The goal of the videogame stealth genre is to create a character so able and sneaky that the player feels empowered by avoiding conflict rather than initiating it. That leaves the developer with the daunting task of assigning a bevy of sneaky moves—climbing, hanging, crawling—to just a few buttons. Often times games that have brief stealth segments fail miserably, but on its maiden Xbox voyage, Ubisoft Montreal's Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell series got it mostly right. National Security Agency spy Sam Fisher has always has been athletic, able, and a joy to control, (and even sexy) as he slinks up ledges with upper-body strength to die for.
But the first game's levels were often restrictive, offering only select areas where Sam Fisher could pull off some of his ultra-cool moves. His split jump—which was a big promotional pull for the game—could only be used less than 10 times throughout. The first outing remained solid, but was less of a stealth game because Fisher was often pushed along a restrictive track that forced him to always remain as invisible as possible. The moves were there, but the setting wasn't right.
Chaos Theory, the third installment (and the second by the Montreal team), employs many of the techniques used by other stealth games, including open-ended levels and goals. But all those great elements are now mixed with those features that are uniquely Splinter Cell—including Sam's arsenal of moves, the game's immersive and sometimes interactive method of storytelling, the award-winning presentation, and the brilliant multiplayer modes. Ubisoft's green-eyed creation is no longer "green," and Chaos Theory brings to the series the maturity and finesse to match its undeniable appeal.
Chaos Theory's is something of a sequel to the first game; the narrative deals with the same Georgian Information Crisis of the first game. Nerdy mathematicians are being kidnapped. The algorithms could start an informational warfare web that would ignite World War III, this time in Kim Jong Il's stomping grounds. Sure enough, a crisis hits across the Pacific before Sam discovers who the true enemy is—not that he really ever cares. The games seem to have established the fifty-something Sam as someone who cares less about the rhetoric and more about simple human dignity, as is portrayed when he lays the mangled corpse of a prisoner in a more dignified position, instead of letting it hang like a piece of meat.
Throughout the game, Sam visits the coolest looking parts of Latin America, East Asia and New York City. The levels are the real star of the show. The bank level is an early highlight. The ultimate goal is to steal valuable information in a vault— as well as a cool $50 million from the French government— but how you get there is left up to the player. The bank consists of several interconnecting hallways and passages that allow the player to move through the virtual playhouse in different ways. The first game had a CIA mission where Sam had to retrieve data from a server, but there was only one way through the building, and only one way out.
The series' gameplay ground rules have changed. The three-alarms-and-you're-out foundation has been tossed out. Alarms no longer sound just because a body was left in the light. Instead, goals are tossed out the window and may be revisited in a later level. In fact, only two acts cause NSA Director of Operations Irving Lambert to throw a tantrum of biblical proportions—dying, and killing someone that would throw the nation into political hellfire. In a disturbing twist of reality, Sam's killing off of the old boys of the U.S. National Guard is an excusable offense, but killing a soldier of a favored private contractor for the Department of Defense is so unacceptable, the Game Over screen even flashes.
Lighting remains the key element of the gameplay. Keeping the light meter, which tells the player how invisible Sam is, is essential. New to the series, however, is the sound meter. Sound has always been measured to a certain degree in other stealth games, but I don't recall one where sound was actually measured. Not only are the sounds Sam make measured, but a transparent slider displays how much environmental noise is in the area. If Sam's bars don't exceed the slider, he's as quiet as a ghost.
The developers also eschew Sam's useless elbow melee attack for new one-hit lethal and nonlethal close-quarter combat moves, which offer more gameplay variations and plans of attack. No longer is Sam a weak-armed, crouching old fool. Whether it's an open palm strike to the nose, or a knife in the gut, Sam now feels more like the bionic ninja he's supposed to be.
New to the series is a cooperative mode with four fresh missions for Splinter Cells-newbies to run through. But it isn't all just sneaking together. Think Shanghai Circus meets Splinter Cell. Amazingly, the levels in this mode retain the level of quality seen in the single player mode, both in graphics and design. The levels are just as open-ended and large, and the lighting effects don't take a hit despite the added human player. The ESRB rating disclaimer at the beginning of the game warns that gaming experience may change dramatically online. I couldn't have said it better. The online multiplayer game could have been packaged as a separate game altogether.
The versus multiplayer game—with levels that dwarf those of the single player adventure—remains among the most innovative gameplay innovations in this generation. Its two different gameplay types meshed together to create a tense and organic multiplayer game which closely retains the presentation quality of the single player mode.
The low point, however, is the game's stereotypical voice acting. The previous games have always relied on exaggerated accents for its nonplayable characters, but the voice acting in this game borders on offensive. Key gameplay information was lost because I was too busy translating the blubbering pigeon English by admiral of a Japanese operative. The shameful portrayal of Japanese in this game is a complete travesty. You would think Ubisoft never met a Japanese person before. All this talk about honor, shame, and sacks of rice are a real cause for embarrassment.
Derogatory racial portrayals notwithstanding, Splinter Cell Chaos Theory is the most complete next-generation experience on a console yet. It has next-generation presentation, mature appeal, a hip and recognizable character, an ingenious multiplayer game, and smooth online play.
There's little in this game that can be called a major flaw. When I try to think of flaws in the game, I think more of what has yet to be implemented into the series, and less of what actually exists in the game. It's not too often when a series can challenge me to think of the endless possibilities for future installments all because of a sound formula established by its flawed first installment. There are some videogame genres that have reached a creative stalemate between innovation and marketability. The relatively young stealth genre, and the Splinter Cell series, proves that innovation can still keep shareholders and players alike happy.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.