All of Fisher's missions may be different, but all are pretty similar in how you must proceed in them: Stay out of sight, stay out of harm's way, and engage hostiles only when necessary. This is easier said than done, and despite Fisher's impressive list of moves and exceptional skill, you'll invariably draw your enemies' attention in every mission you attempt. If caught in a firefight, Fisher can be killed with just a few shots, though his foes tend to go down much more quickly. Nevertheless, ammunition is limited, and Fisher's aim strays wildly if he tries to shoot while moving or tries to shoot in rapid succession. More importantly, being discovered will often cause a guard to raise the general alarm, which in several missions makes for automatic failure.
Night vision and thermal vision can help you see in places your enemies can't.
In other missions, the alarm can go off several times before Third Echelon pulls the plug on you. In what's easily the most frustrating aspect of Splinter Cell, sometimes the alarm will go off at scripted moments if you've killed or knocked out too many guards leading up to that point. This can force you into a perpetual mission-failure cycle, ultimately forcing you to restart a mission from scratch and then try to avoid contact rather than dispatch foes. While it's plausible that Fisher needs to leave behind no evidence of his passing, it's too bad that Splinter Cell so strictly forces you to play a certain way, when the recent Hitman 2 did such a fine job of letting you opt for either stealth or deadly force as you saw fit.
You won't always end up restarting missions from scratch, but you'll invariably be screwing up and restarting different sequences constantly, perhaps dozens of times per mission. Trial and error to some extent goes part and parcel with most gaming experiences, but in Splinter Cell (and other stealth games), sometimes it can get to be a little too much. Part of the problem, as it is with most every stealth game, is that the missions are heavily scripted and play out exactly the same way each time. The suspense is almost nonexistent by the time you reach your fifth attempt at sneaking through that heavily guarded alley, and any sense of urgency is undermined when you realize that the truck you're desperately trying to catch up to or the assassination you're desperately trying to prevent are events that won't be triggered until you cross certain thresholds. Enemy patrols are also triggered at specific points. You can wait forever for that guard to come around the corner, but you won't see him do it until you step forward those last few inches.
The guards in Splinter Cell are believable enough, but they all move in predictable fashions and don't exhibit any complex behavior. They'll investigate noises and shoot on sight, but in hostile situations, they'll blunder headlong into kill zones and will sometimes see you even when the onscreen stealth meter is telling you you're completely invisible. Yet though the guards aren't smart and aren't particularly difficult to dispose of, Splinter Cell is still a hard game, since sneaking past enemies (rather than taking them out) is usually the order of the day, and that's a tall order to fill. Fortunately, most missions take place in the dark, where your night vision gives you a huge advantage. But just as you'll start getting comfortable in your sneakiness, you'll find yourself up against guards with flashlights, which don't just reveal you lurking about but can temporarily blind you if your night vision is enabled.
Splinter Cell ain't easy. Get ready to try, try, and try again during most every mission.
Splinter Cell looks superb, but its visual presentation isn't perfect. As mentioned, some of the cutscenes stand out as being rather ugly. Also, at times the game's frame rate will noticeably start to chug, and you'll notice some collision detection and clipping issues, such as when a felled opponent's feet can be seen sticking straight through a door. All this is enough to slightly mar an otherwise incredible visual presentation, the highlight of which, of course, is that lighting. The game's real-time lighting isn't just for show, since making use of the light and shadows in each area is a critical part of the gameplay. But still, it's real eye candy when you see things like warm sunlight seeping through Venetian blinds, or a floodlight beaming through a chain-link fence, looking for you. The rest of the game's visuals are also very impressive. Fisher's movements are extremely lifelike and highly articulate, and they almost seem as if they were motion captured, even though they weren't. The game's modern environments aren't exactly scenic, but they're still beautiful in their size, complexity, and detail.
The game also sounds terrific--especially if you have a 5.1 surround sound setup--and as with any self-respecting stealth game, the audio is integral to the experience of Splinter Cell. You'll actually hear Fisher making a bit more noise the faster he moves, so you'll learn to be your own worst critic as you try to move about silently. All his subtle actions, from lock-picking to drawing his different weapons and gadgets, has a suitably soft sound to go with it, creating the sense that Fisher is extremely skilled at being silent, but still runs the danger of making too much noise. Also, Splinter Cell's bass-heavy ambient music is excellent, and it grows louder and faster when you're spotted or caught. But much like in some other stealth-based games, the way the music picks up or quiets down depending on the circumstances has some unintentional side effects that almost feel like cheating: You'll learn to trust the music for knowing whether or not any enemies remain in your vicinity. The coast is clear when the music says so.
Of further note, Splinter Cell has a good amount of speech in it, though disappointingly, the Russians and Chinese speak in English using lame, stereotypical accents rather than in their native tongues. It's implied that Fisher is multilingual, so it would have been great if he'd simply translated for you in the context of the dialogue--especially since you'll really like hearing him speak. He's voiced by Michael Ironside (Starship Troopers, Free Willy), who's absolutely perfect for the role, with his naturally gravelly, gruff manner of speaking. Simply put, Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher makes Metal Gear's Solid Snake sound like a wuss.
Getting through an entire mission without ruffling any feathers can be a real thrill.
Though Splinter Cell seemingly has a small number of missions, they'll take you some time to get through. The replay value of the missions is limited due to their scripted, linear nature, but there's a hard difficulty mode that really stresses the game's stealth aspect and should be a fun for those who master the default setting. Additionally, there's some pretty extensive DVD-style "making of" footage available for your viewing pleasure, the highlight of which is probably the mock interview with none other than Sam Fisher himself. Splinter Cell is also compatible with Xbox Live, not because the game has online multiplayer features (it has no multiplayer features, online or off), but because the broadband service allows you to download additional content for the game in the form of new missions, though none are available at this time. The promise of more Splinter Cell is pretty tempting, but what's important is that you get your money's worth out of the box, and you do.
If you're easily frustrated by games, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell probably isn't for you. Yet it's undoubtedly one the best examples of a stealth game to date, and it will surely appeal to those who've enjoyed similar games in the past. These players will have a great time with Sam Fisher's variety of moves and gadgets, and the game's lengthy missions should give them a significant challenge. Meanwhile, if you haven't played a stealth game before, then of course Splinter Cell is a perfectly good place to start, especially since its theme is less objectionable than Hitman 2 and its contract killings (it's OK to kill for the country, right?). Just don't expect the life of a secretive commando to be easy.