The Splinter Cell universe continues to evolve with this, the third and latest title in Ubisoft's award winning series. The standard story mode is there just like in Pandora Tomorrow and the original game, and though the plot is new, the way it plays out is unchanged. You still skulk about military and civilian installations trying to root out conspiracy and plot details, you're still armed with that triple greenglow headpiece for multiple vision modes, and the gameplay still revolves around the slow, careful model installed when the series first saw the light of day. Those that wanted Pandora Tomorrow done over again with a graphical facelift, rudimentary physics implementation, and minor upgrades are going to be thrilled: That's exactly what Chaos Theory is, but that's also all it is, and no more.
The gameplay changes that affect the single player campaign are probably what most of you are interested in, so I'll start with those. The biggest change is that Sam Fisher can now do melee combat. Gone are the days of loading your game because you walked right around a corner into the face of some mercenary â€“ Now you can stab him to death, though regrettably this almost always makes â€œnoiseâ€. I put â€œnoiseâ€ in quotes because often it doesn't make any noise at all, especially the non-lethal variant where Sam delivers a punishing palm to the face, yet enemies in the general vicinity will hear it and respond anyway as if it had. This annoyance also affects other things like silenced gunshot kills: Since both your rifle and pistol are silenced, and the latter makes less noise, it would make sense that you could kill someone in a room with the silenced pistol and his buddy out in the hall wouldn't know immediately that you killed his friend, nor would he know exactly where to shoot into the room as he pops around the corner with rifle trained on your totally invisible form in the shadows... but this happens far too often. Enemies have an uncanny knowledge of exactly where you are if you kill one of them with a weapon. Strangely enough, this doesn't seem to affect lights. If you shoot out a light directly over their head while you're standing 5 feet away from them they don't usually notice you (though they will notice the broken light and the sound of the gun). It's just some bad scripting and AI, and though you don't notice it much on the first few levels, by the end of the game it can drive you to madness as you repeat sections over and over until you find out just the right way the designers wanted you to do it. Fortunately, this is offset a little by the hidden objectives thrown in from time to time. I only found a few, but I'm sure there are plenty more out there. Just try to do the things that seem logical or that you would do if you were in Sam's shoes â€“ That's how I discovered that there were hidden objectives in the first place, I did something that was so natural I did it without even realizing it (I shot up the radio that the lighthouse was using to communicate with a freighter shipping arms) and the game rewarded me with a bonus objective completed. The best ones are when you get to defy Lambert and do the 'honorable' thing, but that's all I will say. Pity the game didn't let you go rogue, or at least show the intelligence community in a more realistic light: Lambert, Sam, and Grimsdottir might be a big happy family in the game (I bet they have threesomes when we aren't looking... watch how Lambert looks at her if you don't believe me) but in the real world the intelligence community distrusts its own members even more than it distrusts the â€œenemyâ€, for after all, the enemy you can't see is the one you have to fear.
Another change is that the pistol now has an alternate fire that disables electronic devices â€“ This could have been such a neat change if they had made good use of it, but beyond using it to disable lights and cameras, the game doesn't do much with it. An opportunity missed. Also, because sneaking up on people is so laughably easy in this game (practically any sort of shadow or softer light area gives you almost total invisibility, even if someone is looking right at you from 3 feet away), there really is no use for the rifle's attached extras that came in handy in previous games. I never once used an airfoil round, sticky shocker, or sticky cam... except in the video at the bottom of this review, and only for dramatic effect. One semi-interesting new thing is the 'hacking' minigame that you use when hacking into secure computers and retinal scanners, but it's shallowness borders on the absurd. You click the bright numbers that come up until you have an IP address and then you click that. That's all. That's â€œhackingâ€ into top secret retinal scanners and servers for you. If Ubisoft's network security is this pathetic they're going to get Valved soon. The canned AI scripting of the single player campaign is quite good most of the time, but when enemies have to react to Sam using dynamic AI things fall apart pretty fast. They do what I like to call â€œthe thief walkâ€, referring to Thief and Thief 2, and the humorous (but endearing) way that all the guards and NPCs in the game would walk 5 steps and stop to look hard at the shadows for what lurked there, even if â€œwhat lurks thereâ€ is inches from their face in fairly good ambient light. Splinter Cell's denizens do this all the time, but at least now they'll pull out a flashlight once in a while to aid the search. They're still laughably easy to take down, but at least they have a few new tricks.
One major, and I mean major annoyance, is the return of the â€œcannedâ€ alarms, that seem to appear out of nowhere if you do certain things in a mission (usually knock too many people out, or at least that is my suspicion) and then walk across a triggered section of floor. The first Splinter Cell was so bad about this that I got right near the end of the game and then found I couldn't beat the last level without restarting because an alarm would go off every single time I walked past a certain section of floor, no matter what I did. I only saw this recur twice in Chaos Theory, but this retarded â€œfeatureâ€ should have been found and squished long ago. Since I play most levels by slowly going through and knocking everyone out, this can tend to be a big problem when I get near the end of a 2 hour mission only to find the game has decided the alarm level should go up for no reason at all. Fortunately this iteration of Splinter Cell doesn't stop any missions if alarms go off, and in fact makes a joke about the previous games doing so:
Lambert: Sam, be extra careful on this mission.
