy system is needed to run the game well so be prepared to experience some choppiness if you don’t meet the recommended requirements. Even with a Radeon 9700 Pro and an AMD 2200+ the game ran into various spots of stutter. Splinter Cell is a fun game and PC users who don’t own an Xbox should be happy the decision to port it over was made. While there are some problems plaguing the PC release, it still doesn’t take away the fact that the combination of action, stealth, and gadgets will give you a fun time.





B-
A very nice Thief like game with some really good graphics. Crashes, bugs, and some other minor issues aside, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell is an enjoyable action game