The Xbox game comes to Playstation 2. But is it really "Stealth Action Redefined"? Not exactly.
From the very beginning, from those early press releases, Splinter Cell became the Xbox's answer to Metal Gear Solid 2; now that the game has been released for Playstation 2 and GameCube (by the way, the GameCube version takes advantage of the connectivity with the GameBoy Advance), it's more proper to see it as Ubisoft's answer to Konami's stealth action king.
I don't know exactly where all this started. I guess that good part of the Splinter Cell vs. Metal Gear Solid battle began on the printed and online press. I remember a long and amazingly biased article on some big magazine, published a few weeks after the first announcements about Splinter Cell, in which the concept was basically "Metal Gear Solid is dead, Splinter Cell is THE new king in the stealth action genre"; I really can't understand why journalists must always make comparisons before testing a game: and frankly, the fact that a game like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty was easily given the "great but surpassed stuff" treatment in so many previews of Splinter Cell made me laugh. And made me terminate my yearly subscriptions to a couple of gaming magazines.
Leaving aside the lack of farsightedness of those "journalists", Splinter Cell turned out to have very little in common with Metal Gear Solid 2. It's probably difficult to imagine two more different approaches to the concept of "stealth action" in a videogame. Splinter Cell is mission based, ultra-realistic, narrower in scope than it might seem at first, and ideologically a perfect fruit of the "established" U.S. culture; Metal Gear Solid 2 is story driven, realistic and absolutely imaginative at the same time, broader in scope than it might seem at first (many people replayed the game dozens of times). But Metal Gear Solid 2 is also a game that reflects upon certain key themes of our society, that provokes the player in many ways (I received an hilarious e-mail of a sexually troubled player who wanted to resell the game after the "nude" section), and that first of all goes against any form of too easy Manichaesim. And this is a rarity.
Story and Ideology
Splinter Cell has a story though, and the Playstation 2 and Gamecube's versions have been enriched by roughly 30 minutes of good CG movies that make the characters and the situations a bit less flat than in the original game.
It's the year 2003; in order to assure the national security of the U.S., the National Security Agency has developed a top-secret project to collect intelligence that can't be obtained by "traditional means". The "Splinter Cell(s)" of the title are the special units of "Third Echelon", consisting of a lone field agent supported by a remote team; a Splinter Cell acts in the shadows, stealth is its best ally, and secrecy is its strongest weapon. Sam Fisher, the hero of the game, is one of the best Third Echelon's agents; a trained veteran, Sam gained a long experience on the field in many key conflicts of the latest years. After the disappearance of two CIA agents in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Third Echelon orders Sam to locate the missing agents and to gather more info about a possible terrorist threat behind the whole business. That's just the beginning of your adventure.
While the concept, the character, the story behind Splinter Cell (that's indeed very Clancy-esque) was designed and created by the creative team at UbiSoft, Tom Clancy gave his full support throughout the whole development; it seems that any idea of the developers, for example the use of special gadgets, stealth techniques, and so on has been approved by Clancy; this gives Splinter Cell the unmistakable sense of realism of Clancy's novels: every weapon or gadget in the game, including the most "sci-fi" elements, does exist or is currently under development.
Sam Fisher isn't exactly a memorable character, at least not thanks to the story or to the script of the game. He's a soldier; he has orders, and he must follow them, asking no questions, blindly believing in the institution he serves. As a whole, Splinter Cell is a game that seems to fully adhere to the promoted U.S.'s way of intending "patriotism"; in the name of "national security", it's right to interfere in the affairs of foreign states, it's right to pass over government institutions, and it's right to accept the existence of a "Third Echelon", the Big Brother that all sees, all knows.
