Some things were not meant to be. Time machines, Republican administrations that care about the welfare of the country, and fat-free donuts that actually taste like donuts are all things that people wish for but can't really ever exist. Another thing to add to this list of impossibles? A respectable version of Splinter Cell on the PSP. Although this third-person espionage franchise has only gotten better on consoles, some objectives are simply beyond the capability of sneaky superspy Sam Fisher; going portable is one of them.
Simply put, the game can't hang on PSP. It's a terrible fit. There are a slew of issues to deal with in Essentials—any one on its own wouldn't be disastrous, but all of them together combined ends up amounting to a supremely dissatisfying experience. The underlying flaw that contributes to all of the other problems is that the developers failed to take the PSP's strengths and weaknesses into account. Instead of getting a sublime experience tailor-made for play on the go, the end result is a clunky, awkward formula squashed down and shoehorned into a place it was never meant to be.
The prime example of this flawed plan is the intolerable camera. A stealth game like Splinter Cell requires a constant, high level of environmental awareness for success. Without a second analog stick, Essentials is hamstrung by mapping camera control to the circle button and making Sam completely stop when the viewpoint is moved. Then, when Sam starts prowling again, the camera remains exactly where it was left. Complicating things is the fact that if Sam is spotted by an enemy, it's impossible to quickly plan an escape routes because he can't look and move at the same time. Did no one testing the game see this as a problem? The camera scheme is totally regressive and unacceptable in an era where we should be progressing towards ease of use and practicality.
The other functions in Essentials suffer from the same lack of optimization for the PSP, just like the unwieldy camera. For example, each of the directions on the D-pad serves double duty; tapping left switches between vision modes, holding left lets Sam hug a wall. Tapping up goes into his binoculars, holding it opens his inventory. It's not very elegant or natural, especially when one takes into account the impossibility of moving Sam or maneuvering the camera without the game grinding to a halt. And while I'm on the topic of control, it baffled me that Sam could not vary his movement speed on-the-fly. The inability to change movement speeds totally defeats the purpose of having analog control at all.
Besides the control problems, it's just a fact that some games need a certain level of graphic quality for the experience to be fully realized. Splinter Cell is one of these games. After all, a sophisticated display of light, dark, and shadow is something the series has built itself on. Although Splinter Cell on a console is a leader in graphics, Essentials in its current state doesn't even begin to make the cut.
The game is dark—so dark it's nearly impossible to see anything on screen unless the PSP is played in a low-light or dark area, a serious problem for a game designed to be played on a portable. Clicking on Sam's nightvision goggles is a partial solution, but not an effective or satisfying one. It's granted that the PSP is already inclined to have some glare problems due to the highly reflective screen, but things here are so hard to see that I had to play this game under my desk at work before I could even begin to get my bearings; playing it outside or in my car was impossible.
Other presentation issues abound, like literally seeing the inside of Sam's head when the camera is in a small space, or the way the camera gets hung up on environmental objects. The architecture comes off as blocky and simple, and the artificial intelligence is poor, a perfect example being when I opened a door and accidentally bumped a guard standing on the other side of it. He did not move, or even react as I opened and closed the door, hitting him several times. I counted six impacts before I got bored with the experiment and bashed him out of the way.
To make an embarrassing story short, Splinter Cell: Essentials is a mess. For a series that leads the stealth genre and has worked hard to make itself more accessible and more polished with each successive sequel, an entry like this—even on a portable—can only be seen as a miserable failure. Back to boot camp, Sam. The mission is aborted.