Fisher: What, 3 alarms and you'll pull the plug?
Lambert: Be serious Fisher, this isn't a video game, it's real life!
Poking fun at itself and its series is something Chaos Theory does quite a bit, but this brings me to another point: The jokes in here often come across stale or downright dumb. Some of them, like Anna's cracks on Sam's age, are great, but others are just awful. Also, I have a huge problem with the advertising in this game, as the few times that it appeared my immersion was ruined. It is not blatant, like in Need for Speed Underground 2 where your face is blasted by an advert every 4.3 seconds, but the subtle annoyance of it is almost worse, as this is supposed to be a serious spy thriller! Crawling about on a freighter to assassinate a target I was not pleased to see every single computer â€œscreensaverâ€ on all the PCs on the bridge screaming â€œWAR OF THE WORLDS, JUNE 29!â€ at me. Besides, the release date has since been changed to July 4 â€“ Can we expect a patch to fix this unrealistic error in our totally fictitious universe? To me, this is just blurring the line between fantasy and reality in an irritating and intrusive way, and I don't like it one bit.
Moving on, I've got to talk for a bit about the sights and sounds of the Chaos Theory game world. The graphics on display here are absolutely fantastic, with support for PS3.0 giving us HDR, tone mapping, parallax mapping, and high quality soft shadows. The caveat? You'll need a Geforce 6 series video card if you want any of these features, as ATI does not have a PS3.0 card capable at this time. Now, don't get me started on this issue, as I know good and well that Ubisoft could have easily programmed this for PS2.0 instead of 3.0 and it would have looked identical, as 3.0 is a refinement of 2.0, not an overhaul â€“ 3.0 only adds speed for the smart shader programmer, nothing more, but hey, feel free to buy a 500 dollar video card so you can say with pride you are shader 3.0 compliant. Be my guest! The problem here in Chaos Theory then is that the game would have played in the highest graphical quality mode on ATI cards as old as the 9500 Pro, and as Ubisoft is an Nvidia partner, we can't have that. ATI users, even those with the rip roaring X800 series, are going to be playing in PS1.1, which still looks great, but is lacking when compared to the absolutely stunning visual quality offered by 3.0 and its full suite of features. One bonus is that 1.1 can use antialiasing, which cuts down on those jagged edges on polygons, and 3.0 cannot, but I swapped between the two quite a few times to test things out, and because of the shader features used in 3.0 you will almost never notice jaggys. The game looks too damn good, with high resolution textures, fantastic character models, and the best dynamic light and shadowing ever seen in a video game, ever. Big words, but play this with everything cranked and you'll agree: No game released can touch it in those areas. Curiously, this praise doesn't follow the game into the multiplayer mode, where the graphics are often downright terrible. I noticed a few rooms with no texturing on the walls and just one point light source with no fixture... very unpolished stuff, almost like one of those tiny Halflife â€œkillboxâ€ maps. Fortunately, these complaints are still the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part the multiplayer visuals are quite acceptable.
On the other hand, the gameplay of the multiplayer mode is fantastic. The promised coop mode is included, but it's nowhere near as good as we all hoped it would be. The moves shown in preview videos are still there, but they're canned animations that you have to set up with a special 'coop' button, and for the most part they aren't fun to do. However, playing coop on a LAN can be quite fun when you coordinate your moves, but it can also be disorienting, as you don't always know what you should be doing. The spy experience of Splinter Cell is just a solo experience, and probably will always be one. Now, if they had made a coop multiplayer mode where you were both mercenaries in one of the single player levels trying to stop Sam Fisher, that would have been badass. I know there would be a lot of things to work out, like scripting issues and such, but maybe make it a 2v1 or even a 1v1 game, where one player plays Sam Fisher and the other player plays a mercenary enemy but he has a bunch of AI allies patrolling the level as normal in the single player game. This way, a smart merc could play dumb, and act just like the computer opponents, so the person playing Sam would never know who he was. Tension level... mounting! Here's hoping this gets implemented next time around. The standard multiplayer mode of 2v2 spies/mercs is back almost unchanged from Pandora Tomorrow, and that's a good thing as I really loved the unique style of multiplayer action created with that title.
Overall, this is yet another strong entry in a series of strong games. Because it is a continuation of what was started with the original Splinter Cell, and therefore lacking somewhat in originality, I can't score it higher than I am, but rest assured that this game does indeed rule. I would have liked to see a lot more made of the morality and revolutionary talk Doug Shetland brought up in the sole scene he and Sam confront each other with, because his character was really destroyed quite fast in a way that doesn't represent what he was to the series. The previous game had this problem too, like the designers wanted to make a bold game that fearlessly allowed the player morality decisions independent of what The Agency wanted him to do, but the producers and Ubisoft execs demanded only mindless flag-waving and happy endings. Lame. Still, the thrill of sneaking about an enemy base will always be enough to keep me playing when it's done as well as it is done in this series, and this newest title does it better than any game in the series before it. Splinter Cell - Chaos Theory is well worth both your time and money. Get it.
You can watch a few in-game clips here.