Since the dawn of three-dimensional gaming, developers have struggled to accurately portray realistic features of life itself. Among the most difficult aesthetic qualities of life is the essence of light and shadow. Most games don't treat light as part of the atmosphere, as if it really was in the air within the game, but more of a background layer. ICO presented light in an impressionistic style, straying away from the conventional design of light in games and adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. But for the first time ever, the developers of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell have tamed light and shadow to not only present the most groundbreaking lighting effects in videogame history, but to have it do their bidding. And they have effectively used light and shadow within the gameplay elements, validating the hard work and beauty of the game.
But before you buy in the hype of the 'stealth action redefined' tag on the cover of the game, Splinter Cell does have elements that show potential of redefining the stealth action genre, but didn't fully tap any of the resources they had. Splinter Cell puts you in the role of Sam Fisher, a member of the Third Echelon, denied by the U.S. Government and designed to gather intelligence and carry out missions in any way possible, all in the form of a single operative supported by a remote team. A splinter cell must remain nearly invisible and leave no proof, unless the government will disavow your existence. The world is on the brink of a third World War, and Fisher tips the balance between war and seemingly diplomatic peace.
The amazing thing about the game, besides the lighting, is the controls. Fisher is able to do a number of moves that makes you wish his peers were this versatile. He can crouch, hang off ledges, shimmy, climb, cross pipes hand-over-hand or lift your legs to cross like it was a rope bridge, combat roll, wall jump, peek through doors, rappel, zip line, have your back against the wall and grab other characters and use them as human shields. Above all that is the real star move of the game, the split jump, which has Fisher holding a splits position on a wall as wide as he is tall, and he can remain there or drop onto an unsuspecting victim. You can also shoot while in many of the positions, and if you need to drop off a high ledge, you can do so quietly with a quick tap of a button.
As if that wasn't enough, Fisher is armed to the teeth for stealth combat. He has night vision goggles, already a trademark for the game, with amazing filters and depth of field that are a must see for graphic nuts. There are often times where the game actually looks better in night vision. In addition to a standard 5.72 x28mm pistol, he also has an all-purpose 5.56x45mm assault rifle that can also be used to snipe, tranquilize, electrocute, distract, spy and gas enemies, as well as filling them with holes with single or automatic fire. The only thing missing is Fisher's hand-to-hand combat skills. All he could pull off when things go awry and you're out of ammo is a dinky little elbow swipe, which doesn't even knock enemies out in one hit. By the time you're going for that second crucial hit for the knockdown, you've already been shot up so many times you might as well restart from the last save point, another issue I'll get back to.
With his arsenal of moves and weapons, you'll be infiltrating and navigating complexes while sticking to the shadows. There is an in-game visibility meter that gauges your chances of being seen by the enemy. If it's all the way to the left, you've attained near-invisibility. If it's to the right, you're a deer in headlights. This is where the landmark lighting comes in. Splinter Cell is a rare case where the stellar graphics aren't used merely for show, or even for immersion, though the lighting is certainly both. Sticking to the shadows is a must, and just in case anybody has any doubts, the gameplay is designed for stealth. None of that 'choosing your own style: run-and-gun or stealth' stuff here that can be found in most other games. It's rare that you'd actually have enough ammo left after a scuffle with soldiers, because of some shoddy hit detection that I'll also get back to. Some levels require you to refrain from killing period, or the mission would be over.
No, you must progress through this game carefully, following enemy patterns and watching out for traps and cameras. You've got help from the night vision and the later-attained thermal goggles, along with lock picks, camera jammers, wall mines, flares, grenades, Medkits and an optic fiber camera you can slide under doors to spy on the other side undetected. It's also usually necessary to hide bodies. Sometimes when you reach a certain point in the level (usually after a saved point), if you've left bodies behind an alarm would ring. Sound that alarm too many times and the mission will be pulled.
