Players resume the tension-heavy role of NSA operative Sam Fisher for this third game in the Tom Clancy stealth-action spin-off series, Splinter Cell. A new kind of war is being fought in 2008, and information is the weapon. Enemies of the free world can now orchestrate devastation from afar, through such means as power outages and financial sabotage. The only way to stop them is with the same weapon they've chosen to use: information. Players must infiltrate enemy operations to recover secret data that can be used to prevent the enemies' attacks and leave them defenseless.
Chaos Theory boasts more fluid combat and stealth moves than its predecessors, bringing a new athleticism to the grim Sam Fisher and allowing quick, hand-to-hand stealth kills. As with earlier Splinter Cell games, Chaos Theory is also designed to push the technical limits of the consoles on which it appears, in terms of its physics model and graphics. Levels were built to offer more possible paths to their objectives -- and more opposition as well. Two-player infiltration is supported, however, allowing gamers to use teamwork to overcome the most challenging obstacles.
The PC version of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory supports both online and split-screen multiplayer modes, for both cooperative and competitive play.
From nearly every angle, Splinter Cell Chaos Theory is an outstanding game, a real espionage extravaganza. The solo campaign is the best of the series, and you get more of the innovative multiplayer pioneered in last year's Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow. About the only major chink we could find in the PC version is a technically problematic co-op mode, but that only slightly detracts from the fact that the rest of the game is so darn good.
Splinter Cell is a "Tom Clancy" franchise, so naturally the solo campaign features a globe-spanning techno-thriller plot. Predictably, the world stands on the brink of a terrible event, and only a few people behind the scenes understand just how grave the situation is. Set in 2007, Chaos Theory drops you into a tangled web of intrigue centering on electronic warfare and mounting tensions with North Korea. To save the day, you'll lead gruff super-agent Sam Fisher through a series of third-person adventures, infiltrating enemy-infested areas and using brains (and some brawn) to outwit your foes.
The campaign turns out to be the best of the Splinter Cell series. It might not feel completely novel now that we're on the third installment, but the story is a bit tighter and more dramatic than in the past, and the levels are the most finely crafted of the series. You'll sneak through caves on the Peruvian shore, break into a bank, infiltrate a high-tech high-rise, flit through a Japanese country home, explore a missile base, and more. Not only are the levels slickly designed and beautiful to behold, but they offer you more freedom than in the first two Splinter Cell games. There are more options for the order in which you complete primary and secondary goals, and you'll find more ways to navigate the levels and outwit the guards.
Once again, all the locales are cloaked in darkness. It might seem improbable at times -- bad guys can afford high-tech security systems but not a few extra light bulbs? -- but the omnipresent gloom forms the backbone of Splinter Cell gameplay. In fact, darkness is your greatest ally: just sit still in a shadowy corner and a guard will walk within inches without noticing you. A handy HUD meter shows you exactly how illuminated you are, and another meter does the same for sound, tracking the ambient noise level and the amount of sound you're producing. If you move slowly in a crouch, you're as quiet as a cat padding across a carpet.
While stealth is again your greatest asset and your constant background goal, Chaos Theory makes an important break with the first two games by easing up on the whole "remain unnoticed or fail" dynamic. In fact, the system of three strict alarm stages found in the last Splinter Cell gets mocked early on in Chaos Theory: "This is no video game, Fisher." You'll still encounter alarms that put guards on heightened alert or cause them to don body armor, but you won't need to reach for the quick-load key as often.
Chaos Theory also frees you up to handle more situations your way. If you want to gun down bad guys instead of methodically knocking them out and dragging their corpses off into the shadows, you often can. When you get near guards, you also get the choice of putting them in a sleeper hold or just stabbing them with the game's new knife. (Amazing that only now does our special agent get a knife.) There's usually no practical difference to the approach, so it's mostly just a matter of personal preference, but at least you now have the choice.
Even with new options for gun battles and killing, the focus remains on using stealth and gadgets to circumvent and outwit your opponents, and Chaos Theory shines like a beacon in that regard. There are a bunch of special acrobatic movement/combat options that let you glide like a ghost through your surroundings, clambering up walls, sliding along pipes, or dropping from a split jump in a narrow corridor onto a hapless foe. You can pick locks (or just bust them with the new knife, but beware of the attention that can draw), hack security panels and computers (a new mini-game with cool new visuals), or shoot out lights for even more darkness.
