Xbox owners have been enjoying Splinter Cell for the last few months, but it is finally time for the rest of us to get to play it. The PC version is out now with the GameCube and Playstation 2 versions coming along shortly. Despite all of the hype surrounding Splinter Cell and the critical praise it has gotten, it definitely isn't for everybody. It features the same plodding pace and extreme realism that all Tom Clancy games share, just in a slightly different format. If you are a fan of Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon, then you will probably fall in love with Splinter Cell after the first level. If, however, you aren't a Tom Clancy fan or you are expecting a "MGS killer", I'm afraid you are going to be rather disappointed.
In Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell you are Sam Fisher, an operative working for the top secret NSA group known as Third Echelon. To put it simply, Third Echelon marks a return to the classic style of espionage in the world. You must get in and get out without leaving a trace on any physical or political map. You are supplied with the newest technology in order to help you remain undetected at all costs, but also to allow you to kill if you need to. You are a one-man intelligence gathering force, better known as a Splinter Cell.
At your command as you progress through the nine missions are several moves that you'll have to perform in almost every mission. You can jump up and grab ledges or pipes and climb on them and you can also use zip-lines to go from rooftop to rooftop. You can press up against a wall to sink even deeper into the shadows or to go into narrow spaces. You can perform a double jump off of a wall (jump and then jump again to kick off of the wall) to reach high ledges. And you can also perform a split jump where you jump off of the walls in a narrow hallway until Fisher holds himself up by doing the splits between the two walls. You have to use all of these moves and more in order to progress through the levels. It is a pretty good bet that if you are stuck in an area, a wall jump or climbing up a pipe is all it will take to get you moving forward again.
The gadgets and weapons at Fisher's disposal are very impressive. There are a handful of pistols and rifles that can use both lethal and non-lethal ammunition, but you won't be using them on humans all that much. Most of the time you'll be shooting cameras and lights. The gadgets include a lock pick, laser microphone, and an optic cable that allows you to see under locked doors. Night and thermal vision goggles also play a very big role in Splinter Cell. There are a lot of mission specific items and other doohickeys that are all fun to experiment with. I never thought that the item I would use the most would be a soda can, but it is an excellent way to divert an enemies' attention.
All of the moves and gadgets are surprisingly easy to use. At first I was a little turned off by the fact you can't use a gamepad to play Splinter Cell, but the keyboard/mouse setup actually works incredibly well for this type of game. You move with the A,W,S,D keys and aim and look around with the mouse. To increase how fast you are moving, you simply move the mouse wheel up or down. This feature is awkward at first, but it becomes second nature after you miss your first jump or two. All in all, the entire setup works incredibly well. Aiming is easy using the mouse because the camera shifts to an over the shoulder shot whenever you have a weapon out. Using gadgets is easy and is made more fun by the amount of control you have. Using the lock pick requires you to press directional buttons to pick the lock yourself. The jump function is assigned to the shift key and it is the only thing I ever really had problems with. Once you get used to everything, though, it is hard to imagine playing Splinter Cell with a standard console controller ever again.
The gameplay in Splinter Cell is rather slow paced like all of the Tom Clancy games. Most of your time is spent hiding in the shadows and watching what everyone else is doing. In a lot of the missions, you aren't allowed to kill anyone and if someone hits the alarm, it is mission over. One of my biggest gripes with Splinter Cell is that you have to play though the same section of a mission dozens of times before you get everything right. Also, once you do get through a tricky section of a level, you have no real indication of where to go next. Luckily, the levels are designed in a very linear manner that only allows for you to go forward to the next objective. Of course, sometimes it takes a bit of looking around at your surroundings before you find the pipe you have to climb or the wall you have to jump over.
Also, the game is exceptionally difficult. The difference between passing and failing a mission is two fingers of a corpse hanging out from the "extremely dark" shadows into the "pretty damn dark" shadows. You absolutely must hide yourself as well as possible as well as hide any dead bodies as well as you possibly can. The game is also made more difficult by the fact that it is very linear. There is always one and only one way to do things, even if it isn't the best way. Like I said above, you spend a lot of time watching everything that is going on. A lot of the events, like a guard going on patrol, are scripted and only happen once you reach a certain point on the map. This is a lot of the reason why it takes literally dozens of restarts to complete a level. First you have to learn the scripted events, then you have to learn the patterns of cameras and guards, then you have to sneak through to the next set piece. You can save wherever you want, which is helpful, but it doesn't make the game any less frustrating. The key to Splinter Cell is going slow and learning what to do. This is a frustrating process, though, and some people just won't have the patience to finish the game.
Graphically, Splinter Cell is absolutely gorgeous. The lighting effects are very realistic and are a large reason why the game looks as good as it does. Character models are very detailed and very well animated. All of this visual splendor comes at a pretty high price, however, so unless you have a high-end machine you are probably better off playing the console versions of Splinter Cell. Even if you meet the recommended specs, don't expect a very pretty picture. On the machine I played it on, which was well above the recommended specs, there were some framerate issues in areas with a lot of lighting effects. Also, some textures would go all flickery and even turn black when I looked at them at certain camera angles. For the most part, though, the game ran fine and looked gorgeous. Splinter Cell is easily one of the best looking games I have so far laid eyes upon.
The sound in Splinter Cell is also very good. There is a lot of spoken dialogue in the game, and all of it is crisp and clear. Sci-fi "B" movie cult hero Michael Ironside provides the voice of Fisher, and he was absolutely perfect for the role. The sound of a soda can or a wine bottle hitting the ground is perfect, as well as the sounds of explosions and gunfire. The music in the game sounds great and will change depending on what is going on around you.
I have one more minor gripe with Splinter Cell that I think should be addressed. From what I have heard from people and read on Ubi Soft's own troubleshooting boards, a majority of the people that buy Splinter Cell can't get it to work after they first install it. For a lot of people, myself included, all it took to get the game running was to download the newest drivers for their video card. For other people, the problem was much more severe and a lot harder to solve. And everyone, no matter what the problem, has to edit an ini file to get it working. I wouldn't bother to mention this usually, but since almost everyone has this problem I thought it was worth calling attention to. If you have purchased Splinter Cell and can't get it working, don't worry. There are people on the net that can help you.
Overall, Splinter Cell is a good game that falls just shy of greatness. It looks and sounds great and controls very well, but the linear gameplay and high frustration factor can turn some people away. Also, if you are not a fan of the pacing or style of the other Tom Clancy games, don't expect anything different from Splinter Cell. If you like Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six, you will probably love it. As long as you know what to expect from it, Splinter Cell is a solid purchase.