Combining the stealth, tactics, and action popularized in both the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon franchises, Splinter Cell represents a new Tom Clancy series featuring a single character instead of the team-oriented play found in Red Storm's successful squad-based shooter games. The title alludes to the secret organization players are part of, an offshoot of the NSA called Third Echelon, whose members rigorously serve to protect America using whatever means necessary.
Players embark on a series of missions to eliminate potential security threats by covertly infiltrating and destroying the data and communications critical to cyber-terrorist operations. The lead character, Sam Fisher, must conduct his missions without being detected or risk being disavowed by his agency and left to his own devices. Splinter Cell uses a modified version of Epic's Unreal Engine technology for its visual presentation.
Of all the games that have let you play as an action hero or secret agent, how many really made you feel like one? Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell succeeds where other games have tried and failed, casting you as a supremely skilled and outrageously daring covert agent who utterly outclasses his competition. In Splinter Cell, you play as Sam Fisher, a veteran covert agent working for a top-secret initiative of the National Security Agency called the Third Echelon. The Third Echelon employs "splinter cells," lone agents like Fisher who are granted broad freedoms to carry out their missions.
Fisher is a gruff espionage veteran who prefers actions over words. When he does speak, though, you'll pay attention, thanks to topnotch voice acting by Hollywood veteran Michael Ironside (Top Gun, Total Recall). Ironside helps give the otherwise anonymous Fisher a little character, thanks to his gravely, dark-hued voice and some grimly funny one-liners.
While Fisher technically plies his dark trade all alone out in the field, his team of handlers back at the National Security Agency monitors his every move, seeing and hearing whatever he does, thanks to some high-tech communication gear. These handlers equip Fisher, insert and extract him from mission areas, provide mission status updates, and even berate him for doing a sloppy job.
And if there's one thing that Fisher can't afford, it's sloppiness. In Splinter Cell, as in all the Tom Clancy games, the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Here, a dark plot unfolds in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where a decidedly shady character, Kombayn Nikoladze, has seized power in order to abuse it. Two American operatives have already gone missing while investigating the situation, so Fisher is dispatched to find out what's going on and then uncover and avert a global threat.
The trick is, he has to do it without leaving a trace. In Splinter Cell, stealth is your greatest ally. You have to keep a cool head, act silently and quickly, and avoid messy gun battles if at all possible. While it's possible to shoot your way out of some situations, you'll likely shoot yourself into even worse ones in the process. Too many triggered alarms, too much noise, or too many bodies lying around can all lead to Fisher getting killed or the mission being cancelled by his superiors.
Fortunately, you'll have plenty of ways to remain hidden since stealth is the central and overriding focus of the whole game. Normally, that very thought can evoke dread in gamers who've suffered through the abominable stealth implementations that many action games have thrown in as an afterthought. Here, though, the developers put some real thought into doing it right. A visibility meter lets you know just how well Fisher is hiding in shadows, while the sounds he makes moving on different surfaces (creaking wooden panels versus a soft carpet, for instance) give you instant audio feedback. A clever fiber-optic camera lets Fisher peek under doors before entering to avoid bumbling into nasty situations. Fisher can turn off or shoot out lights and then rely on his night vision goggles to stay hidden while still keeping an eye on the bad guys. He can even "look" through thin doors with his thermal imaging goggles to see if people are in the next room.
Part of the fun of Splinter Cell is simply figuring out how to get things done. Right off the bat, you'll be thrust into an nebulous situation in the Georgian capital of T'bilisi, where you'll need to search for clues about the missing American agents, infiltrate the local police station, and more. You'll have very little info to work with, and you'll have to snoop around while finding your way through a strange city at night without getting caught. Fortunately, you'll sometimes find multiple ways to access areas, perhaps by shimmying along a narrow ledge or sliding down a conduit in an elevator shaft. Maybe you'll find an old soda can in an alley and throw it to distract a couple of the city's crooked police officers and then run past them.
