CC2K

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Stealth is King: A Splinter Cell Retrospective

Written by: Ron Bricker


ImageThere’s a new Splinter Cell game due out this year.  To whet your appetite for Splinter Cell: Conviction, read on as CC2k looks back at some of Sam Fisher’s greatest hits (and misses).  If you’re new to the franchise (or stealth games in general), consider this a primer for one of stealth gaming’s stalwarts.

 

As a Gamecube owner looking for a game in which to vent out my stealth-based fantasies, my options are very limited. Even within the “Big 3” of video game stealth-’em-ups (namely the Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid and Hitman franchises) only MGS2 and Hitman 2: Silent Assassin are available on the Gamecube. Splinter Cell fans, though, have it slightly better with all four titles available on the GC; albeit heavily amputated versions of their Xbox and PS counterparts. For example, there are one or two extra levels and extra parts of existing levels available on the Xbox and PS versions; furthermore, there is a wider range of coop/multiplayer options, although granted they would perhaps not be made the most of given the GC has no online capabilities.

I had never even heard about this game until about 5 years ago. I bought Hitman 2 and was expounding its brilliance when my friend told me that if I liked stealth I should try Splinter Cell as he was a big fan. The trade was made and the rest, as they say, is history. An addict was born. Not bad for a game that my friend pitched to me as: “It’s awesome, you’ve just gotta sit there and wait for a couple of minutes for the guard to look away!”

To me, this is the real essence of the stealth genre. I’ve heard complaints from friends of mine who are big fans of MGS and Hitman that say that Splinter Cell is just too slow and requires too much patience, but for me this is the beauty of the game. In Splinter Cell the object is to remain invisible using only your surroundings and your wits; from shooting out lights to creating distractions. Compared to the equipment that your character, Sam Fisher, has in the fourth instalment, the Sam Fisher of the debut is prehistoric man! The key weapons are the pistol and the SC-2K (an all purpose launcher with non-lethal and tactical projectiles such as cameras and gas grenades). Also available are things like flares and frag grenades for causing distractions or eliminating the need for them. Fisher also has thermal and night-vision and in SC:CT and SC:DA he has in addition a kind of electromagnetic vision for detecting devices which can be ab/used remotely with Fisher’s cyber-gadgetry.

The only other criticism I’ve heard is that there is a lack of action in the game. This is a fair point, but the game is designed to be played in a way so that no guard ever knows you’re there The game is not about action, it’s about suspense. The game engine (Unreal 2.0 for the first two, Unreal 2.5 for the second two) also works so that if a guard does spot you, unless you’re quick (either on the draw or your legs) you will simply be shot down. The way to approach guards is to sneak up on them from behind and grab them or pistol whip them depending on whether you need their retinas to get through the next door, or equivalent. If this fails, however, as I’m sure anyone who has played it will have seen, the guards pivot on the spot following your movements and rain fire. Death is inescapable, unlike in Hitman 2 where if a guard spots you you can often easily walk up and ice him. That said, each game does include a segment of pure balls-to-the-wall shootout action and there are often timed segments which are just as heart-pounding.  Let’s consider each game, one at a time.

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Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (SC1)

Ubisoft Montreal, 2003

I must confess that my knowledge of the story-lines of the games is very patchy as I was always far more engrossed in the action of the game, apologies Mr. Clancy! The game is set throughout T’bilisi, the U.S.A. and the Chinese embassy in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). The game itself doesn’t take very long to complete; this is just a fact, not a criticism. (In fact, with a couple of hours of gameplay a day, none of the SC games take longer than a couple of days). I would have liked the game to have been a little longer, but this is negligible because the game has such a high level of replayability as the missions are simply so much fun. It’s just the little excitement that goes off inside every young boy’s heart as you’re there on the edge of your seat, heart racing, sweating (just me?), giggling childishly, thinking: “I’m right there and he can’t see me! Teehee!” My only criticism is that there are limited opportunities to load from a certain point if you want to just go straight into a particular point in a level; although this is perhaps a little too much to ask. Saving is only available after each small segment within a mission, usually before or after a tricky bit (i.e. where you’re more than likely to get shot the first time round). The saving is identical in the second game and nowhere can I complain that you have to go too long without a save. Which isn’t to say that they’re abundant; they are placed throughout logically so as not to interfere too much or make the game too brutal. Also, within each segment there are checkpoints which once you know where they are you can use to your advantage.

As I’ve already stated, this game is simply a joy to play and despite the fact that it now seems almost crude and primitive in comparison to the third and fourth titles, it still retains a certain charm and is probably still my favourite to play.

