The third iteration of the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell stealth action franchise features the continuing adventures of Sam Fisher, a top secret agent who's sent in to accomplish the US government's dirty work when political situations go sour. It's also got a brand-new two-player cooperative mode in addition to an updated version of the innovative spies-versus-mercenaries competitive multiplayer mode introduced in the second Splinter Cell game. So there's a lot to it, and there's definitely a lot to like about it, especially for Splinter Cell fans who felt a little too restricted while playing as Fisher in the previous games. With that said, Chaos Theory sometimes has a designed-by-committee feel due to its many disparate parts, and despite the game's grittier new theme and its new "Mature" rating, it's going to offer a familiar experience to Splinter Cell veterans. But even if some of the changes are marginal, this is still the most entertaining, most well-rounded game in the series yet.
Sam Fisher's not playing around in Splinter Cell Chaos Theory.
Though the competitive multiplayer mode and new cooperative campaign are the most original aspects of Chaos Theory, the solo campaign is the highlight. It's once again composed of a linear series of missions, but these are generally bigger, more open-ended and simply more fun than those of the previous games. Set in the near future, the campaign focuses on the threat of informational warfare and a tenuous relationship between the United States, North Korea, and Japan. Enter Sam Fisher, who's summoned to various international hot spots to find the truth and possibly to silence certain dangerous individuals. You'll control him from a third-person perspective as he infiltrates enemy compounds and ventilates his foes.
Though the premise of the story is a techno-thriller that lives up to the Tom Clancy name, storytelling has never been Splinter Cell's strong suit, and Chaos Theory is no exception. Some unfocused between-mission cutscenes sometimes set the stage for your next assignment, but a lot of your mission details are conveyed in boring, easily skippable premission monologues by your commanding officers and informants. Unsurprisingly, the best parts of the story happen during the missions themselves, where you'll often hear Fisher exchanging banter with his off-site crew. Fisher, once again brought to life by gravelly voiced actor Michael Ironside (Total Recall, Starship Troopers), is a great character, thanks to his dry, melancholy sense of humor. But the game sometimes tries too hard to be clever, with a few highly conspicuous attempts at self-referential jokes. At any rate, you shouldn't play this game for the plot--you should play it because no other game does this well at making you feel like a deadly spy working behind enemy lines.
Fisher is deadlier than ever this time around, thanks partly to his new combat knife, which he has inexplicably started using since his last assignment. The knife is mostly just a cosmetic change from the previous Splinter Cells, since in those games Fisher could put his opponents into a choke hold, whereas he now holds them at knifepoint (bold new look, same difference). Even though he threatens his captives with a knife to their throats, Fisher can't actually cut them once he's grabbed them from behind. He can either choke them to unconsciousness or deliver a fatal knee strike to their lower back. Prior to grabbing them, he can now also stab his foes to death quickly, quietly, and, for some reason, bloodlessly. And though he's replaced his old elbow smash with a palm strike or a punch to the temple, he can optionally still knock his foes unconscious as opposed to killing them outright.
The campaign offers you the freedom to do things your way, which makes it fun and replayable--and better than the previous Splinter Cells.
One of the reasons Chaos Theory is easier than its predecessors is because Fisher's melee attacks are more effective, allowing him to reliably eliminate foes with a single swift attack, without even resorting to using his guns. There's actually no difference in gameplay terms between killing a foe and knocking him out. It's nice to have the choice for variety's sake, but the options could have been more meaningful. And as shocking as it initially might be to see the look of terror on the faces of Fisher's foes whenever he puts them in a vice grip, you'll soon get used to this effect since it's always identical. At any rate, it's good to see a bunch of great, new animations in the game. Fisher has always moved with incredibly lifelike grace, but he looks even better in action now. Probably the best of the new animations is how, when Fisher is creeping near to an unaware opponent, he'll naturally shift his weight away from the foe, putting as much distance between the two of them as he possibly can. It's a subtle effect that really makes you feel like you're stalking your foes in the darkness.
Fisher's got a bunch of other surprising new moves here, some of which are possible thanks to the knife, and others that allow him to take out his foes in interesting new ways. However, you won't get to use new moves often. You'll instead end up using the same sorts of techniques that were central to the first two Splinter Cell games. You'll frequently shoot out lights, switching to your night vision or thermal vision to aid you while your foes stumble blind. You'll also frequently creep up on foes from behind and consider shooting them in the head, using either your pistol or your newly redesigned SC-20K multipurpose assault rifle. You'll also get to pick locks, hack into computers, crawl through air ducts and other tight spots, slip past security cameras, and more.
So, what's so different about Chaos Theory's campaign if you're doing the same sort of stuff as before? It's that the campaign is much more open-ended now. This latest Splinter Cell generally gives you a lot more freedom to pursue your objectives by any means necessary. For example, when faced with a locked door, you don't strictly need to have the key code to get through it anymore--you can now hack the electronic lock or simply break the lock with your knife. The variety is good to have, though it highlights that the third installment in the series still makes use of its predecessors' utilitarian system that lets you choose context-sensitive actions like "switch object" and "grab character" from a text menu, rather than let you perform these actions more intuitively. Also, your pistol now has a secondary firing mode, which can temporarily disable electronics--useful for creating darkness as well as distraction. And whereas many of the older Splinter Cell missions ended in an automatic failure if you sounded an alarm too many times (something that Chaos Theory pokes fun at early on), most of the missions this time don't restrict you like that, nor do they force you to hide enemies' bodies or spare their lives. As mentioned, missions also have optional objectives and sometimes multiple paths to the main objectives. You can even go into each mission with a different arsenal, suited either for stealth, assault, or a balanced combination of the two, though your choice probably won't have a major impact on how you play.
Your foes aren't totally believable, but sneaking up on them doesn't cease being exciting.
All of this allows you to improvise while playing Chaos Theory, rather than going through a trial-and-error process until you figure out the "right" way to proceed. That's a real improvement, though it literally means you can approach most of the game's missions much more carelessly than you could in previous Splinter Cells. In fact, outside of a few specific sequences, Splinter Cell vets will find the campaign to be a walk in the park at the normal difficulty. Still, if you want a more-meticulous challenge, the game offers multiple difficulty settings, the tougher of which are more punishing of tactical errors by making Fisher much more vulnerable to enemy fire.
The international locales of Fisher's escapades are also a major highlight. The game's beautifully detailed graphics make all the different settings you'll visit, from an ominous lighthouse and an inconspicuous ocean freighter to the streets of Seoul and a Japanese teahouse, very believable. A fairly useful map is always there to help guide you to your next objective, but the missions are designed in a linear fashion that tends to prevent you from getting lost, but not at the expense of seeming overly simple or straightforward. The enemies you'll face in Chaos Theory are also somewhat smarter, or at least different, than before. They'll notice if the lights go out or if a door is left ajar, and they'll wander over to investigate. And, if you try to snipe them and miss, they'll flinch believably or maybe even dive out of the line of fire. They'll attack you from behind cover, and they are dangerous in numbers. Most of them are still completely unable to see you when it's dark, so it's really not that hard to quietly creep up behind or around them. But getting to see your foes' new tricks, and coming up with new and interesting ways of distracting them or luring them to you, is definitely part of the fun.