The controls are near perfect, not only allowing you to do so much with so little buttons, but also offering true analog control over your character. The analog sticks (the left used for movement and the right used for fixing the camera) are responsive, giving the player an amazing sense of control over the character. Swinging the camera effectively makes nearly every scene one of the most remarkable images videogames have ever produced, also working as peripheral vision and being pretty competent. The shadows are to die for. Years from now developers will still look at the shadows of a fence, or the silhouette of a moth dancing on Fisher's face, and wonder how the developers did it.
In the documentary that can be played within the game, the designers indicated that the inspiration for the three-dotted night vision green glow was Batman, most notably the silhouette his of cape and cowl. When you saw the cape and cowl, like on the cover of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, you would instantly know it was Batman, and that it would be a fear-inducing image. The same goes with Fisher and his instantly recognizable (curiously except to enemies) three-pronged night vision goggles. It's chilling to see Fisher hold a gun to someone's head, back into a dark corner and see nothing but the green glow. Then you'd hear a yelp, and Fisher would emerge alone. It's effective, practical and pretty damn cool looking.
Despite all this praise however, the game is flawed because it never allows you to fully utilize Fisher's abilities on your own. Each obstacle, each fence, each wire and each pipe is strategically placed in a specific order for you to do. To enter a Chinese embassy in Myanmar, there's no other way to enter besides zip-lining onto a ledge and crawling through a window. You can't go through the front door. There's no vent to climb into. This is a very linear game, and like Matt Weise said about The Mark Of Kri, one can't but feel it's a wasted opportunity to limit the player's freedom in choosing how to approach a situation. In Splinter Cell's case, it's very limited on what you can or can't do. The game gives you the ability to interrogate while holding someone up, but only certain characters, not all. Fortunately, the variety of weapons at your disposal opens things up more in terms of combat. The distraction camera has you shooting a camera, making it whistle at enemies so they can investigate it, and blasting gas into their faces while you shoot out the rest of their buddies not affected by the gas. Definitely an ideal situation for a stealth operative, and you gain immense satisfaction for a plan well done.
The fact that the game is linear isn't a hindrance though. Most games are linear one way or another; it's only how the game functions within that linearity that might bring it down. In an interview with the Official Xbox Magazine, Mathieu Ferland, the game's producer, said that they didn't have enough time to improve the physics system of the bodies. But shooting an enemy in anywhere but a perfect headshot results in the enemy just taking it. It's a little frustrating, not to mention damaging to the suspension of belief, to swing around and shoot them square in the heart or groin, only to have them stand there still pulling the alarm or the trigger. Rare's GoldenEye 007 pioneered the hit detection system years ago, and it's disappointing that most games haven't implemented this more, and that the entire body, save the head, registers pain only within a invisible overall damage meter, and not outwardly hindering the enemies' progress. If this looks like a 21st century game, it sure didn't play like it sometimes.
The game does a good job of not putting much emphasis on cutscenes, and the poor quality of them shows that intent. But a definite plus is the implementation of story progression through gameplay. When you're required to listen to a conversation through a glass elevator, you're still able to control the movement of the microphone. Not only does this improve the cohesiveness of the overall story, but it also allows the narration to progress through the spectacular in-game graphics, not the awkward models in the cutscenes. It's noteworthy that the in-game lighting adds so much to the game that it's much more impressive than the lackluster pasty lighting of the cutscenes.
At its core, Splinter Cell is a relatively simple game giving the player more tricks than the game seems to need. Because of the non-decisions you make for most of the game, the only real freedom the game offers is the versatile assault rifle, giving you many options to approach a potentially disastrous situation with cameras, guards and innocent bystanders all factoring into your final decision. It's sad to see so much potential lost in what is your basic action game with heavily emphasized stealth elements. Otherwise Splinter Cell is an outstandingly detailed game, ushering in a new age of graphics, and hopefully more games will follow suit in using graphics not only as a tool for immersing a player into the experience, but also allowing players to use it as part of their arsenal. And hopefully future installments of this game will allow freedom to the players, visible pain to the enemies and an equal amount of versatile moves and weapons. And what a game that could turn out to be.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.