Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Alex takes us back to the beginning of a great series which all started on a cold November evening in 2002. At the time it was a hugely impressive from a technical and visual standpoint.

tom-clancys-splinter-cell-xbox-front-cover

Third Echelon. Your secret, NSA-sponsored government agency employers – they won’t acknowledge you if you get caught, but when you’re silent and invisible you’re not supposed to even be seen, nevermind captured or injured.

You are Sam Fisher, and you’re crouched, back against the wall looking down a short alleyway, you’ve got 3 rounds left in your silenced pistol, and it’s pitch black. There’s not a light source around because you’ve shot them all out. This wouldn’t necessary be a problem to some, but in this case you’re supposed to be breaking into a police station and you can see a figure just at the end of the alleyway. You can see him because you’ve got your night vision equipped – it reduces everything to blurry monochrome, but without you might already be dead. You don’t know if the figure has already seen you – you don’t even know if he’s hostile, but he’s definately facing you, not moving. You need to get past him, and with only 20 feet between you edging closer still would alert him for sure – every step on the wooden planks makes a noise you’re positive he can hear.

Thankfully, you’re a deadly shot with the pistol, and you’re definately within range – two taps to the chest or one to the head and he’s down – but he might not be hostile. If he’s a civilian the agency will pull the plug and it’s game over, literally. If he’s not, and he fires first, it’s the same story. You edge forward another step, sights aimed right at the centre of his head. The planks beneath you creak, just a little, and he hears you – calls out blindly – and you instinctively pull the trigger. It’s a tense situation, but it’s only one of hundreds you’ll have to face throughout Splinter Cell.

There’s a Chinese proverb that, paraphrased, says that if you see a snake and don’t kill it there and then, you’ll regret it later. Well, Snake’s dead – Sam Fisher is the new king of stealth. Ubi Soft, in a single fell swoop, have single-handedly rewritten the whole third person genre. Splinter Cell not only features the most impressive state of the art graphics yet seen on Xbox (and how they’re going to get it running on a PS2 I’ve no idea) and some stunning, atmospheric sound effects and music, but quite probably the most thrilling gameplay seen for a few years. I’m hyperboling, of course, but it’s all deserved. From the very start to the final scene, Splinter Cell delivers everything it was hyped up to do.

Whether it’s simply running up pipes or infiltrating the CIA headquarters Sam Fisher is a brilliantly controlled hero – the left stick moves Sam and the right stick moves the camera freely, with the triggers used to fire. X brings up your gun (and moves the camera almost to a first person view) and the other buttons are used to activate items, crouch, and so on. It’s a slick interface, and it needs to be because you’ll be asked to perform in and around a large array of buildings and streets.

Each level offers a variety of ways to get through it – it’s up to you most of time whether you opt for the stealth approach or the gung-ho shooting style, and although there’s not the replayability there of the likes of Hitman 2 you’ll not have any issues with starting the game all over again once you’ve finished it. However, Splinter Cell is much better paced than Eidos’s classic – you’ll be forced to run blindly through unfamiliar territory from time to time – something that really gets the pulse racing, but there’ll be times when you’ll need to take your time to survey the surroundings, watch the patrols and make the most of your technology.

With the inspired inclusion of fibre-optic cables, lock pick, sticky cameras and microphones you’ll never be at a dead end – it just might require a little lateral thinking. Of course, this is all in addition to the amazing graphics. Running of the Unreal engine just wasn’t enough for Ubi Soft – it’s a highly customised version that features the very latest visual technology – there’s dynamic lighting and shadowing, fair enough, but Splinter Cell re-writes the textbook for what’s possible on Xbox – vertex shading, volumetric lighting, texture rendering, per-pixel shading and superb shadow mapping on and from every item in the game. In short – it looks stunning. Constantly.

With a well written story full of the Tom Clancy magic, professional voice acting and convincing environments, along with great controls, stunning visuals and fantastic sound, it’s hard to fault Splinter Cell – there’s even additional levels promised – the US version can download levels via Xbox Live next year but we’re also told future missions will appear on disk, hopefully via the Official Xbox Magazine. There are a few niggles, though, sadly. There’s clipping issues here and there, Sam’s arms in particular like to melt through walls, and sometimes Sam tends to float a little above the ground, especially on stairs, but they’re certainly nothing to panic about.