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Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (SC:PT)

Ubisoft Shanghai, 2004

Well, where can I begin? I might as well get it over with: Pandora Tomorrow is frankly the black sheep of the series. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still fun to play and there is definitely a decent level of replayability, but it feels like listening to something by John Coltrane c. 1962-63 after you’ve heard A Love Supreme. It’s still good, and at the time you enjoyed it, but you wish it could be on a par with Giant Steps, Olé Coltrane or Ascension and Sun Ship. Pandora Tomorrow isn’t a bad game by any means, but when held up against the other titles in the series, it doesn’t really compare. It feels like the B-sides to the hit record that is the original. I know this might seem vague and darting around the topic to anyone who isn’t religiously dedicated to the music of John Coltrane or music in general, but my point is, aside from the plot, there really isn’t anything very new in Pandora Tomorrow. As I stated earlier: if you feel like a less cyber-warfare oriented game, it offers a nice alternative to SC1.

The game does however introduce a couple of the classic staples of the Splinter Cell games: the “ridiculously unfeasible close quarters” bit, as seen in the 3rd level and the obligatory “obstacle course” bit of the final level (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for Spoilers).

The 3rd level is set on a train; which, coupled with the fact that the point of the game is not to be seen by anyone, let alone brush past them on a crowded train, gives the game a very beautiful dynamic. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy playing the level very much, especially exploring all 5 sides of the train (top, sides, bottom and inside); but I just wish it took longer than 11 minutes to complete. (Considering that on average levels take about an hour to complete the first time through; and that’s actual gameplay time, not “real” time). The 4th game has a much more successful exploration of this idea in the (surprisingly titled) “Money Train” level. Here the train is a lot wider and on the “Elite” difficulty setting (where “Players are equipped with their knife, their OCP and their wits. The enemies will be merciless.”) Getting through it without being spotted by the guards is lot more difficult/fun.

The “obligatory obstacle course” is basically a slightly longer portion of the level which just involves Fisher working his way through the bowels of the building using all of his gymnastic skills. It’s surprisingly fun to play through, believe it or not, but it also highlights the real lack of mobility that 47 has in Hitman 2 by comparison. Especially considering in the non GC versions he can leap and scale tall balconies.

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Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (SC:CT)

Ubisoft Montreal, 2005

Playing this game for the first time after having completed the first two was a real joy. The level of detail in the background animation and Fisher himself is a lot higher than before and the game is altogether a lot more sophisticated. Although I wonder if it’s a little too sophisticated for its own good as I found the game to be a little glitchy in places. In particular, on the Displace level near the start the building has glass screens, the opacity of which can be toggled with via the OCP (Pistol attachment for shorting electrical objects i.e. lights). I would really have liked to have seen this work but fortunately the other levels are mostly fine, it’s just the Displace level on the whole is particularly buggy. Although there is a segment reminiscent of Mission: Impossible where you rappel from the ceiling (always fun!) into the server room which makes up for it. (In fact, I’d be surprised if there isn’t a “Red vs. Blue” equivalent of the Splinter Cell games).

One of the most notable introductions to the franchise in this game is the greater level of interaction with computers. In the first two the protocol was that Fisher would go over to the computer, you initiate the action and then Fisher automatically does what needs to be done. In SC:CT and the SC:DA there is a much more sophisticated interface.

Another big step in this game is the revision of one of the main criticisms of the franchise, namely the fact that Fisher would always have to take a linear path to complete his objectives, whereas Hitman essentially had free roam of the level. The path Fisher has to take is still essentially linear with the exception that in various locations you can explore around and find alternate routes, such as vents. I don’t see what the fuss is all about as the linear path system complements the SC series and the free-roaming complements the Hitman series. (Some people just like to complain about anything).

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Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent (SC:DA)

Montreal, 2006

Yet another breakthrough in the SC series is made with SC:DA. In this game you play (as the title would suggest) a double agent. Throughout the game you must tread the fine line between the opposing objectives of the NSA and the JBA. To be perfectly honest, this isn’t that hard a thing to do, but if you veer all the way to one side during a level you usually have to resolve this by finding the nearest computer or returning to your bunk to show your allegiance to the other side. This may sound like I’m dismissing the concept, but this is not the case, I’m merely presenting the facts objectively. The opposing objectives idea is a very sophisticated touch to the game which for the most part works well and gives an extra depth to the game. Most levels have two alternate intros and endings so there’s certainly a bonus to the replayability factor. The one frustration I have with this mechanic is that I’m not really sure what happens to the trust level when you go back and play previous levels. I’ve not been able to find much literature on this (although I’ve not looked that hard either, as it’s only a minor inconvenience). I’m often sceptical of in-game mechanics which drastically alter the game’s progress, but I think the way it is used in SC:DA works quite welll and is a logical extension of the Fisher story-line.

