Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Chaos Theory
Grimly, I pulled on either end of the wire. His feet raised off the ground as he scrabbled at a tightened neck for only a second or two. Between the sheets of rain, I supported the uniformed Cuban, lowering his corpse into the darkened foliage. Sullenly, I loped towards his terrified partner; blind in the darkness.
Actually that’s a little harsh. I could have whistled, drawing one in as he remarked to himself, “that’s a nice sound, I wonder who’s making it?” Or thrown a rock into his face, or dashed headlong at them both, slitting throats and dodging the AK fire. You see, in the third outing of the popular multi-platform stealth game, Splinter Cell - the variety of ways to confront your enemies has been expanded.
“Yeah, but come on”, I hear you cry. “We expect that. That comes as standard.” I’d agree with you. Alas, in these times of guarded profits and publisher control, innovation suffers. By way of example; the colourful DVD case sings the addition of a knife to your arsenal. “The ultimate stealth equipment!” It proclaims. Rather anti-climactic to think that not since the medieval Thief games has there been a development in plundering paraphernalia. On the other hand, perhaps in Splinter Cell 4 we’ll get moss arrows.
Chaos Theory is actually the best game of the franchise so far, updating and refining all the elements that make it the modern stealth trademark that it is. This outing features a respectable 10 – 12 hour single player campaign, a better version of Pandora Tomorrow’s original online mode, and this time adds in, for better or worse, a unique cooperative portion.
Everything about Chaos Theory will feel reassuringly familiar to fans of the first two games. The knife really is one of the few updates to the solo missions, and one that unfortunately, bears little consequence to the way the game plays. Remember how you could grab enemies from behind? Perhaps coercing out of them some helpful clues as to what lies ahead? Now, you can simply knife them in the back. Excellent. It even takes less effort – creep up behind and left click. As if Ubisoft aims to target the viewers of home shopping channels, the game could be advertised with phrases like “killing people has never been easier!” or “Splinter Cell 3: putting the corpses in your hands”.
It’s actually too easy. Difficulties range from ‘normal’ to ‘realistic’, so perhaps the designer thought this placebo effect might fool players; The default – ‘hard’, is nigh effortless. Quick save (now for the first time included in the Xbox version too) quickly eases the pain of the slightest failure, and lone enemies just need to be summoned with a polite whistle from the plentiful shadows for systematic eradication.
To tick a bullet point on the Ubisoft “What will sell us the most units” chart - ‘free roaming’ level design is another addition to the third game. Or, opportunities now arise to either crawl through a vent, or walk through a door. Being the kind of player that got bored of ventilation shafts a fair few hundred games ago, I personally went for the door each time. You may think differently, but never mind, because we’ll both find ourselves confusedly retracing our steps via the alternate route every time. Frustrating level design indeed, particularly when the map interface is almost completely useless – failing to indicate where you are on it, or the names of the rooms you’re looking at. On top of that, the extraction point for each mission is never obvious. Trudging back through the whole map looking for the appropriate area quickly becomes a grind.
Well, it would be a grind, if it wasn’t for the spell binding, all encompassing beauty of this game. It’s not just the high spec shader features – although they help – it’s more the incredible attention to detail in the lighting composition of the game’s environments. Shafts of dramatic moonlight pierce stained glass windows, illuminating enemy faces in deep reds and blues. Rusting, cratered, reflective surfaces of aging oil tankers catch the eye. Huge soft shadows stretch lengths across mellow tiled floors, I could go on. All the way through, painstaking attention has gone in to ensuring what you’re seeing is an image of contrasty, colourful brilliance.
As such, half the fun is positioning the camera for the most cinematic of these compositions. Looming in the darkness ten feet above your enemies, your legs supporting you between narrow walls, before raining heavy booted feet upon their unsuspecting heads is always a good one. You might prefer leaning down from a pipe in the ceiling to strangle your enemies upside down - either look great. Unfortunately, these scenarios carry a sense of strict linearity. The moments for you to use an ‘insanely stylish context sensitive animation tm’, (also featuring the ‘pull-him-over-the-railings-from-beneath’ routine) are pretty few and far between. When they’re there, the opportunity feels forced upon you. The level design screams, “Here is the point where you perform the action. Non-compliance will result in less beautiful camera work, and/or less units of consumer fun - calculated by Ubisoft”.