In keeping with Splinter Cell's focus on stealth, you'll have all kinds of special moves at your disposal. You can slide down a cable from one balcony to another, peek around corners, climb low walls, roll past an open doorway, climb hand over hand while dangling from a pipe, and more. Coolest of all is the split jump, a maneuver that would make Jackie Chan proud: Between narrow walls, you jump upwards off of one wall and then do a split between the walls, suspending yourself high off the ground. It looks dramatic and provides a fun way to get the drop on unsuspecting guards passing below.
Along with the special moves, you'll get special gear. Your default silenced pistol isn't much better than a BB gun; barring a head shot, you'll literally need to empty four or five rounds into a guy at point blank range to drop him. Fortunately, you later get a futuristic modular rifle that's like a Swiss Army Knife of firearms. It's a silenced assault rifle, a sniper rifle, and a lot more. Since guns are usually a last resort in Splinter Cell, you'll get plenty of special gadgets: remote diversions, lock picks, camera jammers, and other high-tech tools will help you get the job done.
Really, it's not so much the gear that makes Splinter Cell so engaging, but rather the situations you'll find yourself in. As Fisher hides in the shadows, an armed guard might stroll within inches of him, or an infiltration attempt might go awry and you'll suddenly find yourself holding a human shield in a tense standoff. You'll slip through alleys, glide across rooftops, and outwit devious traps.
In one of the many highlights of the game, you'll have to infiltrate CIA headquarters to ferret out a mole in the agency. You'll dart from the shadows, knock guards unconscious, and drag them back out of the light before anyone can see. You'll brazenly slip past cubicles where office workers are putting in a late night and pull other stunts that will leave you smiling in admiration at the sheer audacity of it all.
As tense and exciting as many of Splinter Cell's moments can be, things aren't always so rosy with the game. The guards aren't too bright, often giving up the search too easily and repeating the same phrases over and over as they look for you. In the developers' zeal to get you to play a certain way, they won't let you do simple things, like climb through a large, low, open window or pick up a nearby fire extinguisher to put out a fire. You can't pick up weapons or ammo off of dead troops, but instead have to rely on your own measly supply.
Also, the massive emphasis on stealth results in a very slow pace that could easily turnoff a lot of gamers. You'll have to deal with some trial and error to figure out exactly where to hide bodies, defeat security systems, and so forth. Plus, some mission segments are just far too hard, making the quick-save button your best friend. The game is relatively long, but offers little replay value, and has no multiplayer component. Also, as gripping as so many small moments of the game are, the story is generic and ultimately forgettable techno-thriller material.
Splinter Cell's graphics sure don't feel generic, though. Often, the game seems to have been designed not so much to offer neat gameplay moments (though you'll find plenty of those), but rather to feature one visually stunning scene after another. The designers took every opportunity imaginable to use the play of light and shadow for dramatic effect. A glorious sunrise will illuminate half of a courtyard in a beautiful orange glow while leaving the other half shrouded in early-morning darkness. Brilliant light will beam through the chinks in wood paneling as you sneak through the dusty crawlspace beneath a walkway. A single humming fluorescent light will brighten bits of an otherwise pitch black room. Most memorably, as Fisher makes his way through the dark, you'll often see just the eerie green glow of his night-vision goggles bobbing in the blackness, like a high-tech ghost. (Funny, though, how the guards never seem to see those bright green lights.)
Along with the superb use of light and shadow to create memorable scenes, Splinter Cell features meticulously detailed environments and exceptionally rich textures. You can almost feel the rough concrete cinder blocks in a stairwell or the flaking metal on a rusting pipe. Character animations, particularly Fisher's, are often superb, again evincing the captivating little details the developers are so fond of. When Fisher's hands are occupied, such as when he's dragging a dead body out of the light, he can still switch his night-vision goggles on or off using just a cool flick of his head.
With topnotch sound effects and ambient music to match the visuals, Splinter Cell has tons going for it. It has a few weaknesses that can't be entirely ignored, but happily, most of your time with Splinter Cell will likely be spent enjoying all the exciting and immersive moments the game has to offer.
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