Splinter Cell Review
Splinter Cell is the first Tom Clancy-licensed game that really diverts from the Rainbow Six-style tactical action game. It is more akin to the classic Thief games, although the setting is obviously very different. Splinter Cell has already done very well on the Xbox for the last few months, and now an enhanced version is available on the PC.
In Splinter Cell, you take on the role of Sam Fisher. Fisher is returning to the National Security Agency and is set to go on several covert missions in order to gain information on (and stop) terrorist attacks by Georgia, a nation that spawned from the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The game uses a highly modified version of the Unreal engine that does some of the fancy lighting and shadows that the DOOM 3 engine is set to do, along with some brand new special effects that haven't really been seen before. The lighting effects are a bit more subtle here, though, and I can imagine that the frame rate hit isn't so big as it might be in DOOM 3. Still, lighting and shadows are done in a pretty realistic way, and the game does take specific efforts to show them off in several ways. On top of that, shadows are very important for the gameplay here, so you can bet that there's a practical reason for having the nice eye candy.
Splinter Cell does have a few drawbacks, though; many of those extra-cool lighting effects have to be turned off if you aren't running a top-of-the-line computer. The recommended system specs don't necessarily mean you will get all the features, and many computers' video cards today also don't support the game's impressive lighting system. The game will still work, of course, but a good chunk of the eye candy is getting cut out completely on many people's computers. Even with a GeForce 2 GTS video card, the game would only run in 640x480, period. For these reasons, it is difficult to recommend the game to someone who owns a slower computer as well as an Xbox - the Xbox version is going to be superior.
There are some other technical issues as well. There was a patch available the first day the game shipped, which to me seems a bit disconcerting. The big problem, though, is that even the best video cards out there will not run this game correctly with Full Screen Antialiasing turned on. Having FSAA on means that any light source in the game will shine through any opaque objects - it is a simple visual problem but it makes the game completely unplayable like this.
Even though this was known to the developers, it was never mentioned anywhere in the game or in a readme file that I saw - the readme does recommend offhand that players use "Application Preference" in the control panel for your video card (which would fix the problem in most cases), but that is not enough. They needed to put a big notification somewhere: "This game doesn't work with FSAA yet! Turn it off!" I am curious as to how many people will try to return the game, try updating their video drivers, or go to more drastic measures thinking it is their computer's problem.
Ubi Soft had to make a few changes from the Xbox version in order to make the PC version of Splinter Cell work. The speed at which you walk or run is very important, and since an analog stick is simply not practical on the PC along with all the other controls you need, they instead set the mouse wheel movements to pick the speed at which you move. At first, I didn't like the system, preferring the Xbox stick controls. But after a little while, I found the PC version better - I can pick a specific speed and don't have to worry about accidentally making a loud misstep (which in some cases can end a mission easily) with a slip of the thumb.
All the other controls you want are here - while Splinter Cell is a third-person game, the mouse is integrated just right for aiming at stuff or merely spinning your view around. All keys can be rebound, and everything works perfectly.
Splinter Cell is most definitely a graphically impressive game - it doesn't sport super-high resolutions or extreme frame rates, but it does pile on the special effects along with some pretty detailed environments. This is definitely a game that can show off some cool DirectX 8 features in style - minus the FSAA, that is. Add on to this the two extra visors (thermal and nightvision) you can use, and there is a whole range of special effects that have never been done the same way in a game before.
Many of the levels you will sneak through are based somewhat on real-world locations, with lots of little things to add to the immersion and detail. Enemies generally look and move well, although there are still the requisite robotic-looking animations and other tiny visual inconsistencies. This generally hasn't been a big deal before, but with game developers trying to make everything look so realistic, more attention needs to be paid to the little things.
Of course, Ubi Soft spent the most time making Sam Fisher himself look and move great. There are a ton of animations here, all of which look pretty appropriate for the stuff he does in-game. Considering his gruff style, I expected his character to be a lot more boring than he turned out to actually be.
Splinter Cell is laid out in a mission-based format where you will be required to infiltrate some sort of facility, plant or steal some sort of item or info, and get out. The missions commonly feel much more dynamic than that, though, as the story will sometimes abruptly change and your mission objectives will change as a result. In truth, it is all linear, and there are no branching storylines here; the first time through, though, it feels much more open.
Anyone who likes stealthy games is going to find this one at least partly interesting. Unlike the Hitman or games, your goal is rarely to assassinate specific people, and there rarely is there an option to just go all-out with guns blazing in order to finish the mission. While Splinter Cell forces you to use stealth much more often, it is a bit easier to get yourself out of trouble than other stealth games. Some missions will require you not to kill anyone, but there are other means of taking them out as well.
