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Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell

Review By:  Jared Black

Developer:  Ubi Soft
Publisher:  Ubi Soft
# of Players:  1
Genre:  Stealth
ESRB:  Teen
Online:  No
Accessories:  Memory Card, GBA/GCN Link Cable, Progressive Scan
Date Posted:  6-5-03

In the eyes of many, the release of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell virtually “saved” the Xbox’s holiday season.  Not only was it one of the few big name exclusive Xbox titles released during the Christmas, but it also proved to be one of the greatest console titles of all-time.  It’s release made such an impact that the game won a slew of awards, including our own pick as the Best Xbox Title of 2002.  Naturally Ubi Soft wanted to capitalize on the success of this hot new property, and quickly readied ports to every other current viable gaming platform.  The result is an early contender for best GameCube title of 2003.

I don't want to talk too much about the storyline, but here's a brief overview of what's happening. The player assumes the role of Sam Fisher, a NSA agent armed with a number of different gadgets, weapons, and a lifetime of experience. Though an initiative know as Third Echelon, the NSA sends out agents dubbed Splinter Cells to gather intelligence, carry out sabotage, and in general protect the interests of the United Sates of America through any means necessary. As a result Sam's greatest weapon is the "Fifth Freedom", which basically gives him the ability to operate above and beyond the law when necessary to protect US interests. Set in early 2004, the CIA has lost contact with a couple of agents operating covertly in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Thus Sam's mission is to locate the missing agents, and determine whether they've been compromised and/or killed. The storyline obviously takes on a much larger scope as the game progresses, and is moved along via between mission cutscenes featuring Sam and his team or news briefs giving a general overview of what's happening in the world at that time. In the Xbox version these cutscenes were somewhat ambiguous, but that problem has been rectified with approximately 30 minutes of new cutscenes that present a clearer picture of what exactly is happening.

While the core gameplay is much the same as Metal Gear Solid 2 (sneak around and accomplish a variety of tasks using whatever means necessary), Splinter Cell is really an entirely different experience thanks to the emphasis on light and shadow. Every light in the game illuminates the area realistically, and every object in the game is self-shadowed. As a result, the player must learn to effectively utilize the shadows created to hide and sneak past the enemy. While MGS2 places an emphasis on hiding behind objects or under boxes, Splinter Cell often has the player hiding in the dark right in front of the enemies' eyes. This creates many more tense situations, and ultimately makes passing objectives feel like more of an accomplishment. This also creates many interesting gameplay situations, as often there'll be one of several ways of getting past a given situation. Do you shoot out the lights and create a path for yourself at the risk of alerting patrolling guards, or do you use the existing shadows and try to time movement just right? Or do you just kill them and move on?

Ubi Soft really paid attention to the interaction with light and shadow throughout the game, and created many different situations in which unique use of them can create often-easier ways of getting through a tough spot. For example, in one level you start out overlooking a large courtyard. If you shoot out the lights then while no guards are around, later on when you come back through the courtyard it'll be a much easier task to do. The lights can still be shot out later, but at the risk of alerting a patrolling guard.

This probably sounds like it would make the game incredibly difficult, and to a degree it does, as it requires the player to actually think (even more than MGS2) before acting. It isn't as bad as it sounds though, thanks to the Stealth Meter. This simple meter indicates how hidden Sam is, and how easily guards or surveillance cameras can spot him. In a way it performs the same function as MGS2's radar screen, but in a much more effective manner as it doesn't require constant monitoring. As a result the player can focus more on the game at hand, and what it'll take to get through a situation.

While player interaction with shadow is the primary difference in gameplay, another key component in Splinter Cell is the camera angle used. Since it's a roving third-person view, it requires the player to get positioned more effectively in order to see enemies and other hazards. MGS2 used a fixed camera system, which often would not allow the player to see balconies and other areas above and around the area without going into first-person mode. It also does a better job of putting the player "in" the game, making the action more intense.

Finally, the gadgets are more diverse and play a more integral part in gameplay. Gadgets are rarely necessary in order to continue in the game (except lock picks), but they can often make a huge difference in how easy an area is. These include a variety of projectiles that can be attached to a weapon, with the Sticky Shocker (which attaches to and shocks enemy soldiers) easily being my favorite. Other gadgets include laser mics, camera jammers, optic cable (used to look under doors before opening them), and lock picks. Additionally, Sam can utilize night vision, thermal vision, grenades, wall mines, and other items.  New to the GameCube version is the Sticky Bomb, which makes good use of the GBA/GCN link up (more on that later).

While Sam often relies on gadgets, he can also do some old-fashioned butt kicking as well. Often enemies will need to be interrogated, which will require the player to sneak up and grab them without being spotted. Other circumstances will require forcing the enemy to cooperate with Sam, including retinal scanners and hacking into certain computer systems. The player should try to avoid fighting whenever possible though, as alerting the guards will often lead to the mission being aborted completely and will usually mean certain death for Sam regardless. And in several missions located in areas less hostile, no one can be killed at all including civilians and the enemy.

