In Depth Review: Splinter Cell [GCN]
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell has been lauded by some critics as one of the most thrilling experiences you could have in this gaming generation. How technologically brilliant its real-time lighting effects were, the depth of Fisher's many ninja-like moves, the intensity of trying to go through a game using your supposed non-existence more than your nine. It's fun to write lots of words but in case you're in a hurry, let me sum up the rest of what I'm going to write, right here in these sentences:
Splinter Cell is just a game where you play nothing more than a nimble, untraceable spy. And it's the best damn spy game I've ever played.
Note: stealth games have been around. Metal Gear and its numerous next-gen spawn come to mind. Thief, Thief II and its whenever-its-ready sequel Thief III. Deus Ex and currently, its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War. But to me, Splinter Cell has so far been the only one-hundred percent pure stealth game with the focused goal of making you as invisible as you can possibly be. One dimensional, it was actually called by one critic. Contra, I say, was one dimensional. Max Payne is one dimensional. And I compare this to those games only to emphasize the point that these games, all three, do their respective one dimension very, very well.
Almost everything about the game is crafted to near perfection to the point where even the aesthetics play a huge role in the gameplay -- something I rarely have the pleasure of saying. Most noticeable would have to be the visuals, where the (lack of) lighting is used to your advantage. The Xbox and PC versions are aliens from another planet, with their superior real-time lighting. But the Gamecube version makes do with pleasantly adequate lighting, which is necessarily "faked" in some places. It still looks good enough that you know where you can hide and when your a$$ is sticking out. Real-time be damned, Ubi Soft did such a job that this is one of the few times I will say that merely Good Enough is definitely more than enough. (Please, withhold the numerous potential "fake" jokes... let's save that for an April 1st review.)
The rest of the visuals hold up well. Character models' appearence and movements are very convincing, even without the use of motion capture. Fisher himself has many numerous poses he can assume, which reflect the wide arsenal of moves he has at his disposal. Also making it in good form are the curtain physics; they blow in the breeze and ripple to your touch. Textures are mostly sharp and environments are littered with detail; Ubi Soft made sacrifices with the Gamecube version, but if it already looks this good you can imagine how good the other ports are. Of course, rearing their beautiful heads are Splinter Cell's vision modes of night vision and thermal vision. The thermal vision looks stunning, however something seems amiss with the night vision; it looks too muddy compared with the superior-looking versions, and the framerate takes a swan dive in this mode. Simply a nitpick, however. On the whole, the visual package delivers in spades, and really makes you consider where you should hide and move Fisher in planning your ambush.
Complementing the great graphics are superb sound effects and ambient noises. It's a privilege to be able to hear where your enemies are and how they are moving. It can also work against you as you try to hide in the brush, or attempt to sneak over a room littered with broken glass and stray sheets of paper. All in the name of realism -- and because such rich realism is appropriate for this type of game's aesthetics, I approve.
Also of note is the voice acting. Unfortunately, foreign characters are done with hammy accents and English instead of native foreign languages with subtitles, but other than that it is well acted. Of special note, Michael Ironside is fantastic as Sam Fisher, with a signature growl more intimidating than Solid Snake's and more convincing than J.C. Denton's.
The music, while light on substance, is very appropriate for the game. None of the "tunes" are tunes per se, and they aren't incredibly memorable. But they provide the perfect atmosphere for your job, which is supposed to be silent anyways. It changes dynamically to suit your situation -- so if a guard becomes alerted to something odd, it will switch to a suspensful, curious theme. Get caught red-handed, and a chase will ensue, accompanied by a fast, tense beat.
Finally we come to what matters most in Splinter Cell -- the gameplay. As far as control goes, Fisher can stand and crouch, run, walk and creep in both positions, wall jump, rappell, slide down poles and tightropes, split-jump and suspend himself, tuck-and-roll, hang on ledges, creep with his back to the wall, knock baddies unconscious, shoot baddies dead, pick up and hide bodies, grab baddies and use them as human shields, interrogate baddies, use baddies for retinal scanners, take a leak on baddies (just kidding) ... did I miss anything? All of these actions -- maybe with the exception of the wall jump and split jump -- are so intuitively easy to perform, and Fisher responds so well to the analog stick that one run-through of the training mission will make you a master spy.
You should probably expect to keep the shooting to a minimum, unless you're a good shot and an even better runner. I spent most of the game taking enemies out with silenced single or double-tap (chest, chest / chest, head) shots, in isolated areas, or only when their companions weren't looking. I was too paranoid to try and alert anyone and get involved in a shootout. And really, the game is best played when you are a paranoid person: tiptoing around by feathering the analog stick, when there's an armed soldier with his back towards you, might cause your heart in the real world to start beating like a drum. This is probably heightened by the fact that you have to draw your weapon; it's not always at the ready, like a shooter because... well this ain't no shooter. Also due to the console nature of the game, aiming is done with the camera stick... and it's in first-person style. I hate most first-person controls on consoles. Thus I was encouraged to sneak even more. (Playing the PC demo of the game was a pleasure in that I could fire easily... but the keyboard/mouse combo sacrificed the fluid control of Fisher's other actions.)
The thing I liked most about sneaking around is that, in the appropriate situations, if you're caught you are TOTALLY screwed. That's the way a spy game should be -- you're a spy dammit, and you're supposed to be a ninja-vanish type bad@ss -- not a Say Hello To My Little Friend bad@ss. This, I feel, is where it differs from other stealth games in that I really cannot stand getting caught at all. I felt so inadequate when I got caught, even if I survived the firefight, that I'd start over from my checkpoint and run through the level again. In fact the worst part of this game, to me, was one action sequence in which I was supposed to defend an area against enemies and I was forced into a gun fight. I didn't like it. I wanted to slink around people and bop the on the head.
