The darkness slipped around them like a second skin, killing the light. Somewhere within, muscle and bone shifted in icy silence reaching for its prey. A knife bared, a throat bent and words were spoken. Those were the deadliest weapons of all. Words cast no shadow. They passed unseen to those they were meant for and they could dig deeper than any knife. The darkness had no hold over them and they had nothing to fear from it. Then action. A gurgling cry. The light was not the only thing to die.
“Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory” is the third installment to Ubisoft’s spy franchise. The version played below was for the PC.
For those that aren’t familiar with this series, the Splinter Cell franchise casts you in the role of Sam Fisher, a ‘Splinter Cell’ who is part of Third Echelon. Splinter Cells are agents that operate deep within the field with only a comm signal as their tether back to the world outside. They are usually sent deep behind the scenes into situations where conventional methods of ‘negotiation’ are no longer an option, often working solo doing the dirty work that allows the world to wake up the next morning without knowing how close they were to Armageddon. Third Echelon is the government agency in charge of making sure they get everything they need to do so tied in as it is to the NSA. Having lived through the Cold War and the conflicts in between that and the Information Age today, Sam Fisher is the man Third Echelon calls on when a situation can go from bad to worse in a heartbeat.
Sam’s latest outing in Chaos Theory sends him after Bruce Morgenholt, a programming genius who was kidnapped while on assignment in South America. Normally, this would be grunt work for other operatives to handle…but Bruce has done some things that have made him particularly valuable. He happens to be one of the few that have done work on deciphering the code left behind in the wake of the Georgian Information Crisis from the first Splinter Cell. For those that haven’t played it, don’t worry. In short, Bruce knows some things that the government does not want floating around and Sam has gotten the green light to go in and get him back out. What Sam will quickly find out is how a simple kidnapping can change the world.
New Tricks, Old Hat
To anyone familiar with Sam’s exploits in the first Splinter Cell and the sequel, Pandora Tomorrow, you’ll know the value of keeping to the shadows and making sure that no one finds the bodies of those unlucky enough to be in your way. You’ll also be very familiar with the huge variety of locales that Sam’s mission will take him to from the basement of the most secure place on earth to a…spa. In all of these locales, stealth and secrecy are Sam’s strongest weapons. Anyone expecting to go in guns blazing will find that Sam’s stealth suit is not made of kevlar.
Ubisoft Montreal also added a few more tricks to Sam’s arsenal making him a lot more deadly in the field. Sam now has a knife. He can cut his way into places blocked by tarp or plastic, slipping into tents to surprise poorly paid soldiers coming in from the rain or to find another way to his objective, or quickly deal with enemy soldiers that come too close. He can now hang from the ceiling and grab people from above, snapping their necks before they even know what hit them.
The level design approach has also changed allowing the player to experiment with a variety of ways on how to get to where they need to go during a mission. No longer is a player relegated to just one linear path or ‘option’ that they are faced with in trying to negotiate their way through a location to complete their objectives. Should they take to the vents and sneak over to the next room? Or stick to the shadows and wait for a guard to show up and ‘volunteer’ to open the door instead? Distract the guard from a door or find a way around? Exploring your environment is now much more important and it adds quite a bit to the game allowing players to try out new things.
Not only has the level design approach changed, but so have the missions. There are now secondary and bonus objectives that Sam may run across during a mission. The more of these that Sam completes, the higher his ‘score’ at the conclusion of a mission. While not mandatory, they add additional flavor to a mission should a player decide to pursue them. Some objectives are also secret leaving it to the player to discover them by listening in on conversations, reading the situation, or by simply exploring everywhere they can get into.
Sam can now pick and choose what he can carry before starting the next mission with a prep screen allowing the player to customize his loadout. You can either go with the default suggestion from Third Echelon’s weapons expert based on what they think the situation will be like, or you can tweak the inventory to balance it out between your options for assault and stealth. If you want to sticky shock your way through a level, now you can. Or if you feel that bullets make a more lasting impression, you can now opt for that, too. Sam’s going in with what you set him up with and it’s a great addition that gives the player more responsibility for his well being. If he finds himself without enough airfoil bullets, you really can’t blame Third Echelon anymore.
In addition to all of this, Sam has his usual bag of tricks from the first two. He can interrogate anyone he can grab, crouch and hide in the shadows using a ‘light’ meter that gives you an idea of how well camoflauged he is, clamber over obstacles to get to hard to reach places or get the jump on unsuspecting foes, hang from ledges, lure enemies over by making a little noise or causing a distraction with a thrown item, hack PCs, pick locks, and open doors with varying degrees of care after making sure of what’s on the other side with his handy optical cam. Sam also has a ‘noise’ meter that measures how much noise he is really making which helps when you are trying to get behind someone to ask them a few questions.
The player can also save anywhere in the game helping to avoid having to repeat certain challenges ad infinitum just to get to where you were discovered by that guard taking a cigarette break.
