""Solid" fun, but not terribly addictive"

I'm sure you know by now that this game is all about ''stealth''. It discourages open-area conflicts, and STRONGLY encourages all sorts of stealthy maneuvers, such as quietly sneaking past guards, blending into the shadows to stay invisible, blowing out the lights to stay hidden, etc. Very cool. I can't seem to recall any other game that really makes stealth such a natural and effortless task. By the time you reach the second or third mission, you'll be hugging the shadows and blowing out the lights without thinking. The game deserves high praise for effectively delivering the goods on its premise. You will invariably end up using stealth (and you will most likely enjoy it), because the game heavily conditions you to do so.

Unfortunately, this kind of in-game encouragement/discouragement to control user behavior also means that the game is often very unrealistic. I often had the feeling that each level was ''engineered'' so that Sam Fisher would have an easy time using stealth to complete your goals. As an example, in one mission you are tasked to infiltrate the CIA headquarters, which in real life would be nearly impossible, but in this game, the CIA headquarters is ridiculously dark (Washington scrooging on the electric bill?) which conveniently makes it much easier for you to get through. Also, in almost every level there is usually only one path that you can take. While this makes life much easier, sometimes the game really pushes your suspension of belief in order to accomplish this. For instance, ventilation shafts are always so conveniently placed just when you need them, and you always seem to find the right keycodes for the right doors just when you need them. It would have been nice if the game placed some useless ventilation shafts, or some dummy keycodes, just to make the world seem more like a ''real'' world, instead of a world that seems ''engineered for stealth''. Something like Deus Ex level designs would have been perfection. The world of Splinter Cell is just too heavily scripted.

Another major complaint I have is that often you are given an objective, but no hint as to how to get there. An example would be your boss telling you to ''meet up with person X so that you can proceed to the next area'', but giving you absolutely no clues as to how to get to this person. After a few missions, you will simply be conditioned to forrage through illogical locations to find that crucial ladder/pipe/vent that will take you to the next objective. Not exactly realistic.

Also, since this game emphasizes stealth so much, it really punishes you hard if you slip and blow your cover. If you ''accidentally'' start a gunfight under subpar conditions (read: not hidden in shadows), you will almost always die or suffer heavy losses. Expect to do a LOT of quick saves/quick loads if you don't want to waste inordinate amounts of time repeating the same areas over and over. In the later missions, sometimes it feels like you're playing a puzzle game, where you're just figuring out how to get through each sticky situation by trial and error. (very often you will only get through on your second or third attempt, because once you know where all the guards are, getting through that area becomes exponentially easier)

The storyline itself appropriately resembles a Tom Clancy novel, however it really takes a back seat to the gameplay. I would expect most players to either skip the FMV or watch it with little interest, simply because they seem like an afterthought rather than something that was really worked on. By the time you finish Splinter Cell, you may not even remember a single character's name, other than Sam Fisher, the protagonist.

The graphics in SC are generally well done. I would hesitate to call them exceptional or jaw-dropping, because they really aren't *that* good. While the night-vision and thermal-vision effects are certainly impressive, everything else is just ho hum. Without any goggles, the actual world looks kind of drab, and there are some pronounced aliasing effects along many edges. Also, the performance of the 3d engine isn't too hot, expect below average performance for modest machines. I experienced some serious slowdown in some areas which really didn't seem that complex.

In terms of sound effects and music... well they serve the game well, but really don't stand out on their own for me to say anything about them. The music in particular is nothing exceptional, except that it cleverly assists in building tension when guards are alerted to your presence, or giving you a feeling of panic when the whole base is on full alert.

All in all, while Splinter Cell is a must-play for anyone who is interested in stealth games, there are several fatal flaws that keep it from becoming a real classic or a true candidate for game of the year. While I was somewhat disappointed with the overall experience, I have to admit that the game design is somewhat revolutionary in the sense that it really eases the player into the world of stealth tactics.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 04/02/03, Updated 04/02/03

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