Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell
Montreal. City of culture. Birthplace of maple syrup eggs, Leonard Cohen, and more recently, Splinter Cell, a freshly unveiled stealth action game that threatens to cast the other two claims to fame into insignificance.
It could even be the game that unseats the current stealth supremo, Metal Gear Solid 2, of which a PC version remains unforthcoming. It's not a clone of Solid Snake's ventures, but it certainly hangs out at some of the same shadowy bars, along with Hitman, Perfect Dark and Thief II.
The big difference is, this is a Tom Clancy title, which instantly grounds it in an established universe governed by a certain amount of gritty realism. It's no Rainbow Six though; in fact it's a new type of Clancy game, one with more in common with films like Clear And Present Danger than with other Clancy games. It's third-person stealth in the grand tradition, with an emphasis on day-after-tomorrow technology, espionage, intrigue and politically charged action.
The story kicks off in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan has been invaded by neighbouring Georgia, led by villainous new president Nikoladze. NATO intervenes, prompting Nikoladze to go into hiding. He takes his army underground, scatters them into a terrorist cell formation and prepares to launch a counter-attack against the US using information warfare. Enter Third Echelon, an imaginary NSA sub-agency, and top agent Sam Fisher. His mission: find Nikoladze and scuttle his conspiracy.
Standard spy fare it may be, but you probably won't care how deep the plot is once you've seen this game in action. Splinter Cell boasts an enhanced version of the latest Unreal engine, with a completely redesigned lighting and special effects system. Like Doom 3, fully dynamic lighting means every item in the game casts its own shadows in real time, and Sam even casts shadows on himself. This not only gives the game a hugely atmospheric look, but is perfectly suited to a game based on skulking in the dark, with a Alike light meter representing Sam's visibility.
Furthermore, an 'interactive world ingredient' system means that every object in the map can be thrown, destroyed or moved. Apart from creating a more immersive environment, this means you can do things like throwing items to distract guards. Other stealthy tricks come courtesy of Sam's huge arsenal of gadgets: night vision, thermal vision, sticky cam (a tiny remote recon camera that can be fired on to any surface, used to distract guards and even release stun gas), and the very cool optical cable camera (the kind you poke under a door to preview the next room). Special moves include the split jump, used to span a corridor and wait for a guard to walk beneath, and 'forced co-operation', in which you stick a gun to a guy's head to interrogate him or use him as a human shield.
In fact, there's too little space here to tell you all the things we like about this game. Suffice it to say we're excited, and so should you be.
It's Been a long time since the madness last took hold. I thought I had it beat, but then again I kinda knew that was rubbish. Sooner or later it comes knock, knock, knockin' again, and you're hooked.
You know when a game has got its claws into you. The sweaty palms, the twitch at the comer of the eye. You may try to fight it, but if you're a true gamer you just know. I'm not talking about just liking a game here, I'm talking about heavy, life-consuming dependency, when every waking moment is spent either playing the game or wanting to. We've all had our moments. The wild-eyed panic. The shakes. The one where the whole world around you starts to wobble and melt away at the edges as reality and game blur into one. When I was heavily into Goldeneye, I started noticing security cameras a lot, thinking of ways to take them out. I remember one day right before payday, dead broke, desperately flinging all the sofa cushions to the floor, hoping to make enough change for a hit of Street Fighter.
(Must get a grip. Got to maintain.)
It hasn't been this bad for a long time, but I've found something new, something better. I've just come off a three-day binge, and I'm hurting. It's called Splinter Cell. You oughtta try it...
Snap Out Of It Man
Huh? What's that? I'm raving? Oh, sorry about that. Must have had another little turn. I've been feeling unwell lately you see. What were we talking about? Ah yes. Splinter Cell. Yes indeed, it's finally here. Splendid. After all the hype we've lavished on this game in the past six months, we can all breathe a sigh of relief - Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell has arrived on PC and it's good. (So good, so very good.)
If anything, it's exceeded our expectations. We suspected it was going to be the finest stealth action game ever made, and I feel pretty confident saying that it is. And yet the amount of gameplay variety, the innovation, the brilliant level design, the sheer cool factor, add up to so much more than this. Though inescapably influenced by the likes of Metal Gear Solid, Thief and Goldeneye, Splinter Cell manages to evolve and expand the stealth genre and effortlessly meld it with other action styles, resulting in a pure videogaming masterpiece. Yes, a masterpiece. Some have suggested it may even be a little addictive. (Why are you looking at me? Don't look at me!)
