The ultimate example of a difficult game to review, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell possesses the best of what modern videogames offer as well as some of the worst from the past. Unfortunately in this case, the bad clearly outweighs the good and prevents the game from reaching its full (and considerable) potential.
Before going any further, let me give praise where it's due and commend the game's astounding graphics and effects. If I were to score it based only on visuals, it would be a perfect ten. The usage of shadow adds outstanding depth to being stealthy, and the game's night-vision is stunning to see. The environments look as good or better than anything else available on consoles today, and Sam Fisher himself is a great addition to the pantheon of videogame luminaries. This grizzled old vet can definitely give Solid Snake a run for his money any day of the week.
With that said, there's more to a good game than graphics and style. I'm in full agreement with Gene's assessment of the gameplay, and quite disappointed with the true nature of this beast.
As Gene noted, Splinter Cell is both extremely linear and highly restrictive. As a result, I was constantly forced to suss out the developers' "one correct solution" to each challenge, and figure out exactly what steps they wanted me to perform. There just isn't any freedom to try your own ideas or strategies despite the wealth of gadgets in Sam's back pocket. Strip away the eye candy and you're left with an archaic "try and die" style of gaming where success comes by memorizing every level's obstacles through countless deaths and failures. This unconvincing and inflexible structure can't hold a candle to the organic, freeform missions found in Deus Ex or Hitman 2—both excellent examples of next-generation thinking in related genres. Splinter Cell's brand of play feels like it went out of style with the Cold War, and its designers are going to have to work harder to keep up with the modern espionage scene.
While my hands felt completely tied going through the levels, other games have been guilty of similar crimes. It wouldn't have been so intolerable if not for the straw that broke the camel's back: unpredictable hit detection. Similar to Gene's experience, connecting bullets with their targets was about as reliable as rolling dice. The first time through an area, I could pop a key lightbulb with one shot. After dying and retracing my steps, I emptied an entire clip and still wasn't able to shoot the same light out. This also goes for headshots. Sometimes I could down a guard with a single clean hit, and the next time the same guard could take one in the skull, two in the chest and keep on coming after sounding the alarm. In a game where one alert can fritz an entire mission, gunplay needs to be significantly tighter than this to avoid needless frustration.
I was very excited to get my hands on Splinter Cell and had been looking forward to it since the first screenshots. The Xbox has been badly in need of another superstar title besides Halo, and Splinter Cell was poised to be it. The game's abundant "cool" is plain even to casual observers, and it's almost inconceivable that it would fail to impress. However, as much as I wanted to like it, the various gadgetry and other elements just don't come together without a solid core to attach themselves to. I wish Ubi Soft had spent more time expanding the gameplay instead of tweaking the lighting and shadow. As striking as the presentation is, the actual play feels very shallow and limited. If these issues are addressed, a future sequel should be incredible.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.