My favourite aspect of this game is the idea of the Elite (not 1337, thankfully) mode mentioned previously. This is a whole hog of fun! Clearly you can simulate this on the other games by just not using the relevant weapons, but when you don’t actually have the weapons it brings a new dimension to the tension. It’s the difference between having the safety net or not.

Again, the level of cyber-warfare is used extensively in this game as in SC:CT. The method of hacking the security access has changed and this time is a test of precision in matching up the waveforms.

The respective elements of security hacking in a way remind me of games such as Onimusha in which amidst the more implicit puzzle aspect of finding your way through the game, to get into the really nice treasure chests you have to complete a quick explicit puzzle.

I haven’t gone into depth over the levels as it would have taken far too long; I felt a much more abstract exposition of the games as a whole was much… easier. Needless to say, the levels themselves are very fun to play throughout.

Comparisons

I find it hard to compare the first two games to the second two because between them there is a vast difference in engine, gameplay, style, tactics, etc. Each game has its own thing that distinguishes it from the others and this is what I think has made the series so successful. Depending on your mood there is always something to take your fancy. In particular, a worthwhile point to mention is the rating system of each game and how it differs. In SC1 there is no rating system so you can essentially ice and pop to your heart’s content. The introduction in SC:PT of the post-level statistics is an incentive to keep the level of kills (and noise/light accumulation) down, but you still essentially have free reign unless directed otherwise. In SC:CT the only way to get a 100% rating is not to kill anything (except the designated targets), so this game requires ultimate stealth. And in SC:DA it really depends on which side you want to lean toward and again, with the Elite mode you can really flex your stealth skills.

General Points

As I understand it, Tom Clancy’s involvement in the series is essentially just endorsement. I’ve not read any of his books myself as I’m too busy pretentiously poring/pawing my way through “the classics”, so I’m unable to comment. Although from people who have read his work I’ve heard nothing but good things. The music as well sees guest appearances from renowned composers Lalo Schifrin (best known for writing the soundtrack to Bullitt and the Mission Impossible theme) and Jesper Kyd (best known for writing the score to the Hitman games). Essentially Kyd is to the video game world what Lalo Schifrin is to the film world: a damn good writer of “spy” music. They both used the respective contemporary music of the time to full effect in creating brilliant musical atmospheres for the visual mediums in which they worked. So aside from orchestral arrangements, Schifrin uses hard-bop to excellent effect in Bullitt; whereas Kyd draws more on Industrial/Electroacoustic influences for his work. I feel this complements well the way in which the spy-genre as a whole has naturally progressed from the “low-tech” police methods of the 60s analogous to the acoustic (jazz) music of the time into the realms of “high-tech” cyber-espionage and much more electronically oriented music of today. (I cannot stress the inverted commas enough, this is a very loosely drawn comparison!)

One final point I would like to make is just the attention to detail when picking locks or using keypads. The resolution dims and a clear image of the object in question appears for you to manipulate; you can see that and many of the other gameplay elements I’ve been talking about in the following video:

I really like the way this is done because it’s a faithful analogy to the idea that when interfacing with the equipment you are still aware of the surroundings but your concentration is on the object in hand. I just think it’s a particularly clever way of handling the action, as opposed to say, going to a new screen with just the object in view, or not displaying anything at all. It just feels so natural and at the end of the day, for a video game to feel natural is a great achievement on the part of the creators.

I don’t really know what to say in conclusion. But if from reading this article the game sounds even slightly appealing, then you’ll probably enjoy it so definitely try and get hold of a copy and test it out. The main point is that if you like stealth games in the strictest sense of the word (a comparison I’ve neglected to make is to Thief, although I’ve seen very little of the Thief series) then you will get a real kick out of this game. I would suggest maybe avoiding SC:PT if you’re new to the series. SC1 makes a great introduction as it features a training level, whereas SC:CT and SC:DA rely on training videos. Often when I’ve browsed the GC section (read: shelf) in the local game stores they usually have a copy of some of the games, so they’re still pretty easy to track down, with the added bonus that they’ll be pretty cheap. The only other thing to mention is the toll the games will take on your memory card. The first two are both less than 20 blocks, but the second two are around the 70 mark. So when I came to buy SC:DA, I also had to shell out for a new memory card. Although it was the 1059, so I shouldn’t have that problem again. I may even get some EA sports games just to flaunt my capacity!

Author: Ron Bricker

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