Consumer being the manically operative word. I am currently chewing Airwaves gum, “The Kick That Helps You Breathe Free”. Advertising in Splinter Cell is shameless and plentiful. FMV sequences you should be enjoying the budget of linger on full-frame shots of the stuff. It appears on blimps in the sky. At first, I thought the packet of my new favourite gum was some essential element to the game’s convoluted plot tedium. Not so, although I thought I heard Lambert, the good ol’ boss/“wise black guy” character chewing as he explained how the world was about to explode if we didn’t get the right key code in some non-essential amount of time.
The multiplayer elements of Chaos Theory bring more to the table. A bit more. Firstly, there’s an updated Pandora Tomorrow four player versus mode. Besides a couple of additional items to each side - guards and spies - there have been some balancing improvements and some new maps added. If you didn’t get the chance to play this tense, innovative stealth online mode in the second game, it really is worth a look. Guards are armed with a first person view, guns, and tools like mines, flashlights, grenades and access to camera networks. The weaker side, spies, as in the story mode, operate in third person and have a host of non-lethal equipment – saving the deadly moves strictly for hand to hand. It works out as a fantastic balance, both sides having severe weaknesses and devastating strong points that, when used effectively, can leave you more proud of yourself than any high scoring match of Counter Strike.
Like when, as a guard, you equip motion sensors to see through a spies smoke grenade - gunning him down as he sprints and rolls towards the shadows. Or as a spy, crouching in a corner while a guard places a mine in a doorway. Equip camouflage, role out and grab him by the throat before he’s finished. You can even whisper victory taunts to his headset from your mike, limited exclusively to this position, before you snap.
Quite unlike the offline game, this one is rock hard. An ‘exam’ feature has been implemented for Chaos Theory, preventing you from joining the (tactical, restrained) fray until you’ve completed a demo map of the Versus features. Perhaps so as to not hold players back, the exam doesn’t quite cover all the subtleties. How well a match goes is usually in large part due to the skill of your only team mate, so being paired up with a newer player can be frustrating. But these aren’t points against the game. Its complexity requires some input, and if you want to play something that’s a pretty far throw from the standard death match and capture the flag rules seen in all games nowadays, it’s thoroughly worth it.
Cooperative play has been introduced too. If ever the shadows felt a bit lonely, a like-minded covert operative can now be invited for either LAN or online play. In a cutely homo-erotic fashion, you and a friend can now knife and strangle people together, playing as two lesser Sam Fishers called in when the crisis gets desperate. Cooperation really is essential; scale each other as ladders to reach higher places, abseil each other to lower ones, throw each other at enemies even. In their interactively limited way these set-pieces are great like the single player’s are. But again, the ‘insanely stylish context sensitive animation TM’ routine gets tired. While there’s the novelty of animating with someone, the co op specific flaws soon reveal themselves. Like radar, or the lack of. Losing each other, particularly during an online game where speech is often limited to typing, can curb both party’s enthusiasm. The maps are built for the mode, but they feel mostly rushed. Layout isn’t as tight, often with wide open, useless spaces, contributing to a sense that you’re doing something pretty secondary to The Man himself, prancing about on his own in the single player, and who is occasionally referenced. “He gets all the fun”, you think, looking at your black-clad partner, who’s looking back at you.
In the sound department, Ubisoft threw their money at music with effective accuracy. Drum and bass genius Amon Tobin composed the entire score, and it’s some of the best game music ever written. Not quite as good as his ‘Supermodified’ or ‘Bricolage’, but when you’re winching down a rope into a high security bank, with the lasers criss-crossing at the floor level beneath you and the drums kick in… Or you’re carrying the corpse of a guard out of another’s path as he edges blindly forwards, calling for his recently deceased friend, it’s then that the jazzy loops truly consummate your stylish-ness.
So we’ve got to the third game, and it’s more of the same. More style, more multiplayer, more graphics, more, well, knives. On it’s own, it’s the best stealth game on the PC by a good distance, with Thief 3’s lack of features trailing some way behind. But as a sequel, it’s painfully under-developed. In a fictional games industry where publishers were as insignificant and ineffectual as the additions to new Splinter Cell games, the content here could have been the sum of free updates for the previous game. Alas, in these times of guarded profits and publisher control, innovation suffers. But for how much longer will we stand it?
Eight out of ten