Before you get worried though, I'm not going to just blather on aimlessly for six pages about how great this game is. I'm sure that, unless you've got the discipline of a Buddhist monk, you've already flicked to the last page and read the score. It's a big 'un, I know. And I intend to make every effort to justify it to you. (Unless the shakes kick in again.)
Let's stick with tradition for the moment though, and have a quick look at what it's all about...
Brought to you by the good folks at Ubi Soft Montreal, Splinter Cell is a third-person freshly recruited to the NSA's secret new division, Third Echelon. It's been a while since you were in active service (cue a short training leyel to re-familiarise yourself with the techniques of stealth and evasion), but you're still the best goddamn agent in the free world. You're brought into Third Echelon to track down some missing agents, but when they inevitably turn up on a slab it's up to you to find out who killed them, and what mass destruction, and you spend the rest of the game trying to avert a war.
That's your basic set-up. The rest of the game takes you through nine huge missions, each broken into several sections. You're in constant communication with your gruffly avuncular commanding officer Lambert via a headset plugged directly into your subdermal implants, with updated orders and other plenty of geo-political plot twists to keep you on your toes - but the themes and tone are as familiar as any Tom Clancy potboiler. Let's just say you're not going to find any giant, nuclear equipped robots in this one. However, the storyline is just grandiose enough to maintain a nicely cinematic feel throughout the game, as well as justify the globetrotting nature of the missions. It works for me.
However, Splinter Cell's true masterstroke is the sheer variety and pace of the action.
As I've suggested, the game succeeds precisel because it doesn't limit itself to stealth-based gameplay. Take the opening moments and see just how they ease you into things. You begin your mission in a darkened yard, lurking in the shadows while guards patrol streets and nearby balconies. It's a bit of sneaking to kick off, staying in the shadows and finding your way to your destination, which happens to take you on to a roof, down a manhole and through a duct to another rooftop. A burning warehouse is opposite you, and the only way in is by ziplining down a power cable and through an exploded widow. Then it's a mad dash through the fire, with hasty directions coming to you through your headset. Flames lick at your feet and rooms collapse all around you, and at this stage the game feels a lot more like Max Payne than any kind of slow-burning sneak 'em up. Using Sam's remarkable agility, the next step is to shimmy along an exposed piece of plumbing, make contact with an informant, then make your escape, shooting out skylights to clear the smoke as you go.
Move To The Rhythm
It's an exciting set-piece to intro the game, and while you revert to sneaky stealth mode soon afterwards to dispatch an apartment full of Fastern European thugs, this is very much indicative of the tempo of the entire game. Sneak a little, shoot out some lights, pick a lock, shimmy, shimmy, zipline, rappel. Down the building, through the window in an explosion of glass, zap two or three unsuspecting guards, hide their bodies, dash past a security camera then drop and roll into a corner where the safety of darkness envelops you once more.
This sense of tempo is key to Splinter Cell's winning formula - not only is there enormous variety of actions to perform, but it's paced perfectly as well. Just as one full-on stealth section with a strict no-kill stipulation is completed (such as a delicate mission to infiltrate CIA headquarters to locate a security leak), a trigger-happy assassination-fest awaits. Just as one frantic action set-piece closes (escape from an exploding embassy), it's time for a bit of quiet platform-style action as you leap, climb and wall-jump your way up a windy cliff-face.
This became particularly apparent to me because of the circumstances under which I reviewed the finished code. Deadline was looming and with little time to spare I played for three days solid, and finished it, barely (though I could have spent weeks more perfecting and exploring each level). Did I get bored, frustrated, fed up? Hell no. Because I knew that there was a completely new challenge around every corner, and that even if I was stuck somewhere (and Splinter Cell is a pretty tough cookie by the way) there's always more than one way to handle every situation. In fact, the developers assure me that only one or two enemies (usually ones with a part in the plot) actually have to be killed, and almost the entire game can be completed without firing a shot. (Better make that months to perfect each level).