Before each mission, you'll get to select from three different gear load-outs to suit your style of play: stealth, assault, or a mix designed specifically for the level at hand. Cool new gadgets increase your options and make outwitting guards more fun than ever. In addition to the familiar night, thermal, and EMF vision modes, you now get a mode that lets you see which local electronic devices you can affect. It can also reveal hazards and can be used as binoculars. Best of all, it lets you hack objects from a distance. You don't even have to be next to a computer anymore; just get a line of sight on it. Now you can truly go right under the enemy's nose. Another major addition to your arsenal is a secondary fire mode for your pistol that uses an electronic beam to temporarily disable cameras, lights, and more. You'll find this gadget to be invaluable.
If your attempts at stealth come to naught -- or you just want to play rough -- you'll again be armed with the SC-20K modular assault rifle familiar to Splinter Cell veterans. You acquire attachments that allow it to function as a sniper rifle or shotgun, for example. To ditch any pretense of subtlety, you can also just chuck a frag grenade into a room.
As cool as the new levels are, and as varied as the tactical choices are, one old problem remains: iffy AI. Bad guys can walk within inches of you without noticing your glowing green goggles, yet when they do become alerted somehow, they can instantly spot you in a pitch-black corner and fire right at you. If a guard manages to see you in the split second before you knock him out, he'll magically manage to sound an alarm.
Despite these bits of hokey behavior, enemies generally behave passably enough, examining doors you leave open or lights you turn out, and backing up their buddies if things go obviously awry. There's still some guesswork and quick-loading to be found in Chaos Theory, but it's improved over the first two games. There's also a problem that too much time is spent sitting watching in-engine cutscenes instead of directly driving the action, but overall, it's a great campaign that both Splinter Cell vets and newcomers should enjoy.
Chaos Theory also boasts competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes. The versus mode is a continuation of the innovative gameplay introduced in Pandora Tomorrow, which pits two spies against two mercenaries in three different varieties of gameplay: deathmatch, disc hunt (read: keep-away), and story (with more complex objectives).
The spies are played from a third-person view, while the mercenaries are played from a typical first-person shooter perspective. As if that dichotomy isn't unusual enough, the spies are restricted to non-lethal weaponry (a big stun gun) and hand-to-hand combat, while the mercenaries get advanced firearms. Each side also gets an assortment of enhanced vision modes and high-tech gadgets, ranging from electronic camouflage suits to wall mines to heartbeat sensors. It's a lot to learn, including a new set of controls different from the single-player and co-op modes. Yet the steep learning curve is well worth it for the chance to play such an intelligent, challenging game of cat-and-mouse across dark, complex levels. The tension is high, and the sense of really being a high-tech spy is impressive.
Chaos Theory adds more to the mix with its new co-op mode. Here you get to work with a buddy across four maps, pulling off unique two-man acrobatic moves like forming a human ladder or a rolling flip where one spy tosses his teammate at an enemy. You can also share gadgets, heal one another, and perform other special team actions. You can communicate by typing or using voice chat.
Unfortunately, we could rarely connect with another player despite many tries. When we did connect, we were always dropped before play could begin, except once, where we got about three minutes of laggy gameplay before a disconnect. Sadly the game lobbies have been filled with numerous players reporting similar problems. (We contacted Ubisoft, which did not offer any comments on whether co-op was working properly or not, but only offered some general troubleshooting information, which did little to improve our test results.) If you're eyeing Chaos Theory specifically for co-op play, you might want to wait a bit until the technical end gets sorted out.
Chaos Theory doesn't merely offer great gameplay, but great production values to match. Take the audio. Lots of games feature generic, disposable electronica. Chaos Theory breaks the mold by featuring memorable electronic music, composed by Amon Tobin. It's full of ominous, off-kilter melodies and skittering percussion that help build the game's grim, high-tech feel. The Dolby surround-sound audio is richly detailed, from the tiniest of ambient noises to the floor-shaking boom of Sam's shotgun. The voiceovers of the principal cast shine, with Michael Ironside (Top Gun, Starship Troopers) again lending his gravelly voice to Sam Fisher. He makes great work of the script's little asides and dark jokes, helping Sam feel more like a real person than in the past.
Where Chaos Theory's visuals are concerned, you get more of the ultra-moody lighting pioneered in the original Splinter Cell. Incredibly stark contrasts and long, creepy shadows are the order of the day. Characters look a bit plastic-y, but animations are fluid, and environmental textures look as if you could reach out and touch them.
Splinter Cell Chaos Theory is mostly a joy to look at and play. It's a shame that the PC's co-op mode is so problematic, but it's a small complaint in the grand scheme of things: the solo campaign alone is worth the price of admission, and the versus mode is delicious icing on the cake.
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