In an effort to keep the game spy-worthy I guess Ubi Soft had to limit the possibilities you could run through in the levels. The game is very, very linear to the point where one play-through may be enough. At times it felt more like a puzzle: ok, this guy patrols like this, and that guy patrols like that, here is what's given to me in the environment, what do I do? After much trial and error, you figure out: ok, first I have to do this, then this, then that, then this... and I'm home free. It doesn't feel such that you can execute one of multiple possibilities; I mostly found that at maximum I could go about situations in two ways to get away unscathed, and in most situations it was only one way. I guess it would be difficult to implement such realistic stealth action at that point in gaming. (However, Pandora Tomorrow, the sequel, is said to add multiple paths through a stage. I like.) It just feels sometimes that it's more trial and error than intuitiveness. But the spy action -- lying in wait for your victim, sneaking past assailants unseen, barely escaping by a thread -- is just so thrilling and done so well, along with the other aspects of the game that bolster the experience, that I can look past its linearity.
The biggest negative I would say about the game, over its linearity, would be the fact that it's over quickly yet a bit too exhausting to play over and over again. Of course, this is me -- the crown prince of lazy -- speaking. Having completed the game, I wouldn't be hesitant to sell back the game for store credit if I needed to. It's not that it's bad (why would you assume so, after reading my glowing praise?), but for some reason I don't feel the need to go through the process again. Like I said, exhausting. Sometimes a game takes a lot out of you, so that you don't really want to see it again for a long time. Perhaps in a year or so I will want to go back and play it again, but not right now.
With that said, Splinter Cell is so finely crafted in every aspect, except maybe the suspect story (I didn't pay much attention to it, and the game's so good it doesn't matter), that my own personal lack of replay desire doesn't blind me to the fact that this game deserves my acclaim. Ubi Soft even went out and "made up" for the fact that they had to cripple some levels for the PS2 and Cube versions by adding console exclusives. The PS2 version gets an extra level right out of the box, but the more impressive Cube version links up to the Gameboy Advance for special features. Because I'm a chicken$hit, the feature I valued the most was the radar. Yeah yeah, I know, what kind of hardcore spy uses a radar. But the feature is way cool. You're given a small layout of the section of the map you're in, yet you can't exactly see everything -- you're limited to a small radius around you. By pressing the B button on your GBA, you "scan" the area: in other words the radius broadens to show more of the area, and begins to shrink. This keeps the feature from being unfair and the game from being too easy. Another feature is the Sticky Bomb weapon. Pick these babies up and chuck them onto a wall, and go about the rest of your business. If you spot an enemy nearing the bomb on the wall (you can also see it on your radar), you can activate it with your GBA button and the enemy meets his maker.
Splinter Cell's linearity is made up for by its shining production values. Its limitations on Gamecube are made up for by the extra GBA link features Ubi Soft crafted for it. Its lack of replay value (well, for me, and only for now) is made up for by the fact that my only playthrough was astounding. Its story, well... I couldn't care less if the story was the worst in the world. Splinter Cell can be improved upon... but already it's a marvelous achievement and I can only recommend it as a must-play on the Gamecube (or your platform of choice).
What Others Thought
GameSpot: 8.4 out of 10
"One of the most popular, most successful, and best looking games for Microsoft's Xbox is now on the GameCube, and in some respects it's better than the original. ... Splinter Cell for the GameCube is a relatively short single-player-only game consisting of heavily scripted missions that can sometimes turn into trial-and-error exercises that undermine the game's otherwise pervasive sense of suspense. The graphics have also lost some of their luster in translation, though some worthwhile new features and gameplay tweaks make Splinter Cell for the GameCube more than just a watered down Xbox port. And at its core, it's a great action game, one that's already met with tremendous acclaim."
IGN Cube: 9.1 out of 10
"Ubi Soft's Shanghai team definitely cut some technical corners in porting the title to Nintendo's console, and the results are visible, but not necessarily obvious. Splinter Cell on GameCube is still a very pretty game and every bit as fun as it ever was. In fact, thanks to the new gameplay polishing and Game Boy Advance connectivity enhancements, it might even be just a tiny bit more fun for some Nintendo gamers, myself included. Is it less pretty? Sure. But for those who have no other gaming alternatives, you could certainly do a lot worse."
Game Informer: 8.5 out of 10
"It’s basically a highly realistic version of Metal Gear. However, the control isn’t as fluid, the AI is often inconsistent, and targeting proves to be wildly off at times. These flaws do cause numerous headaches and frustrating moments; yet there’s no denying Splinter Cell’s brilliant level designs, countless gameplay innovations, and seamlessly integrated storytelling."
Electronic Gaming Monthly: 8.5 / 9.5 / 9.0 out of 10
"It never looks bad, but many of the special lighting effects and big levels that made Splinter Cell shine on Xbox have been muted here, sometimes affecting gameplay—for example, shadows never really look dark, and the night vision goggles are all messed up."
"Even though you get more varied action from a Metal Gear Solid, what's here is so well designed, I remained jaw-dropped impressed from start to finish. The developers crafted such a tight game, with clever level designs that will consistently challenge you."
"Using a GBA as an MGS–style overhead radar is simply awesome. Hand it to a friend, and you have another set of eyes watching your back (a setup that saved my hide several times). It's a nice addition to an already fantastic experience."