Summary: Solid Who? What Snake? That's what people have been saying since being exposed to Splinter Cell for the first time a couple of years back. Now Sam Fisher has returned, leaner, meaner and with a much bigger can o' woop ass. How much bigger? Read on to find out.
Sam, his victims, and the locales in the game look even better in Shader Model 3.0 glory, complete with high dynamic range lighting and more bumpmaps than you can shake a dead cat at. Furthermore, the levels are impressively large, at least twice as big as they were in the two preceding games. Not only does this make the game experience more involved thanks to more consistent environments, but a fair portion of the levels are used to provide alternate paths to a route. No longer is Sam's only choice of getting past a guard involve either killing him, knocking him out, or tricking him with a noise - every now and then, the player will be able to find a new path. This isn't all that common, but it exists.
It is with a sigh of relief that we are able to report that all the voice acting talent is back, and the dialogue seems to have the same writers. There's a certain dry wit to most of the interrogations and friendly banter between Fisher and members of his team, but they are more than capable of spelling out the drama of a situation. We're very impressed with how much personality comes through with just the dialogue - Fisher is the consummate professional, so professional in fact that breaking into a heavily guarded mercenary headquarters is just another day at the job for him. It's consistence of the little touches that gets that across. For example, every time Sam captures a character to interrogate, almost inevitably their first words will be "who are you?", and Sam makes it a point to have a unique answer every time - to keep the job fresh and interesting.
The over-arching story is never delved into with excessive detail, the player really does end up playing the role of Fisher more than detective - most of what you find out is what really happened or is how it happened, not why. This slowly blends into a cohesive story, as leads are tracked down and key villains identified, their motivations exposed. It's not that interesting and is pretty Clancy-esque with its threats and twists, but that just follows the formula of all Rainbow Six/Splinter Cell games. Most importantly, it serves to advance the gameplay to new locations and set up some really interesting scenarios.
Given the critical success of the past two games, it's unsurprising then that the basic gameplay formula of Splinter Cell remains unchanged. Sam Fisher sneaks into places he shouldn't go, kills or knocks out supposed bad-asses like terrorists, mercenaries and government special ops agents, and evades the most advanced security systems known to man. All in a day's work.
In his quest to evade all detection, Sam will climb up drain pipes, hang off balconies and slide along zip lines. He can hang down from a pipe and snap the neck of the target below him, or employ the non-lethal option of knocking him out. Our intrepid agent can pull down unsuspecting guards patrolling the balcony he's hanging off on, and even wedge himself above a foe in a narrow corridor by jumping up and performing the splits.
That's what the game comes down to - the player must meet rather basic challenges set out by the mission guidelines, and achieve them with all the tools at Sam's disposal. The mission report at the end of a map will detail how many times the player was spotted, identified as an intruder, how many alarms were set off, how many foes were killed or knocked out, and so on. Most of the challenge on many missions is induced by the player himself - can you sneak by the defenses by knocking out or killing as few opponents as possible?
At various points in a map, Fisher might get bonus objectives and developments may force him even change his primary objective. These will usually occur as he hacks into a computer and reads some interesting emails, or overhears a conversation. Some of these conversations are quite humorous, but it'd be a shame to spoil them so we won't.
All in all, Splinter Cell does everything right - the missions feel close enough to the real world and the opponents are sufficiently human, yet the game is forgiving enough not to be frustrating. No one wonders, for example, why all 20 guards stopped responding to their radios over half an hour, and that's what makes playing the game possible. The real-world settings help in giving the player the sense of being the stealthy assassin. The level design is perfect for this, with constant opportunities of overhearing private conversations, even if it's just a couple of clueless guards bullshitting each other. Excellent action and the ability to puzzle your way out of quandaries on top of that makes for some truly magnificent gameplay.
There are two multiplayer modes in Splinter Cell - the familiar Spies vs Mercenaries style from Pandora Tomorrow, and co-op!
Spies vs Mercenaries pits the heavily-armed Mercenaries, who are generally limited in view modes and maneuverability, against the agile, stealthy and completely non-lethal Spies. So basically, the game pits your standard shooter character against Sam Fisher, less his killing equipment. Guess which is the more popular choice on servers. It's actually fun either way, but inevitably when you look for matches online, you'll see servers being at 2/4 population, every time. And that population is always 2 spies, 0 mercenaries.
Been there, done that
The singleplayer, which is a clear notch above other stealth games, continues in fine tradition with subtle improvements to both what Sam can do, and in the size and design of the levels. Though the story isn't particularly remarkable, the writing excels at interpersonal communications which radiate personality and really help establish the dynamic between Sam and the rest of the Third Echelon team. Long-time Splinter Cell players can be forgiven for perhaps expecting more evolution in the gameplay, though it's difficult to point out areas that really do need that kind of overhaul.
Finally, there is multiplayer, which has the interesting Spies vs Mercenaries modes, and co-op! Yes, there are only four levels of co-op and we're tempted to tear into Ubi for not including more, but on the other hand the mere inclusion of co-op play is already a major achievement. If only the development team would be so nice as to release some level design tools.
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