Enabling all of this are easily the best looking graphics found in any GameCube game to date. An incredible lighting system needed to be created in order to support this level of environment interaction, and Ubi Soft amazingly accomplished just that. As I mentioned before every single light gives off it's own illumination, and can be shot out (assuming it isn't reinforced) to put that area in instant darkness. While this effect was true in the Xbox version, there are several different areas in the GameCube version where the dynamic lighting is obviously faked in order to save processing power.  Multiple lights in the same area still blend in well though, with none of the sharp cut-offs found in most other games with lighting effects. Light will softly pour in through blinds, and moths even give off huge shadows when they get close to a light.

Beyond the incredible light system, everything else in Splinter Cell is done with incredible realism. Sam has an incredible amount of animation, and every single move he performs looks fluid and realistic. Enemy soldiers are animated in much the same manner, and will look around, perform idle animation, and adapt to their environment realistically.

The environments are very realistic. Offices have papers and PCs strewn about, alleys are filled with trash, and a server room is incredibly clean and white like something out of Alias. Additionally, the night vision and thermal goggles are very realistic, each giving a vastly different view of the world and proving to often be integral in gameplay. All of this is wrapped in very detailed and crisp textures, and rarely do they ever repeat. Even when they do, it's usually masked well by shadow or other lighting tricks.

Unfortunately, some environments have been butchered considerably in comparison to the Xbox version.  The training mission is now a simple series of padded corridors, whereas before it featured more realistic environments with boxes, shelving units, and various other debris scattered throughout.  If Sam’s training for real-world situations, shouldn’t he have to maneuver around common office objects?  Virtually every level has been cut down considerably as well, both for the sake of making the game easier (AKA pandering to the mainstream PS2 market and the younger GCN market) and compensate for weaker hardware.  For example, the first part of the CIA level featured the player breaking into CIA HQ in the Xbox version, but now Sam merely waltzes right in with a fake ID.  This was one of the best parts of the original game, and it was cut out only for the sake of making the game simpler.  There is other less pronounced, but equally bad level adjustments throughout the rest of the game as well.

The only real problem with the graphics from a technical standpoint is some clipping, with the bodies of downed soldiers often falling into surrounding walls and doors. It doesn't affect gameplay in any way, but it's a jarring break from the incredible realism the rest of the game portrays. My only other complaint is that Sam's night vision goggles glow a constant bright green, but yet they seem to play no part in determining whether an enemy can spot Sam or not. On occasion I was standing in the dark mere inches from an enemy's face, yet he couldn't spot me despite the three huge green dots on my head. I understand why Ubi Soft did this (as they explained in one of the behind the scene videos, the goggles are Sam's defining characteristic), but it's another case of anti-realism in an otherwise ultra-realistic game.

As a result of the graphic glory sound usually takes a backseat in this game, but it's also of high quality itself and plays an important role in the game. Performed by the Crystal Method, the music is typical of military/stealth/Clancy games, and thus should be pleasing to anyone familiar with those kinds of games. Sound effects are numerous and realistic. Sam's weapons and gadgets all have a unique sound to them, and Sam's steps will sound different and/or louder as he walks over a variety of terrain. The voice acting is also done well, and in particular Sam's voice sounds gruff and enhances the character perfectly. Sam's support team is also voiced competently, as is the enemy as it patrols, talks on cell phones, makes announcements over the intercom, etc. My only complaint with the voice acting is that I wish it were in the native language of that particular soldier instead of in English with an accent stereotypical of that nationality, but no other game (including MGS' Russian soldiers) really does that anyway.

There aren't a lot of extras beyond the single-player game, but what's there is done pretty well. A few extra videos are included, including an interview with Sam Fisher himself. There are now ten quick save slots, up from the original three and fixing a problem some players faced before with getting caught without a good save to go back to.  The interface has also been reworked slightly, with some objects now showing up as selectable without having to go into the menu to equip them depending on the situation.  For example, now when Sam reaches a locked door he can choose to use a lock pick in addition to opening or looking under it, whereas before on Xbox the player would have to pull up the lock pick from the menu first.  How Sam knows a door is locked before he tries to open it though is beyond me…

The biggest difference between the GameCube and Xbox versions is the inclusion of GBA OPSAT support.  Utilizing a connected GBA, the player can pull up a wire-frame map (similar to the radar in MGS2) of the surrounding area.  This allows the player to remotely interact with keypads, computers, turrets, and elevators, as well as deactivate wall mines from a safe distance.  The player can also scan the surrounding area for threats not seen regularly, and even use the Sticky Bomb to safely kill from a distance.  All in all a wonderful addition to the Splinter Cell experience, particularly at nighttime with a GBA SP equipped.

Highs:

  • One of the Xbox's best now on GameCube.
  • Retains the same great gameplay and use of light and shadow.
  • The GBA OPSAT is brilliant, and a perfect example of how ports should be done.
  • 30 new minutes of FMV footage that really help to clear up and expand on the storyline.
  • Supports progressive scan.

Lows:

  • Graphics pale in comparison to the Xbox version.
  • Most levels have been shortened considerably, due to a combination of technical factors and a desire to make the game easier.
  • The PS2 and Xbox (through Xbox Live) feature an extra level, which is arguably better than GBA support for most GameCube owners.

Final Verdict:

While Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell is definitely at it’s best on Xbox, the GameCube port is a respectable effort that should be in most GCN owners’ game libraries.  It still presents a decent challenge, and the GBA OPSAT is one of the most unique uses of GCN/GBA connectivity yet.

Overall Score: 8.5

Additional Images (PS2 Screens):
 

 



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