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Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell (PlayStation 2) artwork

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell (PlayStation 2) review

"Contrary to certain (mis)conceptions, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell isn’t a very innovative game. While contrasting considerably from the universally acclaimed Metal Gear Solid 2, its core gameplay elements fall heavily in line with the stealth blueprint laid out by Looking Glass Studios’ Thief, one of the originators of the genre. Splinter Cell’s success lies in the supplementing of its stealth mechanics with unbelievably believable environments and audio, as well as a generous helping of well-wri..."

Contrary to certain (mis)conceptions, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell isn’t a very innovative game. While contrasting considerably from the universally acclaimed Metal Gear Solid 2, its core gameplay elements fall heavily in line with the stealth blueprint laid out by Looking Glass Studios’ Thief, one of the originators of the genre. Splinter Cell’s success lies in the supplementing of its stealth mechanics with unbelievably believable environments and audio, as well as a generous helping of well-written political thriller. These elements fuse together to create an experience that transcends the activity of merely playing a game despite Splinter Cell’s disturbingly rigid structure.

Though Splinter Cell is centered around its overarching political plots rather than its main character, the world-weary and cynical Sam Fisher is a refreshing change from the youthful idealists that spearhead the save-the-world efforts of many other games. While trying to live out his remaining years with his daughter, a government organization, the Third Echelon, forces him out of retirement to investigate the sudden disappearance of two American operatives in the former Soviet-controlled country Georgia. A dangerous, international crisis soon unfolds, which is dramatically depicted through believable, between-mission news broadcasts, beautiful cutscenes and intelligent dialogue. Splinter Cell proudly bears Tom Clancy’s name.

But rather than going straight in to investigate, a tutorial precedes the action, allowing the rusty Sam to reacquaint himself with the conventions of stealth operation and all the nifty maneuvers he’ll need to survive. Despite its exhaustiveness, the training mission doesn’t negatively affect Splinter Cell’s pacing. Though long, the slow introduction to all the nuances of Splinter Cell’s gameplay is a fascinating experience in itself. As you crouch through cramped areas, Sam moves with a slow, but deliberate and fluid gait. All clever manner of dispatching guards, circumventing patrol routes and overcoming environmental obstructions are presented – and all can be viewed from a comfortable third-person perspective that also allows for complete and intuitive camera rotation by way of the right analog stick. The gameplay element of chief importance that most clearly marks Splinter Cell’s homage to Thief – the ability to use the ever-present darkness to conceal yourself when physical obstructions just aren’t enough – injects Splinter Cell with a similarly ever-present feeling of incredible suspense.

And you’ll experience all this before even playing the first actual mission.

When the time comes to test Sam’s skills in the field, the absorbing quality of Splinter Cell’s environments come to the foreground. Meticulously detailed and bathed in night, the only thing that could possibly detract from this startling realism is the extreme limitations put on the exploration of these involving locales. And detract they do, because Splinter Cell’s heavily scripted and decisively linear nature also comes to the foreground once in the field. Linearity is par for the course for action games these days, generally dependent on the advancement from point A to point B to advance the plot, but Splinter Cell takes this to an extreme, rarely even meandering or deviating slightly. Various, seemingly insurmountable, obstacles present themselves in predestined places, but the single, predestined solution is not so slyly placed, severely dampening the feeling of being a well-trained spy.

Fortunately this great feeling is at least retained in the actual process of maneuvering around and about the patrolling guards, and dispatching them lethally or non-lethally if the situation demands it. Besides the existing darkness that Sam can hide safely in, his pistol and his rifle can also be used to destroy surrounding light bulbs to darken the area further. Since Sam – like any other human – can’t actually see in all this darkness, he’s equipped with night-vision goggles that allow him to carefully navigate his surroundings while his foes senselessly blunder like idiots. Besides the cool feeling of wandering around in the dark, invisible to enemies even though they’re actually right in front of you, the impressive night-vision effects send it over the top.

Simply eluding the patrolmen is preferable, or else you must carefully hide their bodies lest other watchmen find them and set off an alarm. When the need to incapacitate an adversary comes up however, Sam is more than up to the task. If you’re patient enough, you can sneak up from behind and seize the target with a tight chokehold. Besides allowing the frequently necessary non-lethal takedowns, Sam can also interrogate his hostage at gunpoint or use him as a human shield. When lethal force is permitted however, the decision is clear. Though you’ll only have access to a silenced, low-caliber pistol and an all-purpose assault rifle, taking out a guard with a single, well-placed shot is still an activity that refuses to get old.

As you slowly and patiently weave your way through the darkness and around patrolling guards, Sam’s behind-the-scenes assistants keep in constant radio contact to keep him updated on the ever-changing nature and objectives of his mission. The frequent verbal exchanges are an extraordinary highlight, a result of both great voice acting and intelligent writing. Suspense works its way through every moment of each mission, especially when even after interrogating key personnel, dispatching the desired target, or retrieving an important item, the mission doesn’t end yet and you’re told to safely make your way to the extraction point.

The only thing holding back the completeness of Splinter Cell’s stimulating spy experience is its constricting environmental design. As it stands, the great gameplay mechanics – especially those that pertain to environmental navigation – don’t reach their full potential due to the game’s rigidity. Splinter Cell can still be forgiven because it still provides a satisfyingly suspenseful stealth experience, and certainly one of the most atmospheric ones to date. Splinter Cell is a slow and immersive play, perfect for players who love to (and can find the time to) sit down for hours at a time and become completely engulfed in thoughtful Tom Clancy political intrigue.

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Community review by radicaldreamer (July 30, 2005)

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