It’s also worth mentioning that the game is extremely hard – and it’s not for everyone – you’ve got to be meticulous with covering your tracks, for example. If you do choose to knock out or shoot someone you’ll have to hide the body, but hiding it in a dark room won’t help because the guards will switch lights on, so you’ll have to shoot the lights out too. Ammo is rare, though, and you can’t pick up enemy guns – this isn’t a shooter and you need to keep that in mind. But don’t let that put you off – it’s won numerous awards, cleaning up at E3 this year and the final version is universally acclaimed, and we have to agree. Not only is Splinter Cell is unmissable, it’s also the second game worth buying an Xbox for. Halo finally has a rival.

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

Advertisements

Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Alex takes us out for a few waves and some Beach Boys antics trying to catch the rays. Trick based games were hugely popular for a while and this one offered a new setting. This review dates from October 2002.

Kelly_slater_pro_surfer_xbox

I like Treyarch. Their conversion of Tony Hawk 2 for Dreamcast stands out, for me at least, as the best game for the machine throughout it’s entire life. In fact, barring Pro Skater 2X, there’s not a better skateboarding game than the 2nd version of Activision’s flagship extreme sports game running on Sega hardware in existance, and that includes later iterations of the series.

Activision must, therefore, be well aware of what the boys at Treyarch can do, as they’ve given them their own niche in the ‘Pro’ franchise of extreme sports games, surfing. With their indisputable graphical talent and an eye for pure addictive gameplay can the Kelly Slater-licensed title live up to the mass-market appeal of the Tony Hawk games? Well, kind of. There’s no denying that Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer is a superb game – it’s tightly produced, visually appealing and sports the single greatest soundtrack ever to grace a video game (and is well worth the asking fee just for the music alone) – but unfortunately the very sport itself doesn’t quite ignite the same emotions as the rail and pipes of skateboarding. That’s not the fault of Treyarch, at all, because Pro Surfer is perfectly accessable to newcomers (partly due to a well-written training section), is perfectly pitched in terms of difficulty and thanks to the screwed-on suits at Activision, is marketed alongside it’s stablemates as being an equal.

So where are the problems then? Well, it’s not as straightforward as that because the only problems with the game are those inherant with making a game that’s little more than a niche title that’s only ever going to enjoy limited success (despite talks of a sequel already) compared to the likes of Hawk and Hoffmans’ games. It’s presented in much the same way as those titles, and plays out similarly too – there’s your career mode where you’ve got to fulfill a set amount of objectives (which thankfully, for the most part, stay fairly grounded in reality), there’s a set of multiplayer options and there’s a free surf mode too.

There isn’t a better surfing game around, either, so it’s not down to competition. Pro Surfer offers much more than the likes of Transworld Surfing because it has been produced with surfers in mind, that’s evident from the huge amount of professional-quality videos; 14 real-world surfing locations (and an indoor practice one, too) and some top-ranking names to play as. It doesn’t just end with fan-service, though, the game looks brilliant (and runs at 60 frames a second constantly), sounds superb and best of all controls well, meaning gamers themselves should find no room for complaint. The marketing proudly states that you’ll never see “the same wave twice” and to a certain extent this is true – every wave of every level looks different, and therefore your approach to how you’re going to tackle this particular wave changes on the fly, giving a fresh approach to the whole grounded extreme sports genre. They look fantastic too, especially given the liquid-smooth frame rate – the waves look like waves, from the break and from inside the tube, and the water around each wave reacts intelligently and convincingly, although they do sort of spring up from nowhere right behind your character.

The surfers themselves benefit from excellent modelling and animation, and they too interact accordingly as you’d imagine. Controlling the characters on-screen is a doddle, once you’ve gone through the training section of the game. I’m not going to embarass myself by pretending to know the names and styles of all the tricks, but rest-assured that they are both easy to pull off and highly rewarding when you start to learn how to string combos together – indeed, learning how to work the trick system fluidly is essential to scoring big in Kelly Slater.

There are face tricks, tube tricks (where the camera moves in behind you and provides a handy balance metre as in Neversoft’s games) and air tricks (including both grabs and flips) and linking these together builds up your special meter which as you might expect unlocks even bigger tricks, as is the norm these days, really. It’s just a shame, then, that it’s going to be overlooked. This is disappointing, as at it’s heart lies a superbly playable, highly addictive, intelligent surfing game. Maybe that’s the catch – it’s a surfing game, but please don’t miss out on this in favour of This Month’s New Game because when that wears thin you’re going to be wishing you’d picked out something with a little more lastability – something Pro Surfer offers in abundance: long lasting, enjoyable gameplay, much like Pro Skater 2. Which reminds me, back to Venice Beach…

Gamestyle Score: 8/10