Splinter Cell Chaos Theory

Gamestyle Archive intro: you know I cannot remember much about this game that I reviewed just over 10 years ago now. Splinter Cell was a fine series and offered an entertaining challenge away from the usual gung-ho blasting titles. This review dates from March 2005.

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Can it be that the third Splinter Cell release is already upon us? An incessant and unforgiving impetus to deliver the next annual instalment can sometimes mean the kiss of death for many a series (and novelist). Yet somehow Tom Clancy and his Splinter Cell always manage to come up trumps: constantly evolving and pushing the boundaries of stealth and co-operative play, this is a premier series that deserves all the recognition it gets. And, once again, Chaos Theory is no different. The storyline casts you into an international crisis which Third Echelon finds of interest – because North Korea, China and Japan are intent on kicking off the next world war. However, this is merely subterfuge, as there is something far more sinister underway: information is power; throw a troublesome algorithm into the proceedings and there is only one man that can hope to win the battle. Cue Sam Fisher and his next adventure.

While Gamestyle cannot criticise the storyline (despite its overfamiliarity) or the dynamics at work, we can find fault with the host: this should be the final Splinter Cell on the ageing Playstation 2, and it’s about time. For two instalments now, the format has tried to cope with the ambition and sweeping design of the development team; the loading issues associated with Pandora Tomorrow have improved greatly, yet there aren’t enough alternate routes or commanding environments within the ten levels that comprise Chaos Theory. The checkpoints are also badly positioned; thankfully a quicksave feature has been implemented, but in retrospect the changes don’t always facilitate a more user-friendly experience (despite its easiest setting being ‘normal’).

Speaking of experience, Sam Fisher can boast of several moves added to an already bewildering stock-in-trade. Because of this, the control system can sometimes feel forced, lacking an intuitive edge and forcing a scramble for the instruction booklet. Of course, each Splinter Cell performance is reminiscent of James Bond; more fantastical gadgets arrive with each new script. Sam now has a scrambler attachment for his pistol (which can knock out various devices) and, perhaps predictably, a commando knife. Previous Splinter Cell missions could be approached systematically (eg, “no that didn’t work, I’ll try this instead”) until a successful outcome was reached. Perhaps in reply to criticism of Pandora Tomorrow’s difficulty, Chaos Theory allows for alternate ‘approaches’ when loading up for the next mission; the flaw here is that both sets of equipment (ie, stealth or assault) are predetermined – there is no Ghost Recon-like freedom to kit out as you please. Regardless of approach, the AI in Chaos Theory is responsive (but not overly so), and a tad more forgiving than ‘one slip-up and you’re dead’.

Upon inserting game code into the PS2, one can almost visualise the machine’s inner rumblings, perpetual growling at having to stomach ever more complex routines. The improved menus initially offer hope that the digestive tract is clear, however optimism – and optimisation – is clouded because Sam works almost exclusively at night (or dusk) – and Chaos Theory plunges the player into eternal darkness, with nary a speck of radiance that this version so obviously needs. Animation and character models are admittedly top-notch, but in comparison the surrounding textures are somewhat chunky and ill-defined (and perhaps indicative of the multiformat appetite which so distends the comfort zone of the Playstation 2). The arrival of Amon Tobin to score the soundtrack has been beneficial, as Chaos Theory boasts plenty of atmosphere (although the music somewhat detracts from the excellent sound effects and dialogue – including the in-game directions from Lambert – and the stealthy remit). Taken as an ensemble production however, there is a place for everything – and everything is audibly in place. If Pandora Tomorrow hinted at what could be achieved online, then Chaos Theory is the natural extension.

Offline, there’s the featured addition of co-operative mode, whereby you and a friend can partake in a bit of espionage gymnastics: it’s a thoroughly breathtaking experience in overcoming obstacles through co-operation and using the environment to your advantage. Played online, co-op relaxes its grip and instead promotes mental agility – knowing the map can often hold vital clues to victory. Again, played online, Chaos Theory benefits from the limited number of participants; it is a fluid and self-assured experience – and given the popularity of the title, matches are never too hard to find (although it’s perhaps too reminiscent of the previous game, and even includes many of the same maps).

Splinter Cell Chaos Theory matches the high intrigue of previous releases, and even throws a few new tricks into the rucksack. Conceptually, it is a journey worth taking – but with the next round of consoles waiting in the wings, Gamestyle anticipates not merely another chapter, but instead a whole new beginning.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

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Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition

Gamestyle Archive Intro: young racers were well catered for on the PlayStation 2. Midnight Club managed to tick most of the boxes in a very competitive field. This review is from 2005.