There aren't a lot of weapons in Splinter Cell - you will start off with a silenced pistol, and eventually will move to a silenced assault rifle. There are a few grenade types, as well as wall mines. What is lacking in weapons is made up for with high-tech gadgets, though - the rifle has a few different non-lethal "attachments" you can fire, which make it more useful in the "don't kill anyone" stages. Most of these fancy toys are not required most of the time in order to beat a mission, but they are fun to use. On top of that, the rifle has a scope which you can use to snipe with - you even have to hold your breath to steady the gun and get an accurate shot. That's a nice touch.
Fisher has the ability to rappel down a certain few objects, shimmy along horizontal pipes, hang off of ledges Tomb Raider style, and more - the thing is, with such a detailed world, there are always going to be places that you think you might be able to go but can't. Ubi Soft deals with these situations satisfactorily most of the time, by blocking passages you aren't supposed to use correctly. Sometimes it isn't so obvious, and you wonder why Fisher can't hop over a four foot window ledge to get inside a building or something. Stuff like this kills a bit of the game's immersion and makes the game feel like you are being led down a specific path.
Thankfully, Ubi Soft has made sure to put a full PC-style save system in here. Quickloads and Quicksaves are pretty zippy, and you can use as many of them as you want. To contrast, the Xbox version only saved in certain spots, and it did it automatically for you - even if you didn't actually want to save, and you couldn't save at the same spot multiple times. Sure, this PC system can be abused somewhat and can make the game too easy, but the option is left to the player this way.
The story here will unfold via conversations over your earpiece, and between missions, cinematic cutscenes will play that show a world-view of what is going on (generally in the form of a news broadcast). These issues narrowly skirt the type of problems going on in the world right at this moment without ever downright mimicking any real incidents. The problem is that I didn't find myself really being invited to think of the implications of my in-game actions or what would happen if this stuff was done in the real world. To contrast, the story in Deus Ex was much more thought-provoking than this one, even if it was more over-the-top. For this reason, I find that Splinter Cell's plot is mostly functional, but not necessarily great.
Splinter Cell is a pretty short game without a whole lot of replay value. The average player could probably get through it in six or seven hours, and after it is over, there aren't a whole lot of compelling reasons to go through it again. There is a "Hard" difficulty mode, but to me it didn't seem to really change much. To compare, both Deus Ex and Hitman 2 were quite a bit of fun to retry missions in, because there were so many ways to accomplish a goal. Here, there are a couple, and they almost always require the stealth rather than the run-and-gun route.
Now, there are quite a few ways to get rid of or avoid guards - you can just shoot them if the mission allows it, watch their patrol patterns and get behind them in order to knock them out, throw an object to distract them then get past or hit them, or use a gadget to knock them out. Still, while you do have this type of freedom, the levels are generally fairly linear and the goals are laid out the same. Any particular way of taking out the guards just wasn't all that interesting to me in the end.
That's where I find the biggest problem in Splinter Cell; it is very story-oriented, and while the game makes you feel immersed the first time through, going back to retry missions was much less fun. There is just not enough freedom to do things your own way, and in games like this, that kind of open-ended gameplay is really fun.
If you are really into the sneaky Thief-style gameplay, want to play with cool high-tech gadgets, and don't mind a somewhat linear experience, then Splinter Cell is for you. If you are looking for multiple ways to finish an objective like Hitman 2 or Deus Ex, then you probably will find Splinter Cell fun for a little while but not worth the full purchase price.
Splinter Cell's music is generally pretty good, and works with the sneaky theme well. It plays during key moments in the plot and also is your best notification of when a guard spots you, so it actually works into the gameplay. Sound effects are generally pretty accurate and the surround sound system works well. You will need to listen to your footsteps closely to find out how much noise you are making - it makes that much of a difference to have crisp, clean sounds.
The voice acting is a bit weird, simply because even the game's American characters talk a bit like Canadians. Ok, so it's a bit nitpicky, but it became pretty obvious that this game was developed in Canada with the "aboot"s and "soah-ry"s. Still, the voice acting is actually pretty good most of the time, especially considering how much of it there is in the game. I find it tough to fault them much on this one, even though I wound up hearing the same few phrases from the enemy guards way too often.
Splinter Cell is an exciting but short stealth action game - at least, it is the first time through. While the gameplay is somewhat linear, the gadgets are fun to mess with and there are plenty of different moves to do to finish the missions. Going through the game multiple times just doesn't seem very fun, though, so go for something else if replayability is what you want.