Since I opted for the PC version, the controls using both the mouse and keyboard took some getting used to given everything that Sam can do…but within a few minutes I was leading Sam through his first mission like a seasoned veteran. The controls worked out extremely well and can be customized to some extent. I never had a problem in getting Sam to where he needed to go on the PC.
SC:CT takes place in a variety of environments ranging from a nicely decorated office interior to an old converted military base teeming with complaining soldiers and closed circuit security. From the dingy, crud encrusted walls and floors of the military outpost that hygiene forgot to the carefully manicured architecture and tastefully appointed floors of a corporate office floor, the visual presentation of Chaos Theory’s locales continue to be one of the Splinter Cell series’ strongest points.
Populating the levels are a large number of NPCs such as mercenaries, soldiers, and the occasional civilian that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The detailed animations and graphics developed for them is marred only by a sense of deja vu that I felt while interrogating one soldier after another. At one point, I thought that all of the guards were interconnected somehow. Sam will find himself in the Far East but everyone will bear a striking resemblance to the mercenaries that you had just dealt with in South America.
The AI has also been tweaked, although not to perfection. Enemy soldiers will occasionally call in others to accompany them as they investigate suspicious areas, light flares to illuminate the shadows, or shoot into an area to make sure that there isn’t anyone there if they’re high strung. The guards tend to travel in groups more often than not and are not afraid to call in their friends. Unfortunately, enemy soldiers are still from the same dense stock that most supervillains seem to contract from. For example, none of the guards seemed to react to their disappearing comrades, even if they are the only one left from a group. I was more worried about the guards with radios wondering if anyone would miss them not checking in and somewhat relieved (and a little confused) that no one really cared. Additional difficulty levels help raise the sensitivity of the guards and security to nearly ninja-like proportions if you crave a greater challenge.
The physics system was also revamped. Soldiers you knock out and throw into the latrine for storage will slump against walls or tumble down stairs, or fall down holes and end up in a heap as you drop them down ladders or blown out floors. Ubi’s animation artists continue to show off their craft through Sam’s stealthy movements to the lip sync’ed lines. Even if Sam starts talking is ‘off’ camera, if you manage to get it around to see his face when he is speaking, you’ll notice that the animation is still keyed.
The spoken parts of the game were also some of the best highlights. The banter between Sam and the others at Third Echelon, the interrogations, and the running commentary on how old he was made the story and the characters of Chaos Theory go from simple set pieces to living, breathing parts of the world in the game. There was also an option available to either hear everyone in english so as not to miss some of the more amusing conversations going on between the NPCs (“That’s right, a ninja! Everyone was taken out by a ninja!”) or in the native tongues of whatever locale Sam happened to be in.
Amon Tobin’s work in Chaos Theory also helped to make the game’s presentation stand out. From the music overlay for several of the levels to the tracks that accompanied the surprise and alarm shown by Sam’s victims, the music did the job extremely well in establishing a presence and an identity for the levels in the game. Some of the tracks at the right moment turned many situations into what felt like interactive cinematic moments that you could only see in the movies.
The Spy Who Hates Me
Chaos Theory also allows prospective spies to match wits with each other online. There is also a co-op component in the game which actually branches off from the main storyline into its own set of challenges and objectives. On the PC version, this meant going through Ubi’s matchmaking service which is free although you still need to sign up and create an account if you don’t have one.
The “vs” game divides everyone into mercenaries and spies, the mercenaries would have to defend the objectives from a first person perspective while the spies had to find some way of getting around them using their third person view to get a better grasp on their surroundings. A tutorial will take you through the basics for both classes and it’s advised to explore the levels on your own to get a grip on where and what you should do. The objectives vary, from sabotage to stealing items and in delivering them to their dropoff points without getting nailed by bullets in the process. The game comes with a decent variety of levels including several from Pandora Tomorrow that were ‘revamped’ for this release. The co-op portion of the game also has it’s own set of levels set up like a typical mission only with challenges that require both spies to work together to get through them.
I had run into a few lag issues and connectivity problems with the spare number of servers available through Ubi. When it worked, though, and when I was in a game with forgiving and friendly players willing to help a newcomer out, it was a very fun experience.
Are You Asking Me to Win One for the Gipper?
Chaos Theory stands out as an excellent chapter in the Splinter Cell franchise. The single player component of the game was easily the best part of the title for me, although the multiplayer options were also fun and challenging and help extend the life of the game. With a polished presentation filled with compelling music and excellent voice acting amidst well crafted locations, the story comes to life on the screen as players take Sam through another mission that is a lot more than what it appears to be. And while this title has its own set of flaws to consider, they are overshadowed by the quality of the overall package that takes you back into the shadowy world of Splinter Cell.
In the end, fans of the franchise will find a lot to like in this game and newcomers can’t ask for a better chapter to get acquainted with the series.
- World 1-1