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The past few years have witnessed an explosion in car owners upgrading, tinkering or customising their vehicles – and the fact was driven home to Gamestyle as we contemplated this review. Taking notes from our ramshackle balcony, we observed that every second car that passed featured some form of enhancement, spoiler, or exhaust on display. Of course, taste is very much down to personal preference, but Midnight Club and Need For Speed have both tapped into a booming market – and this fact is reflected in our own neighbourhoods. Not everyone can own a Honda R-Type or NSX; instead we have to make do with the Corsa’s, Kia’s and Peugot’s that clutter up most takeaway car parks (or a weekly episode of Top Gear). Similarly, there is a widespread ambition to go faster, be visibly louder and have the best wheels on the road. Only in games such as Midnight Club can that dream become ‘reality’ – or semi-interactive.

Before the fact, Gamestyle expected Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition would be a series of menus punctuated by the occasional illegal street race, amid tedious links from irritating DJs. Thankfully, we were totally off the mark – as Midnight Club 3 is DJ-free, and somewhat devoid of the usual hazards which accompany the latest racers (particularly from Electronic Arts). The key to its success is immersion, and simply granting players the freedom to do what they want, when they want. Being able to cruise through city streets (from three available cities), casually exploring – without any intervention or goading from the designers – takes Gamestyle back to the erstwhile days of the Spectrum classic, Turbo Esprit, whereby you could peacefully graze the urban landscape (albeit with the intention of locating hidden items scattered across the map).

Rockstar have torn a page from Codemasters’ Book of TOCA, by creating an anonymous driver who starts from the bottom and works his way up: there isn’t a real focus on story, but in-game sequences introduce you to the ways of the illegal street-racing world – and therein new teams, tactics and invites as your reputation grows. Initially, the city maps are filled only with wannabe racers looking for a challenge, but progress ensures that leagues, challenges and club events unwind on a daunting scale. Refreshingly, not all of these are based around standard race formats (eg, there are many time challenges), but every finish is rewarded with cash – and in this game cash equals further upgrades (or even a new set of wheels). The races themselves are nicely-varied, making good use of the chosen cities, and hurtle you past landmarks like some frenzied (or insane) tourist.

Many races are open only to a specific type of car (eg, muscle, bike, truck or luxury sedan); this prevents you from having one car that beats them all, and each category comes with its own special move – such as the Zone or Agro. The handling leans towards an arcade model, with speed being highly-favoured (and nitro boosts for those who want to live on the edge) – however, opponents can often shrug off collisions and avoid city traffic with ease (thus leading to difficulty spikes later on). And then of course there are police cars, which only seem to be interested in your illegal street driving – despite the presence of five other tearaways on the field. Should aggression boil over, there’s always the option of relinquishing your race and taking time out to savour the metropolitan ambience from a quiet vantage point.

Releases of this calibre are musically geared towards the ‘bling’ sector, and Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition has the largest range of songs for any videogame (the music credits are eight pages long in the instruction booklet). Rockstar has avoided alienating players by including an eclectic selection of artists: street prophets will be happy that 50 Cent and The Game are featured, but others can warm to the sounds of Kasabian, Ash, Queens of the Stone Age and Idlewild. All can be easily cycled via the D-pad – and yes, there’s no DJ. Naturally, there are other modes to enjoy: Arcade allows you to partake in a variety of games and practice circuits from the Career mode. The Race Editor allows you to create your own circuits by exploring the city and letting your imagination run riot – Rockstar San Diego has left all manner of shortcuts and jumps within cities for you to appreciate, and everything is bundled up with some deliciously-detailed graphics, a steady framerate, excellent speed blur and lighting effects, and next to no loading times.

However, the game’s most verdant feature is the network function, wherein Rockstar have sown the seeds for an online community. Previous online-enabled PS2 releases have been somewhat middling for users who have opted to go online; Gamestyle’s own time with Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition has confirmed a turnaround in fortunes – buddies and racing clubs are actively encouraged, whilst finding and joining races is hassle-free. Opponents can also enter a match at any time, and the departure of the host doesn’t cause the game to terminate. Straight races will be the preferred option for most, and being able to parade your own urban monster online is a vital part of the attraction. With plenty of customisable settings, even some of the other modes – such as Capture the Flag and Paint – will become fast favourites (although Gamestyle much prefers conventional CTF games on foot, and with a sizeable gun).

Having experienced Need For Speed and Burnout on numerous occasions, Gamestyle can wholeheartedly confirm that Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition is the most complete – and satisfying – package to date. This edition will remain the pinnacle of the genre for some time to come, and can proudly stand alongside anything else on four wheels on any system.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10