Few titles that make it over from the console world ever impress PC folks. That number is even smaller for what we consider "complex" titles. Splinter Cell is one such title, with its fanatical emphasis on stealth and realism, it'll charm all PC gamers, including those who have a snobby holier than thou look at console games. Its difficulty level is intentionally high. Completing a mission in less than a dozen tries is considered good progress and that's just on the normal difficulty setting.
The sheer difficulty level has something to do with the game's backdrop. It carries the Tom Clancy moniker not because it has anything to do with Clancy. Splinter Cell doesn't have the benefit of a literary lineage. It still uses that formula though, setting itself in the near future, mixing in just enough new technology and gizmos to get people excited and dealing with covert organizations that don't normally see the light of day in the current political landscape. That type of thrill is what drives Clancy fiction. It's also what drives Splinter Cell.
The splinter part refers to an organization known as the Third Echelon and its star operative, Sam Fisher. Fisher is a done it all, seen it all intelligence operative (I keep thinking of a younger version of John Clark) called back to head this new initiative under the NSA banner. (It perplexes me on why the NSA is being labelled as an organization that needs to head up human intelligence operations, considering the whole agency revolves around signals and electronics intelligence.) Fisher works for an ultra-secret organization to basically clean up political messes and do what the legally sanctioned organizations cannot do; including things like assassinations, theft, sabotage and other devious activities in the name of national security. It's called the Fifth Freedom in the game and works very much like the James Bond license to kill, except Fisher is much more cynical and doesn't drink martini cocktails all evening to get his intelligence. All of these privileges come with a price as Third Echelon can disavow Fisher's existence if he ever gets caught or becomes compromised. Like everything else in life, there's a trade-off for things.
I don't believe I'm leaking too much if I said Splinter Cell deals with the issue of terrorism. Fisher is sent in to the former Soviet republic of Georgia to liaise with CIA contacts on the Georgian governmental apparatus. Two CIA agents are already dead: the one originally placed by Langley, as well as an agent sent to rescue the original one. Fisher has to find out why and all signs point to the Georgian government and a secret conspiracy to terrorize the United States. Weapons of mass destruction anyone?
Heavily scripted, each mission is an exercise in stealth and espionage.
Get shot more than a couple times and Fisher will die. Get spotted on an electronic camera and the mission is over. Too many enemies killed means press coverage and Third Echelon pulls the plug. There are countless ways to lose a mission and by the end of Splinter Cell, you'll know most of them.
Being a single player only adventure, you would think impatient gamers these days would simply give up on Splinter Cell. But you'll come back to it and you'll keep coming back because of the number of possibilities available to you. Splinter Cell is one of those titles where you have to get from one end of an alley to another. While you might think it's easier to skirt around six city blocks to do so, the developers want you to take this one alley head on. Two things will help you do this. The first is physical dexterity: the number of moves available is staggering, including split jumps, double jumps off walls, shimmying and all sorts of moves specific to certain situations. The other factor is technological gadgets: thermal goggles, fiber optics, lockpicks, numerous surveillance and counter-surveillance projectiles, the list could go on forever.
By fusing these together, you can craft solutions to the problems that
Splinter Cell presents you. Besides the overall mission objectives, you can effectively divide Splinter Cell's guards, patrols, cameras and sentries into separate, isolated obstacles. How you get from one end of the alley to another will differ if it's monitored by a camera or a living breathing human being. Usually good old stealth tricks and careful timing will work. Proceeding cautiously at a methodical pace with quiet footsteps (versus running) and crouching amongst shadows means success ninety percent of the time. In sticky situations, where your timing is off, brute force and gadgets can help bail you out. You can knock out (permanently even) the patrolling guard or shoot down the offending camera. While Splinter Cell lets you shoot a high tech distraction projectile, the standby trick of throwing a pop can or glass bottle will also suffice.
There is a lot of buzz about the lighting engine in Splinter Cell. It makes the environments look all the more realistic. The way light bleeds through blinds and lattice fences is virtually unsurpassed. In a game where you spend most of your time looking for shadows, it's also surprisingly functional too. You can manipulate your environs in a way to make the stealth easier. Shooting out or disabling lights can fool live guards and cameras.
The amount of control you have in Splinter Cell over Fisher assists in facilitating this. With a mouse and keyboard combination, your fingers are always moving and the control schema is set up so naturally that every one of Fisher's actions feels like a direct extension from you.
This is tough to do with one controller, much less two on the PC. Some clever things like adapting the mouse wheel to control Fisher's pace (from tiptoes to a full stride) helps Splinter Cell avoid control issues in its transition from the Xbox to the PC. Still, where there are improvements in some areas, a few minor issues crop up. It's a lot more difficult to make leaps on the PC compared to the console version.
The attention to the controls also translates to the audio cues.
Splinter Cell has some of the best effects hands-down for the PC. In a game where you have to keep your eyes as well as your ears open, this is the sine qua non factor. Thief, before it, had phenomenal sound too. Michael Ironside's voice conveys a sense of weariness and experience for Fisher. He sounds like he's been in the espionage industry forever. This is the beginning of a perfect blend between Hollywood talent and the gaming industry.
In closing, Splinter Cell is a riveting and compelling espionage title built on solid fundamentals, an engaging storyline and an amiable protagonist. Even if you're one to give up easily on these trial and error "sneaker" titles, as I usually am, Splinter Cell won't cease to be entertaining. The need to overhear one more conversation, hack into one more computer and pick one more lock is something that'll keep you going into the night, and quite possibly into the early hours of dawn. It'll also guarantee employment for Fisher -- in at least one other sequel.