The campaign is close to 10 hours long, and it ends dramatically but abruptly. The several difficulty options, optional objectives, and relatively free-form gameplay make it more highly replayable than the previous Splinter Cell campaigns. Of course, you've got other modes competing for your attention. The new cooperative mode is very endearing, considering co-op modes are grossly underrepresented in today's games, and considering Chaos Theory's implementation lets you and your partner perform a whole bunch of cool moves that one spy alone couldn't accomplish. For example, one spy can toss his partner over high walls or across chasms, and they may act like human ladders for one another, too. These different co-op moves look fantastic, but they're executed in very specific locations and situations, so their implementation feels somewhat contrived.
Co-op Splinter Cell offers some unique thrills, but there isn't enough great co-op content to go around.
Beyond that, co-op Chaos Theory plays just like the campaign, except with two players running around instead of one. It's probably not something you'd want to play with a stranger, but coordinating attacks with a friend can be a lot of fun. The thing is, Chaos Theory includes just four co-op missions (plus a training mission that does little but showcase the various co-op moves you can do), and the one set in Seoul is by far the best. It ties in with the main campaign's storyline and is tightly structured and altogether exciting. The other co-op missions feel a lot bigger and emptier, and they suffer for it. For some reason, you don't have access to a map in co-op, nor is there any easy way to tell where your partner is if you get separated. As such, the co-op missions can devolve into the two of you wandering around, looking for where to go next or for each other. All in all, cooperative Chaos Theory is a great concept that's fairly well executed, but you can tell that more effort went into the single-player campaign than into the handful of derivative co-op missions.
Then there's the four-player versus mode. Last year's Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow introduced the whole spies-versus-mercenaries multiplayer concept to Splinter Cell, and it was one of the most innovative multiplayer games of the year. Chaos Theory's version of this multiplayer mode includes a few key differences, but it's basically the same thing, so fans will be able to dive right in while new players will have a lot to learn. Interestingly, before you can get online, Chaos Theory actually forces you to complete a brief "exam" by going through a quick scenario as a spy. It's a nice gesture, designed to help ensure that those playing Chaos Theory online basically know what they're doing. But Chaos Theory's competitive multiplayer mode is much more complex than this little exam map implies. The spies resemble Sam Fisher, but they have a distinctly different feel and some of their own unique moves, while the mercenaries are controlled from a first-person viewpoint yet are slower and more complicated to control than your typical FPS character. In addition, there's the fact that you need to learn the game's big, rather intimidating levels, about half of which are new and half of which are updated versions of Pandora Tomorrow maps.
Pandora Tomorrow notwithstanding, there's nothing quite like this multiplayer mode, which definitely captures the sense of having to hunt your prey. Apart from the sprawling new maps, the main difference between Chaos Theory's and Pandora Tomorrow's multiplayer mode is that Chaos Theory merges the previous game's different multiplayer variants into a new "story" mode. Story mode amplifies both the complexity and the sophistication of Splinter Cell multiplayer by requiring spies to sequentially complete multiple kinds of objectives in different locations around each map, whereas the mercenaries must move swiftly to defend those objectives. Again, there's a very interesting dynamic at play, since the more-heavily armed characters are actually on the defensive side, and both types of characters have a variety of unique tricks (including a few new ones since the last game), not to mention a completely different perspective. Besides story mode, there's now a straight deathmatch mode, as well as a disk hunt mode that's kind of like a game of keep-away.
The Shadownet spies and the ARGUS mercenaries once again butt heads in Splinter Cell's one-of-a-kind competitive multiplayer mode.
Ultimately, the game's multiplayer mode is an acquired taste, and for better or worse, it caters to the hardcore. Many of the maps feel very big with the maximum of four players in them, and if you haven't learned every inch of the map, much less come to grips with the idiosyncrasies of the spy and mercenary sides, then you're potentially a huge liability to your teammate. This isn't necessarily a fun multiplayer game to play with strangers, and even if you play it with friends, expect to spend a lot more time searching for each other instead of fighting.
Splinter Cell's famous good looks have always helped the series a great deal, and sure enough, they're once again a big part of the appeal of Chaos Theory. Though Fisher and his foes look a bit too much like plastic action figures, the game's incredible animations, meticulously detailed environments, and gorgeous lighting effects more than compensate. The slew of new moves and animations help make the experience feel like more than just a rehash of the previous Splinter Cells. However, the graphical enhancements made to the campaign mode make for a starker contrast with the multiplayer mode, which doesn't look quite as sharp. In all, Chaos Theory holds onto the Splinter Cell mantle of being one of the best-looking games out there.
It's also a great-sounding game, though at times you'll wish that the audio was implemented better. An original soundtrack by electronica artist Amon Tobin punctuates the campaign and the game's menus, lending a superspy feel to the proceedings whenever it chimes in. As in previous Splinter Cell games, the soundtrack's cues are actually a little haphazard. For example, you'll be skulking about without any background music for the most part, and then the beats suddenly kick in if you alert anyone to your presence or get in a fight. When the coast is clear, the music fades as quickly as it picks up, dampening some of the suspense you might otherwise experience if you weren't sure if other foes were nearby. The music sounds terrific, at any rate, as does the voice work from the game's main cast. Fearsomely loud gunfire and other well-done ambient effects help sell the whole experience, even though the game's international cast of characters still speaks in stereotypically accented English. You'll also hear some of the characters' voices noticeably change as they go from chattering with each other to taunting you in a fight. It's not that bad, it's just something that can undermine some of your suspension of disbelief in a game that works hard to be convincing.
Chaos Theory isn't a radical overhaul on past Splinter Cell games, but it's got enough compelling new features to make it as fresh and exciting as ever.
Differences between the Xbox and PC versions of Chaos Theory are slight. You can save anywhere and at any time in both versions, which is a mixed blessing, since this convenience is counterweighted by you having to think about saving your progress or risk having to replay long sequences--else, you're tempted to save constantly, prior to any potentially dangerous situation. The Xbox version features an option to play the co-op mode in a split-screen, which works well enough and is good to have. The PC version is capable of looking even richer and sharper than the Xbox version, provided you have a high-end PC--but the same system will probably expose some of the graphical shortcomings of the less-detailed multiplayer mode. On the PC, you can also optionally hear your foes speaking in their native languages, though this option isn't implemented well. The foreign dialogue isn't subtitled, and if you interrogate one of the foes, he'll break into English, which ensures your understanding of the situation but comes across as even less believable than the default setting. Controls are ultimately a bit better on the Xbox, partly because the PC version includes some irritating inconsistencies between the default key bindings for the solo and co-op modes as well as for the versus mode. Both versions include a few too many unskippable splash screens, in-game advertisements, and undesirable loading times for comfort. Multiplayer is easier to get into using the Xbox Live service than on the PC through Ubisoft's proprietary Ubi.com, which makes you jump through a few hoops before you can get into a match. Both versions retail for the same price, whereas PC versions of games like this used to cost a few dollars less.
Splinter Cell Chaos Theory fulfills a lot of the previously untapped potential of its predecessors' single-player portions, while successfully extending the impressive multiplayer offerings of Pandora Tomorrow. It's got to be the most fully featured stealth action game to date, so if you like the idea of high-tech espionage, it's certainly going to have plenty to offer you. The game's different ingredients do seem as if they were cobbled together, though, and Chaos Theory ultimately could have benefited from a greater sense of cohesion. Yet, for whatever relatively slight shortcomings the game may have, this is a case of the sum of the parts amounting to a whole lot.