The next stroke of genius comes from the game's many gadgets. Not only the number and novelty of them, but the expert manner in which they are incorporated into the game. Take the thermal goggles for example. When they first become available, they seem almost useless, as Sam is already equipped with Night Vision, which does a far better job of making sense of a darkened room. But then you find yourself in a sticky situation, stuck in a cramped ceiling on your way to ambush a group of would-be executioners. There is a manhole you could drop down, but the corridor below is horrendously well-lit - you'd be a sitting duck if you dropped down there, and you can't see who's waiting to goose you. Or can you? Strap on your Thermal Goggles and all of a sudden things become clear - three guards are waiting below you, just near the exit to your crawlspace, making any ambush close to suicide. Luckily the ceiling is thin, and before they know it you have shot all three guards without moving an inch. Even in thermal vision, the attitudes of panic and confusion as the guards are mown down are irresistible.
Cooler still, a later level sees you fleeing through various rooms in an embassy building, each one locked with a different security keypad combination. Only by tailing a guard (without being spotted), and using your thermal goggles to read the heat signature left on the keypad (and repeating the sequence from coolest to hottest), can you get through the doors. It's sheer brilliance, and there are around 20 other gadgets, each implemented in equally ingenious fashion.
Safety In Darkness
The entire stealth system' employed in the game also works brilliantly. It's similar to Thief II in that a light meter gauges your visibility (At 4, you're lit up like a Dutch brothel, at 1 you're a ghost's shadow). However, in this case the meter is absolutely reliable, and you can also create your own darkness by turning off or shooting out light-sources. Doing so is often essential in fact.
The Al awareness is also very high. I'm not saying enemies are hugely intelligent (they don't notice if their friend suddenly disappears from his post while they are off on patrol for example), but they do have a realistic level of alertness and a realistic set of behaviours once they've detected you. There are no vision cones here, no bizarre patrol patterns, no half-blind and deaf enemies. Where the Metal Gear style of stealth works very much as a game', with strict rules and each enemy encounter acting as a mini puzzle to be solved, Splinter Cell's style of evasion is far more realistic, far less predictable, and as a result considerably more tense.
It's probably also worth mentioning at this stage the ways in which Splinter Cell on the PC is superior to the Xbox version, which a few of you may have dabbled with already. First of all, it is basically the same game - there's no new material here. But the few variances do have quite an impact on the overall experience.
The most immediately apparent difference is in the visuals. Splinter Cell is so high in detail, and by its very nature cast in such starkly-defined shadows, that it's often hard to see what's what on the horrendous low-res of a typical TV. However, pump it up to 1024 or 1280 on your monitor, and the richness of the environments jump into focus. In the training stage alone, I was marvelling at details I never knew existed - the footprints in the dirt, the flapping of Sam's equipment pouches as he walks, the photorealism of the textures. It's a truly stunning game.
The second most important change is the control system. The awkward nature of the character and camera controls was one of the principal complaints levelled at the Xbox version, but with mouselook in place this problem evaporates. To compensate for the extra ease of play, a third has been slashed from Sam's health bar.
The only real difficulty you're left with is the lack of an analogue stick to regulate speed (and therefore the amount of noise you're making), but this is neatly mapped to the mouse wheel, where you can flick between three basic movement states. Certain sections of the game are made slightly less challenging by this (especially a sequence in which you have to approach and defuse some motion-sensitive wall-mines), but otherwise it works remarkably well.
Finally, an unlimited quicksave feature has been added, eschewing the checkpoint system of the Xbox. As always, this is both a blessing and a curse. While it alleviates the awful chore of repeating difficult passages of play over and over again, it can potentially remove some of the tension of the game (if you know you'll only lose ten seconds of progress if you die, where's the incentive to remain nervously stealthy throughout?). But then again, we wouldn't have it any other way.
Now look at this. I'm running out of space and I haven't told you half the things I love about this game. How about the fun of putting someone in forced co-operation and using them as a human shield, the huge freedom of movement and action afforded by the interface, the split jump, the sentry guns, the optic cable, the forced retinal scanning...? Or just the sheer level of polish and the countless little touches that give it that extra sprinkle of magic? Like the humorous conversations you're always sneaking up on, in which a soldier might be spitting in his colonel's dinner as it's prepared in the kitchens, or a Chinese cop might be likening McDonald's restaurants to an insidious network of terrorist cells...
