Saturday, December 29, 2018

Classic Review: Splinter Cell

A friend of mine got an Xbox for Christmas in 2002 and much like most other consoles the majority of games were uninteresting or too simplistic in scope to interest a pure PC gamer. There was one however that I did find incredibly interesting to the point where I was wondering why it was on a mere console; this was Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. This was the only Xbox game I had really heard of other than Halo: Combat Evolved because of the incredible ratings it got from every game critic, online score generator or review publication at the time. It's marketing and promotion worked but it wasn't until I saw it in action myself that I understood why.

I had knowledge of, but obviously never played a Metal Gear Solid game, but its influence was clear here; (and confirmed by Ubisoft in every interview) this was certainly a Western attempt to capture the essence of the spy/stealth genre while jettisoning what I term "the confusing Jap shit" in favour of a Tom Clancyesque "prevent WWIII" scenario. As popular as Metal Gear Solid and Hitman: Codename 47 were and as well as Deus Ex and Thief: The Dark Project were lauded for establishing the stealth genre and breaking it away from the faster paced 3D shooters, it was clear that there was enough room for something like Splinter Cell to carve out it's own segment of the market and find it's niche from it's day one success to it's many sequels.

I was able to acquire Splinter Cell itself in early 2003 once Ubisoft ported it from the Xbox - an advantage of this was of course that the Xbox was built on a Windows kernel and most of the internal components of the console were standard PC ones, so it wasn't as much of a stretch nor did it suffer from the 'normal' issues that porting games designed for a 'primitive' form of technology to the superior majesty of the PC imposed. Hyperion, my machine at the time sported a P4 2.2GHz processor and the GeForce 3 Ti500 GPU which meant Splinter Cell ran with a graphical fidelity far in excess of it's Xbox cousin. The lighting and shadows alone were key to the way one must play the game and the immersion in the world was easily the reason I spent some 40 hours in it the first time. 

But on to today, now, 15 years later I reinstalled Splinter Cell to see how well it held up. Uplay gave me the game for free in 2016 in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ubisoft so I had no need to go fiddling around with the original installation CDs. Once the game was installed I proceed to follow the instructions outlined in this thread on Steam which enable most users to get the game running in the highest settings possible and for me, in 4K resolution!

My first (new) impression was that the game certainly did not look as good as this in 2002. Advances in technology in the intervening time meant that there was a HD remaster for a PS3 version and some enterprising individual packed it up as a 64bit texture upgrade patch into the PC - and of course running in 4K with FSAA it can surely look no better than it does now. In comparison to today's games it does look dated but one must remember that this was one of the first games to use Unreal Engine 2 which allowed both light and dark gameplay and thus it's leaps ahead of games that were only out a couple of years before it. 

It had been quite some time since I had been in any Splinter Cell game so it was great to hear veteran actor Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher grunt his way through the script as well as the acrobatic posturing I put his character through on my quest to save the world. Not being a bog standard 3D shooter, instead focussing on a 3rd person perspective meant that most of the controls involved making Sam Fisher, jump, climb, crouch, shimmy, rappel or a hold of other activities and it took me a few tries to create a proper control key scheme in order to successfully retrain my mind to embody the ex CIA, ex Navy S.E.A.L. turned NSA operative once again.

Despite his name adorning the cover, Tom Clancy had little or no input into Splinter Cell (or any of Ubisoft's Tom Clancy brand games) even before his death in 2013. Ubisoft simply bought a 'brand' to represent the techno-futuristic, quasi-militaristic, pro-US jingoism found in Clancy's writings and create game worlds based these concepts. Needless to say the story on offer here is thin, involves a prelude to nuclear war and points to almost anyone with a Russian or Chinese accent as the bad guy, but your true enemy here is of course, light!

Splinter Cell was hard then, and it still is. You can't play it as a shooter because you literally never have enough ammunition to do so. You do have enough ammo to fire a few bullets into the individuals you're allowed to kill, but knocking them out is often worth the 15/20 minutes it takes you to get into a position to do so. You would do much better if you use what ammo you have to shoot security cameras and lightbulbs to remain hidden and undetected. If you raise any alarm and you're not hidden, you're likely to be shot at and you can only take about four hits before you're dead, so the game forces you into stealth, not like Deus Ex where it's a choice. It might not be everyone's cup of tea but it's the hallmark of the series, and if you don't do stealth than Splinter Cell or any of it's later iterations are not for you.

While the genre is stealth, the name of the game is espionage. Think of who you'd be if you're what would happen if you took away James Bond's tux, Jason Bourne's amnesia, if Jack Bauer followed orders and you were a ninja. The game creates tense situations were observation of searchlight patterns and guard's patrol routes and your timing between them is key to success. Sound plays a significant part because you my be relying on enemy footsteps to time your own movements and music will alert you to guard's alertness level. 

Don't underestimate the use of your own mind! Often puzzles are presented to you and there may be multiple ways of solving them. You are given objectives, such as find the server and collect the data, but no guidance on how you do it save a crude map and a picture of someone you're looking for. Exploration and your common sense are what you need to employ to get the job done in most situations. That said, don't confuse this with some latter day open world the-sky's-the-limit sandbox Ubisoft is known for today, this is even more linear than a standard 3D shooter and there's usually only a single available route to your objective, you just have some work to to to find it.

After 15 years I can say I remembered only the first couple of levels, breaking into the CIA HQ and an oil rig, but nothing about the rest of the game. I think that perhaps it's because the locations in Splinter Cell were pretty generic, office blocks, embassies, warehouses and the like in comparison to the later games in the series which put you in much more diverse weather environments and in different uniforms with more unique set-pieces like Chaos Theory's lighthouse. or Double Agent's Shanghai. Splinter Cell was the genesis for a franchise that spawned well received sequels with perhaps another on the way soon and cemented Ubisoft's Tom Clancy brand to continue indefinitely, and yes it still holds up today.

Splinter Cell is: €4.99 from  GOG, Ubi Store or Steam but found on sale on one or more of these platforms for €1.70 every few weeks.

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