It's easy to see why Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell is one of the most highly anticipated Xbox games of the season. For one thing, it features some impressive production values, including hands down the best lighting effects seen in any game to date. For another, its main character has a surprising variety of moves and gadgets, all designed to help him stay hidden from his enemies and dispatch them quietly or get by them cleanly. So the game's definitely got a lot to like about it. However, you should know that Splinter Cell is not the genre-redefining game it claims to be (don't believe the "stealth action redefined" bit that's written on the box), but rather another in an increasingly long line of stealth games that incorporates all the good and bad traits of this love-it-or-hate-it action subgenre. Splinter Cell's actual gameplay is very similar to that of other stealth games, including 1998's Thief: The Dark Project, which proved that sneaking through the shadows and using clever gadgets to avoid or eliminate powerful enemies could make for a memorable experience, or the recently released and equivalently good Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. Comparisons aside, Splinter Cell is a great game on its own merits, and it offers a slick and rewardingly suspenseful gameplay experience that's sometimes reduced to frustrating bouts of trial and error.
Sam Fisher is the splinter cell--an ultra secret commando working on highly classified assignments.
The title of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell refers to the unusual role of its main character, Sam Fisher, a highly trained and experienced commando working for a top-secret military organization, Third Echelon, that's attempting to rid the world of a high-tech terrorist threat. If he's caught, the US government will disavow its affiliation with his mission. Worse yet, one false move and Fisher may inadvertently instigate World War III. So the pressure's on, but Fisher's as cool as they come. Though he's skilled as a soldier, stealth is his only real option, and the fate of the free world hangs in the balance as he undertakes a number of highly dangerous, high-stakes covert operations.
The game's plot, which is set in the near future, is straight out of a Clancy thriller and involves Fisher taking on Clancy's favorite tag team: the Russians and the Chinese. The story is rather disjointed (perhaps purposely so), since between missions you'll just see snippets of fake newscasts that supposedly help you understand what's going on. These rather unimpressive cutscenes unfortunately aren't up to par with the game's other visuals, and they aren't nearly as interesting as some of the conversations Fisher will eavesdrop on during the actual gameplay. At any rate, don't go in expecting Splinter Cell to be Tom Clancy's answer to Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid games, as the storytelling and gameplay of Splinter Cell are completely different from the story and gameplay of that series.
Despite being Third Echelon's right hand, Sam Fisher is on a need-to-know basis and is largely kept in the dark about the exact nature of his objectives. Fortunately, he's extremely resourceful, armed or unarmed. A preliminary training scenario will familiarize you with the basics of being Sam Fisher, but you'll nevertheless need a lot of practice to become truly proficient in the role. Throughout the game, the right analog stick lets you freely move the camera, which generally works well to give you a good situational awareness but sometimes gets cramped up in tight spaces. The other controls also take getting used to but work effectively, enabling you to perform an array of maneuvers that collectively make Splinter Cell feel like a pretty believable super-spy simulation.
In true Tom Clancy fashion, your foes will consist of Russians and Chinese. Who says the Cold War's over?
In fact, aside from the pretty lighting effects, the variety of moves at Fisher's disposal is probably the highlight of Splinter Cell. Sam has something for every occasion: He can run swiftly or tiptoe carefully depending on how far you tilt the left analog stick forward. He can also move quite quickly from a crouched position, and if you tread carefully while crouching, you'll be almost invisible and almost silent. Fisher can climb ladders, chain-link fences, and more. He can rappel down walls (and kick through glass windows while doing so), climb hand over hand (or using all four limbs) across horizontal pipes, and zip across downward-slanted ropes or wires. He can put his back against a wall and lean or shoot around corners, he can peek around doors that are slightly ajar, and he can make soft landings or perform evasive rolls. Fisher can also kick off a wall in mid jump, and his coolest move (though it isn't very practical) allows him to stand in the splits atop a narrow passageway and then either shoot unsuspecting opponents or drop down to deliver a stunning blow.
Sneaking up behind an opponent allows Fisher to either knock the foe unconscious with an elbow strike or a pistol whip or grab the enemy and take him hostage. Fisher can then use the opponent as a human shield against other enemies, or in some cases interrogate him or force him to do such things as activate retinal scanners that otherwise prevent passage. He'll eventually have to dispatch his hostage one way or another, and then he can pick up and move the prone body out of sight of enemy patrols. Fortunately for you, unconscious foes will awaken only if discovered by their allies.
In Splinter Cell, the use of deadly force is more of a convenience than a necessity. Toward this end, Fisher's arsenal is fairly limited but nonetheless effective. To start with, he has a trusty silenced pistol that can kill with a shot to the head and can also be used to shoot out certain lights to make for a more-favorable situation for Fisher and his night-vision goggles. Later on, he'll find a high-tech experimental assault rifle that becomes his mainstay. Featuring both single-shot and fully automatic firing modes, the SC-20K also sports a silencer and a muzzle-flash suppressor, making it perfect for Fisher's purposes. This modular rifle even has a magnifying scope, allowing for precision shooting--in a great touch, Fisher can hold his breath while looking through the scope to temporarily steady his aim. The SC-20K also supports a number of alternative types of ammunition, such as special rounds that can be used to incapacitate foes rather than kill them. In a number of Splinter Cell's missions, casualties are strictly prohibited, so this feature isn't just for sympathy's sake.
Fisher's trusty SC-20K experimental rifle isn't just for killing.
More interestingly, the SC-20K can be used to fire remote camera probes, nauseating smoke bombs, or a distraction camera that can be used to lure guards away from their posts and then give them a mouthful of knockout gas. Such funky devices aren't always strictly necessary for finishing a mission, but they're fun to use and can help you avoid getting into a tight spot. Besides his guns, Fisher can also get his hands on frag grenades, though high explosives aren't really his style. Throwing cans or bottles to distract foes is more up his alley.
Picking locks is definitely his style, too, and he can use his trusty lock picks to bypass any locked doors. The game presents a really great simulation of lock-picking in which you rotate the left analog stick until you find the pin (you'll feel the controller vibrate), wiggle the stick until Fisher nudges the pin loose, and then repeat the process as many times as there are pins in the lock. Some of Fisher's other neat gadgets include an optic cable that can be slid under doorways to give you a gander at what's on the other side, camera jammers that disrupt security cameras, and emergency flares that can draw the fire of automated heat-sensitive gun turrets. Fisher is basically a high-tech government ninja, what with all this stuff, and what with his all-black body suit and night-vision and heat-vision goggles. The odds are always against him, but he's got a big-time element of surprise. His moves and gadgets aren't just for show, either, as Splinter Cell will require you to make use of almost all of Fisher's various abilities in most every mission.