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.

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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

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