In the past few years, the genre of stealth action was gone from a niche market to one of the most successful and marketable categories in gaming. Much of this was due to the release of "Metal Gear Solid" on PlayStation. Since then, many games have followed in its foot steps, and even platform games like Sly Cooper and adventure games like Legend of Zelda The Wind Waker have employed elements inspired by that classic. Perhaps for the first time, there is now a game that competes directly head to head with Metal Gear. A faithful port of the Xbox hit, Splinter Cell "ups the ante" with an even heavier focus on stealth, realism, and the potentially real-life conflicts that could hang in the balance.
Two things will become blatantly clear after playing this game for only a short while: realism is the top priority, and Sam Fisher is far more agile than what you’re used to controlling in 3rd person action/adventure games. Being based wholly on stealth, the game play relies totally on your ability to move undetected.
As Sam Fisher, a "Splinter Cell" for the NSA’s "Third Echelon," you’ll have to do whatever it takes to complete your objectives. Fortunately, the responsibilities and risks within this virtual world are met by a solid control scheme and list of abilities. As Sam, you’ll be able to crawl around in vent shafts, climb fences, rappel down buildings, shimmy along pipes and ledges, and even more gymnastic feats such as holding yourself between walls with your legs as a clueless enemy walks below.
The objectives are quite innovative and interesting as well. They can range from the simple retrieval of vital information to more daring feats such as trailing someone during an air strike on an oil rig to kidnapping someone right out of the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The variety of settings provides for some different and unique circumstances.
Unfortunately, Sam’s abilities and daunting missions are somewhat limited by the game’s linearity and restrictive nature. The straightforwardness of the game can often give you a feeling of simply making it from point A to point B unscathed. The other problem is the lack of freedom in dealing with many situations. Rather than having to deal with heightened guard awareness or finding an alternate escape route, if an alarm goes off or a certain mission parameter is not met, you’re simply informed that the mission is over and have to restart. For an agent being granted the "fifth freedom," you’re really stuck at the mercy of the level designers. One of the great aspects of the stealth genre is improvisation and dealing with the situation at hand as best you can with what you have been equipped with. That element of excitement is sorely missing from Splinter Cell. While this certainly makes the game more challenging, it often ends up feeling like a large trial and error routine.
While there is no form of ranking or extra objectives to encourage replaying the game, the scripted events and action sequences in some of the levels are so terrific that you’ll often find yourself playing through them again simply for the enjoyment of it. Sam’s many abilities will also give you opportunities to experiment with how you’d best like to incapacitate a civilian, or best exterminate an adversary. Overall, Splinter Cell is a very worthy addition to the genre.
A great deal of speculation wavered about as to how well PlayStation 2 would handle one of the most technically advanced Xbox games on the market. There’s quite a bit of good news in this regard, but a fair amount of bad news as well. The good news is that Ubi Soft’s Shanghai studio went out of their way to adapt the game to PS2’s unique architecture as best they could with the time given to them. It’s fortunate to know that this isn’t another botched port like Ubi’s fall release, Ghost Recon. The bad news is that being a port, there’s still a marked difference in graphical prowess between this and the Xbox version. In fact, Splinter Cell for the PS2 lacks a lot of the fluidity and flair seen in earlier games like Metal Gear Solid 2 that were designed with PS2’s strengths in mind.
Even with those things taken into consideration, there is still a great deal to like about what you’ll be seeing on your television. Splinter Cell features many realistic settings, terrific special effects that greatly impact how the game is played, and a nice attention to detail that discerning gamers will appreciate. Along with titles such as Metroid Prime and Shenmue II, it shows how the advancement of hardware leads to the advancement of the overall game-playing experience.
The strongest aspect of this port are the various effects and filters. You’ll find yourself turning off the lights in order to use the night vision goggles. This not only gives you a tactical advantage against enemies using only their naked eye, but it looks pretty damn cool as well. Even more impressive are the thermals goggles which first come into play a few levels into the game. You’ll be able to see enemies and objects based on the heat they emit, giving you a view highly reminiscent of the sci-fi film "Predator." Lighting also plays a crucial role in how well you’re able to avoid enemies. In many cases it can be more of a hindrance than an asset, as the name of the game is stealth, and going about your missions undetected is the best course of action.
Where the game suffers visually is in the areas of environment design and animation. This is should not be confused with level design, which is actually quite good in this title. The problem is that many of the game’s areas feel rather drab and lifeless. It gives the impression of the game world being more of a cardboard cutout that serves as a backdrop for the action, rather than being a vital aspect of it as you’d expect in the genre. As mentioned, the animation does not hold up either. Many of the enemy character models have somewhat robotic movements, and their actions and reactions in certain situations detract from the realism of the game. Fortunately, most of these problems do not keep it from being a visually pleasing game overall. The quality of the port is much better than the lowered expectations that many have come to hold to the major third party publishers, and Ubi Soft should be commended for their effort.
Gauging the enjoyment level of a stealth-action game can be hard to do, as it most often depends on a particular gamers patience level and willingness to replay through certain scenarios while avoiding that one critical mistake they made on their previous attempt. For anyone who enjoys a high level of realism in their stealth games, or any game for that matter, Splinter Cell will be a blast to play. The lack of any superhuman, mystical, magical, or enhanced attributes commonly found in gaming protagonists will have you relying on your own wits and the contours of the gaming world present like you’ve never seen or experience before. The game’s staunch reliance on stealth and unforgiving nature also makes it the marquee title for perfections would love a good challenge.
The new cut scenes and snow soiled level added to this port go a long way in improving the experience, but the lack of a worthwhile plot or interesting characters may disappoint some. Despite those minor shortcomings, the game delivers a great stealth experience.
After months of rumors regarding the quality of this port or how well it would be handled, it’s great to see that it turned out to be a very good product. While this may not live up to the quality of the Xbox version, it’s perfectly suitable for those who were simply hoping for a good PS2 version. The game itself is not perfect and there are some unfortunate design quirks, but it’s innovations such as the optic cable and reliance on stealth and realism make it a terrific addition to the library of any stealth action fan.
Former owner and editor in chief of Darkstation.com