Basically, I could fill any number of pages with praise for this game. It's one of the most highly evolved and well-wrought games I've ever played. It boasts stunningly detailed and superbly constructed missions, and one of the most powerful and gratifying ranges of interaction of any 3D action game ever. Far from just a Metal Gear Solid beater, this is a game that every self-respecting gamer must play. Believe me, it's addictive stuff.
But Who's The Real Sam Fisher?
With a game this good, it's only ever going to be minor things that could possibly have been improved, but one or two do spring to mind. For a start, the character of Sam Fisher could have been given a bit more depth, as could that of Lambert, his humourless superior. This is something that Metal Gear Solid excelled at, culminating in a moment of deep (if cheesy and overwrought) conflict for Solid Snake at the end of the game. Sam is a bit more of a one-dimensional damn good soldier' type who follows orders without question and gets pushed around quite a bit by Lambert, and sometimes you wish Sam would just tell him where to go.
Otherwise, I could mention a few minor things I found myself wanting to do throughout the game, such as throwing bodies out windows/off cliffs rather than hiding them in storerooms all the time, or being given opportunity to use some of the special moves (the split jump!) and gadgets (the chemical flare!) a bit more. But that's really just nit-picking.
We Want More Already!
Extra Levels, Sequels And Pocketloads Of Snarlers
There has been some talk on the Net about a number of extra levels that are in development, and whether or not they will appear on the PC. Having played the game to completion, we can say positively that there will be no new levels in the PC release. Disappointingly, the extra missions are being developed primarily for Xbox Live, the new service that lets you download new content (and play online games) through a large black doorstopper. They may or may not subsequently be converted to PC and released as a kind of miniexpansion. The new levels are at a very early stage, says producer Mathieu Ferland. So we can't really say yet. It's not as easy as people think to convert them across to PC. Of course it is. Get your finger out.
More promisingly, we can tell you that Mathieu and the lads are already bristling with ideas for Splinter Cell 2 (which is, as the yanks say, a no-brainer). We tried to drop a few hints for things we'd like to see in the next game, and the team seemed to respond favourably to our idea of a throwable stealth weiner' for distracting guard dogs. You heard it here first. Perhaps regrettably.
To get this month's Splinter Cell demo, our intrepid disc editor was flown to Canada in a Nighthawk chopper, lowered down to the roof of a Montreal office building under the cover of darkness and equipped with the latest in spec-ops hardware. Returning to the offices with a severe case of groin strain, an inability to open doors without first checking under them with fibre optic cable and a fear of the light', his mission was a success even if he was reduced to a shivering wreck in the corner.
While the system specs are quite phenomenal (you'll need at least a 1 GHz CPU and a GeForce 4 or Radeon 8500 to get it running smoothly at the lowest resolution), the wait has been worth it with the demo including the full second section from the first level of the game. What's more, from the beginning you're equipped with both nightvision and heat-sensitive goggles together with an array of useful inventory.
You start the level in a small courtyard in the dark and will need to go down some stairs to find a doorway on your left. Never, ever enter a door straight away. Instead, equip your fibre optic cable and use it to see what's behind the door. When you've checked that the guard has moved on, open the door using the stealth option which opens the door halfway, letting you peak round the corner and hear more clearly any footsteps in the room beyond. When you're certain the guard has finished his patrol, enter the room by opening the door normally and then peg it for the shadows.
Quite aside from the frankly gorgeous visuals, sound plays a key part in detecting and evading enemies. Whack up the volume to whatever your speakers (and neighbours) can handle and use the accelerate and decelerate controls (mouse wheel by default) to move around efficiently without alarming any guards. You can detect security cameras by the double beep sound as they scan their surroundings and can avoid most guards from hearing you by crouching and decelerating so that you are almost completely inaudible.
While you start with a plentiful supply of pistol ammo, you should avoid going in all guns blazing and to finish the mission you shouldn't need to cap anyone bar the guard in the surveillance block. By sneaking past guards or simply hiding their unconscious bodies, you'll avoid setting off any alarms and attracting unwanted attention. You can also find useful mission information by extracting data sticks from computers you find in each room, which can provide you with clues as to where security cameras are and where multiple guards are patrolling an area.
If your machine is having problems coping with the demo, there's no better excuse to check our Buyer's Guide and raid the January sales. As if you needed one.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode