Waiting for Splinter Cell to be released on the XBOX was one the hardest things I’ve done in recent history. The last week before the release had me in agony. The anticipation had grown to outrageous levels, and when it actually did arrive in the mail, it lived up to everything I had hoped. I’ve always had a thing for games where you have to be sneaky and clever, and I know a lot of my fellow PC gamers (who for some reason haven’t already bought an XBOX and / or Splinter Cell) feel the same way. Luckily UbiSoft came to the rescue, ported the game, and now it’s out for the PC!
I’m sure there are still a couple who aren’t intimately familiar with Sam, his line of business and bag of tricks, so here’s a crash course.
The story takes place two years in the future, in a time of political trouble. The NSA created a new sub-agency called Third Echelon, which sends out highly trained soldiers, also called Splinter Cells (person who breaks terrorist cells). These people are given the freedom to do pretty much what they want. You’ll need to be stealthy, because if you’re caught you shouldn’t expect help from the government.
The political troubles are centered on the republic of Georgia, but the missions will take you all over the globe trying to prevent a major military crisis.
There aren’t many games that look as good as Splinter Cell on the XBOX. Even with the limited hardware of the console it managed to look extremely good, while running at a fluid framerate. The PC version looks better in a few ways, most notably the slightly sharper textures, higher resolution shadows (people who have played Splinter Cell on the XBOX may have noticed jaggies in the actual shadows at times), and in my opinion even better use of shaders.
Making a believable world for a spy to play in is quite a daunting task, but the levels are varied, filled with appropriate objects, and designed so that you usually don’t have to choose between too many paths. It would’ve been great if you could’ve had several points of entrance and that way get a lot more replay-value. Sam and the rest of the characters do look terrific, with high polygon models and both crisp and appropriate looking textures. Sam moves very nicely, but especially during the cinematic sequences the enemies move a bit too much “on a line”.
What really separates Splinter Cell from most recent action games is the use of shadows. Splinter Cell uses the Unreal engine, which we’ve seen in several great looking games the past months, but UbiSoft also added improved lighting. By using real-time cast shadows, lightmaps, etc, this title gives you some of the best looking shadows to date. However, unlike some of the future games Splinter Cell doesn’t use per-pixel lighting, so the framerate should be quite good even for owners of mid-end PCs.
To top it off, UbiSoft included a very nicely working cloth-sim, which is a feature I hope more games will utilize. For instance, when walking through a cover of plastic you won’t just magically go through it, it’ll wrap around you in a very realistic way.
Sounds / Music
One of the things I remember the most from the great Thief games is the time spent just sitting in a corner listening to the sounds of guards rummaging about, people chatting and the good assortment of sound effects in general. Sounds are also important in Splinter Cell, and in the three years that have passed since Thief 2 was released some useful innovations have been made. Owners of surround-systems will appreciate the ability to hear the game in 5.1, which is sadly still rare in game titles. Michael Ironside, who has played in a good number of movies over the years, supplied the voice-overs for Sam Fisher, and it really is amazing how appropriate it is. Michael Ironside doesn’t have an as deep voice as Sam in the game, but because of Ironside’s talent you’ll be even more immersed in the action. The rest of the voice-overs are also well done, but it seems as if few people were used on the enemies’ voices, so it’s easy to recognize how one person is doing the voice of several people. The dialogues are at times quite humorous and of course deadly serious other times.
A somewhat limited musical score was also included, and even though it may not be as extensive as games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City it does change according to the actions in the game, so if you’re facing perhaps four enemies the music will be at a relatively high tempo, while it’ll be calm as soon as the threats have been neutralized.
Splinter Cell may be a visually great looking game, but when you’re making a game about something as complicated as being a super-great spy you really need some substance in the gameplay. Splinter Cell has tons of it, but even though it may not be a spy simulator per-se, it still manages to be a blast to play. The various missions you play are pretty much as linear as they get, but what’s interesting is how people solve the small, yet intricate challenges that they present in different ways. Some missions require you to sneak into a building, stealing vital intelligence, while in some you’ll need to laser mic evil-doers. You’ll travel to fairly exotic locations, ranging from the CIA headquarters, to your average oil-rig. As you progress in the missions you’ll see that the few objectives you had at first usually change, so the first time playing a mission is quite entertaining just because of that. You can in fact finish the game by killing only one person in total, but since that’s not as fun, and far from as easy as taking the homicidal “route” you usually end up with a nice body-count. It’s always best to rely on Sam’s stealth skills, because you’re likely to get by with less alarms going off and fewer pissed off guards if you stop to think about the best solution to a situation.
As you might’ve gathered, light, or the lack of, is very important in Splinter Cell. Sam is a creature of the night, because his gear allows him to travel in ways that most villains can’t. After you’ve finished a few missions in the game you’ll have three vision modes to choose from: regular, night-vision, and thermal-vision. Each of these has distinct advantages and disadvantages. The thermal allows you to see the thermal signature of people through thin walls! The downside is that while using it you can’t differentiate between the levels of light in the room, so you just might stumble into the view of a camera. Sam can only use two weapons: a silenced pistol, and a more modular gun, which can in fact do a lot more than your average weapon. The weapon itself is a semi-automatic rifle that is both very quiet, accurate, does a good deal of damage, and even has a long clip. However, firing cameras (regular and diversion), electrical “zappers”, and plenty more. Other than that you can also set wall-mines, throw soda-cans at people, or preferably as a diversion, you can pick locks, use people on retinal scans to bypass the security, and so much more.
When controlling Sam you’re often get context menus that pop up depending on what you’re close to. Often it’ll say “Body”, which if you click it means Sam will pick up a dead or unconscious body, or “Door”, which basically means Sam will open it. Sometimes Sam will even have to talk to people, and in some cases you can interrogate certain bad-guys for vital information, after you’ve grabbed them from behind. While interrogating that person another guard may appear which would make most super spies shiver with fear, but not Sam Fisher! By pressing E (default) you’ll unholster your pistol, which allows you to neutralize the potential threat. In many ways Sam the spy can be compared to your average ninja, because knocking out a villain can easily be done without any weapons, as long as you plan things a bit. One move you certainly haven’t seen in a lot of games is the now infamous split-jump. By jumping off a wall and then pressing jump again Sam will perform a split-jump where he can not only shoot enemies without having to worry about people spotting him, but he can also drop himself onto people who happen to be below him, rendering them unconscious.
As you might’ve gathered from this, Sam is skilled, he knows more tricks than most books, and that’s what makes Splinter Cell so much fun to play. The game isn’t perfect, because you’re never given good briefings about your next mission, and it can sometimes be a bit hard to figure out where to go next. The artificial intelligence acts up at times, and in some situations it’s downright silly that the enemies can’t see you. However, Splinter Cell is, like the somewhat similar Thief games, a lot of fun to play, even though it doesn’t fit everybody.
I’ve had my doubts about the Splinter Cell conversion for some time. I was worried about the performance, the controls, and the atmosphere in general. The game runs really well in most cases, the controls work great as long as you have a scroll-wheel, and the atmosphere is as good as the XBOX version. If I were to choose between the two I’d probably go for the XBOX version, but that’s really a subjective opinion. If you have already played the game on the XBOX, and maybe even finished it then you won’t find much new in the PC conversion, but if you for some reason haven’t already played this awesome game then there is no reason why you shouldn’t. The first time playing it you may be a tad frustrated by the game’s not very forgiving nature. I like a good challenge, so to me this was just fun, but I guess those with less patience may dislike the game because of that.