Review by midwinter

"Give Me A Shadow Or Give Me Death"

Up until a few years ago, France based UBI Soft was a relatively unknown quality in mainstream gaming circles. Their software history was spotty at best, and their number one contribution to gaming history was an unusual, limbless man beast by the name of Rayman. It wasn't until their acquisition of popular American development house, Red Storm Entertainment in August of 2000, that UBI Soft became recognized for it's consistently high quality software. Since then, the freshly relocated and renamed, UBI Soft Montreal, has shot it's parent company to the forefront of the action gaming scene. With a little help from their long time collaborator and popular author, Tom Clancy, UBI Soft Montreal eventually released one of the most ground breaking titles of 2002, Splinter Cell. What Splinter Cell accomplished was not so much a revolution but an evolution, as it's well blended mix of stealth based action and intelligent story telling struck a chord with many fans.

Splinter Cell tells the story of Sam Fischer, a ''Splinter Cell'' operative of the NSA's highly secretive Third Echelon team. As Sam, the player must investigate the disappearance of 2 CIA operatives in the ''ex-Soviet'' state of Georgia. Things are not what they seem there though, and as the truth behind the missing agents begins to emerge, Sam learns of an international conspiracy that threatens to throw the entire world into chaos and turmoil. The story's many twists and turns are sure to keep the player constantly surprised until the very end. Incidentally, TV's Michael Ironside (V, ER) is perfectly cast as the voice of Sam Fischer, as his gruff voice lends a credible air of menace and believability to all of Sam's dealings. Rarely has such care been put into the casting of a suitable voice actor for a game character, and Splinter Cell shows what a difference careful planning can make.

Once the game is underway, it becomes evident that the careful thinking displayed in the construction of the background story has carried over into the gameplay itself. The first obstacle that must be overcome is a wonderfully thorough training course that verses the player in virtually every facet of the game. This training mission is so extensive that by the time it has been completed, the player should be feeling up to taking on the world. Every technique the game has to offer is explored in great depth, from the under-used split jump to the execution and disposal of enemy guards. One of the more unique techniques Sam has at his disposal is his ability to accost an enemy guard. By approaching guards silently from behind, Sam may incapacitate or use them in any number of ways. From interrogating them and then knocking them out, to using them to open certain locked doors or simply as a human body shields, the action is only as limited as your imagination.

All the technique in the world isn't going to go far if the player isn't given the right environment with which to use it in, and once more Splinter Cell goes above and beyond the call of duty. Each of the 10 maps is as vast as it is detailed, and is comprised of many wonderfully scripted encounters. The different environments on offer present their own unique challenges, thus constantly forcing the player to adapt to a new set of rules. This variety in gameplay goes a long way in not only throwing the player out of their comfort zone, but in also keeping the under-lying stealth action from going stale. No matter what the game throws at you though, it's always in the player's best interests to stay in the shadows and use the dark corners to their advantage. By doing so, entire maps can be negotiated and objectives completed with little or no enemy contact. This isn't the only tactic available however, and players with less patience may want to be more gung-ho about how they play Splinter Cell. And that, is the true beauty of this game, for every player is likely to find a different way to enjoy it...

The wide variety of weapons and gadgets available assists the free form gameplay greatly as they allow for a number of different solutions to each problem. Gas grenades, sticky cameras, lock picks and optical cables, among other well thought out gadgets may come into play in the least expected ways. There is one moment during the game when the Sam must sneak into a Chinese embassy via the sewerage system. In order to reach the objective, the player must first get past the 3 guards patrolling the sewers without killing them. This can be accomplished in any number of ways, such as by the use of a smoke grenade to hide the players presence or the breaking of a bottle to distract the guard's attention. What was surprising however was that with a little more thought, other more inventive methods come to light. The player may want to shoot out the lights so they can sneak past unnoticed, or perhaps you might have noticed that all 3 guards were standing in a puddle of water making them prime targets for a well placed stun dart. Unconventional solutions to the dilemmas encountered are everywhere, and only await a little lateral thinking on behalf of the player to be exploited. It's pure genius!

The joypad commands are well mapped out, giving a sense of instant familiarity and comfort to those who have played a stealth action game before. While the jumping could have been a little more responsive, the action itself isn't integral to most of the game, so this minor grievance can be easily over looked. For the most part however, Sam controls very well and players should have no problems interacting with the game environment...

It's fortunate that Splinter Cell controls so well as you're going to need all the help you can get when battling with the enemy guards. UBI Soft-Montreal has done a superb job in constructing some the tightest AI routines around. Guards react instinctively to the player's actions at all times, often working as a team in combat. Once alerted to your presence, the guards start to behave more cautiously, often taunting the player into revealing their position. Of course, if you had been playing the game correctly then the guards should never have known that you were even there! Shame on you! When it comes to cleaning up after a fire fight, be sure to conceal the bodies as best as you can. Anything left behind can be picked up by a passing guard who will then raise the alarm thus making further progress even more difficult.

The appeal of Splinter Cell shifts into the sublime when it's graphics and sound are taken into account. No other game thus far has managed to present such realistic looking gaming environments... ever. Employing a third person perspective with which to display the action, Splinter Cell constantly gives the player the best possible view with which to appreciate their surroundings. Everything has been lovingly rendered and comes packed with the highest level of detail. Graffiti is splashed on the walls and rubbish lines the streets, environments such as this are indeed a joy to play within. As lighting plays such an important key role in any stealth action game, I'm pleased to report that Splinter Cell's lighting effects are truly first class. Lighting is completely rendered in real time making it easy for the player to manipulate the environment to suit their own needs. The lighting effects are so well done that should Sam step in front of a light source, his shadow will be cast onto the background behind him! This is what owning a Xbox is all about ladies and gentlemen...

Equally as important to the graphics is the sound, and once more Splinter Cell manages to deliver. The game's environments really do seem to come to life as guards chat amongst themselves while on patrol and the background hums with activity. Every surface in the game carries a corresponding sound effect, so should the player not watch where they are going, their cover may be given away with so much as one wrong foot step. Running on a stone surface will create footfalls loud enough for any nearby guards to hear, while running across carpet or grass will have no effect what so ever. The background music is outstanding is outstanding and conveys the right amount of menace when ever the situation calls for. I was particularly impressed with the choice of the game's opening theme which was ''Name Of The Game'' by Crystal Method. While such techno tunes may not be instantly associated with the more subdued nature of the stealth action genre, ''Name Of The Game'' does a fantastic job of getting the blood pumping before the game starts...

Even once the final credits have run and Splinter Cell has been completed, the fun isn't over yet. Thanks to Xbox Live, new levels that help flesh out the already fantastic story and extend the experience may be downloaded at the player's convenience. Surprisingly enough these extra levels are not only of the same excellent quality as seen in the main game, but are also totally free! Who can say no to that?

It's not very often that a game is able to live up to the hype behind it, but this time, UBI Soft has done a magnificent job. Not only are they responsible for one of the BEST Xbox games of 2002, but their recent reputation for excellence has gained a little more credibility. A first class game from a first class developer, Splinter Cell is one of the few games that belongs on the shelf of any serious Xbox gamer. Check it out!

Pros
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* Outstanding game design
* Involving story that manages to surprise
* Easy to control
* Beautifully designed game environments
* Stunning use of graphics and sound
* Good variety of weapons and gadgets to employ
* Interesting story
* Tight enemy AI
* Extra content available for download from Xbox Live
* Sam is more man than Snake

Cons
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* You will eventually finish it, making the wait for Splinter Cell 2 that much longer


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 10/18/03, Updated 10/27/03


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