The more games I play with Tom Clancy’s brand on them, the more amused I am by their politics. Despite September11th and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re still - still, I can’t emphasize this enough - playing games set just about everywhere but the Middle East. If Clancy has as much influence on these titles as he used to, it’s gone beyond an obsession with the Cold War. Now I think he might be covering for ignorance about the region.
Not to say the games themselves can’t be enjoyable. I’m absolutely loving Chaos Theory, because it has the best in stealth action at the moment, and probably the best sensory experience too.
For this outing Ubisoft has tossed a modified Unreal engine in favour of a new, proprietary one, and boy does it pay off in single-player. I’ve never seen so much attention to detail. The lighting is effectively real-time like Doom 3, casting sharp moving shadows over faces and objects. Those faces show plenty of emotion when it’s called for too; watch how an enemy’s expression changes between walking around, being grabbed and, say, being strangled. Rain patters on shoulders and turns uniforms slick. Animations exist to cover actions I hadn’t conceived of. In a tight stairwell during one mission, I saw two guards slide past each other to get by. Trivial, but most games (including previous Splinter Cells) would probably have had the characters ram into each other like tugboats until they took separate courses.
Audio deserves mention for its own detail. There are so many unique effects for objects and actions in the gameworld that it sounds like the work of a Hollywood foley team. And sound has extra impact on gameplay this time around, since many areas have an ambient noise level, whether from loud machines or buzzing lighting. Ambience can mask footsteps and even gunfire, so it’s sometimes better to run through a noisy, well-lit corridor than sneak through a dark but quiet one.
Back in 2000 I recall thinking that with all the sneaking and conspiracy in Deus Ex (by ION Storm), Amon Tobin would’ve been great on the soundtrack. I just wish it hadn’t taken four or five years for someone with power to have the same thoughts! Tobin’s score for Chaos Theory strikes a nice balance between spy-flick orchestrals and jazzy electronics. He does have better material elsewhere, but he proves that it can be worth hiring popular artists for games.
And yes, Chaos Theory is a game and not a tech demo, in spite of its gloss. Its single-player campaign is a rather lengthy one, with the methodical pace that distinguishes Splinter Cell from a series like Tenchu. Many situations in Chaos Theory are practically puzzles; puzzles with multiple solutions however, unlike Full Spectrum Warrior. In fact, Ubisoft has made a point out of providing more alternate routes than were in Pandora Tomorrow. Don’t move forward blindly like I did, only to discover I could’ve made things easier on myself through side routes.
One of the greatest additions to the game is, of all things, a knife. It’s so handy I began wondering how the first Splinter Cell made it out the door without one. It’s the perfect tool if you’re startled by an enemy, or you need to dispose of one permanently, without the racket of gunfire. The ability to kill silently from the front (or the side) would unbalance the game except that you have to be very careful about noise, darkness and timing in order to succeed. If you’re missing any of the three, the AI will happily spray a clip of 7.62 in your face.
Another new move is the overhead neck-snap, seen prominently in the box art. Curiously this doesn’t figure much into gameplay, but I suppose it’s easier to market than slashing someone’s throat. In that regard concerned humanitarians can be comforted knowing there are plenty of non-lethal options to play with. Airfoil rounds knock out opponents more readily now, and there are gas and smoke grenades, useful for some area-effect tactics. Heck, it’s simply practical to go non-lethal in many cases; guns and frags tend to draw everyone to your location in a hurry.
Chaos Theory is successful because it constantly rewards cleverness, as a stealth game should. The AI is much more of a threat here than in most action games. Every time you manage to grab a guard before he steps back into light, it’s a victory. It can be a downright intellectual satisfaction, something normally reserved for strategy and adventure titles.
It’s even more satisfying against humans in four-player Versus mode, but frankly, I suck. In my online experience I was barely able to score a few kills, let alone win a match. From what I hear though this isn’t uncommon. As in Pandora Tomorrow, the game is punishing on players who aren’t familiar with level secrets. You can brush up on them through guided tours in the “Visit a Map” option, but that just means you’ll be five steps behind the competition instead of six. Some of the people playing as Spies seem obsessively good. They know exactly what to do, and when, as if Pandora and Chaos were the only games they ever spent time on!
I really wasn’t able to test the new two-player co-op mode, unfortunately. The separate server browser for co-op showed scarce few campaigns in action. Deciding to host one myself, the lag was intolerable. That could’ve been my partner however, so I wouldn’t dismiss co-op as a result. In any circumstance co-op seems geared for people who know each other well and may (not necessarily!) have access to a LAN. The co-op moves require close timing and coordination. It almost goes without saying that this is a rare commodity on the Internet.
Leading on the down note, the worst issue with the game has to be advertising. Yes, advertising. I’m not entirely opposed to in-game ads, since game production is expensive these days, but Chaos Theory defines inappropriate placement. It doesn’t make sense for Peruvian seamen to put up posters for Aeon Flux and The Longest Yard in a cargo ship, especially in the quantity that’s present. In another example, a level in New York was clearly altered around ads for The Longest Yard and Axe deodorant. Dangerous territory for the game industry to treading on.
Any remaining problems with Chaos Theory amount to polish. The Versus and co-op levels aren’t as detailed as their single-player counterparts. The endgame is a bit ludicrous. There are minor mistakes in portions of text. The story has some contrivances, and some failed attempts at humour. Of course, this isn’t out of line with Clancy’s novels, so it’s hard to fault a game for it. It stands out in Chaos Theory precisely because the title as a whole is intensely polished.
On the basis of single-player alone, Chaos Theory earns a high recommendation. If you can conquer Versus or find a buddy for co-op, it could be a Game of the Year contender. All I’d caution is that its politics are...debatable, when you’re merging Tom Clancy and paying advertisers.