That's the enormous difference between Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid 2. In Kojima's game, Solid Snake, unlike Sam Fisher, started his work into the "System" to later discover that maybe the System itself was the source of the "evil" (but, please, be careful using this word) he was fighting. Nobody says that the methods shown in Splinter Cell are completely wrong or that they couldn't serve to the cause of peace, but the game does nothing to instil even a tiny doubt into the player. Kojima talked about perspective, about the fact that if you're into the "System" you could be completely unable to see and understand its rules, the forces that truly guide your actions. What we perceive is reality? What we consider truth is The Truth? What's good? What's evil? Forget these questions, Splinter Cell just says, "You have the right to spy, steal, destroy, and assassinate to ensure that American freedoms are protected". Scary stuff, if you ask me.
Gameplay-wise, Splinter Cell is much more similar to Hitman 2 than to Metal Gear Solid 2. The Playstation 2 version of the game features all the 10 original missions of the Xbox game, as well as an exclusive new mission, which takes place in a nuclear power plant, not included in any other version; sadly, the challenging Kola Cell level released for Xbox via Xbox Live is not included in the game.
The idea behind the whole game is that stealth action is the only reasonable way of completing your mission. Sam Fisher is a skilled agent, but he must move in the shadows, act silently, leaving no traces of his passage. A key element in the game user interface is the "stealth meter". It indicates the amount of light on Sam's body: when the indicator is at the extreme left, Sam is completely "invisible" to the enemy. The levels are carefully designed to let the player move in the darkness, and when there is too much light, you usually can shoot down the lights in the area with your silenced weapon: in this way you can create your own shadow path. The amazing lighting effects created by the graphic engine serve perfectly the gameplay, and create an absorbing, dramatic experience.
Shadows are only a part of the formula. Each stealth action hero must have his own gadgets, and a set of deadly cool special moves. From this point of view, Splinter Cell is just stunning. The game features a collection of gadgets and moves that would make Batman and James Bond envious; and just to make things more exciting, this sci-fi looking stuff really exists.
Sam's #1 friend is his pair of Night Vision/Thermal Vision goggles, those three green eyes that have become Fisher's distinctive trait also for those who never played the game (distinctive trait that goes against realism: we should ask the developers why none of the enemies seems to notice those shiny green lights floating in the darkness). With a simple pressure of a button, you can turn the goggles on and off, and you can switch from Night Vision mode - which grants you an enormous advantage in the darkness - to false-colors Thermal Vision mode - which is not available in early missions, but lets you do amazing things, like seeing through thin surfaces.
Other incredible gadgets make up for the lack of in-game radar, a classic element of the stealth action genre. Sam has a flexible optic cable with a camera on its top that can be slipped under doors to view what's happening on the other side: in this way, you can carefully study the situation before entering, thus avoiding the risk of finding yourself in front of a rather angry soldier. Sticky cameras, which you can launch using Sam's special rifle (more on this in the next paragraph), are miniaturized full-optional cameras with zoom, pan, and night and thermal vision functions; these little jewels can be useful in many situations: you can use them for monitoring enemy patrols, for safely scouting the surroundings, but also to collect information that would be difficult to obtain in other ways. The camera jammer emits microwaves able to interrupt the signals of surveillance cameras; glowing chemical flares can be used to distract enemies, while emergency flares may distract heat sensors of automated machine guns; wall mines are motion sensitive explosive devices that Sam can attack on walls, frag grenades are deadly - and noisy - weapons useful in desperate situations. Sam can also lock pick most of the doors: Splinter Cell features a nifty lock-picking simulator that adds true suspense when you have just 10-15 seconds to open a door before the guards spot you. When you have to lock pick a door, an image of the cylinder lock is displayed on the screen. Like a real burglar you must slowly rotate the thumbstick until your controller starts vibrating; you are now in the correct position to unlock the first pin, and you must insist on slightly twisting the thumbstick in that quadrant to let the pin go. Repeat the process for all the pins, and the door will open.
Sam would be lost without his special modified rifle, the SC-20K, a highly customisable weapon that's actually more useful to accomplish your stealth strategies than to attack enemies. The SC-20K has a primary and a secondary fire; it can shot Gas Grenades, incapacitating projectiles and sticky shockers (useful in the missions in which killing sentinels means immediate game over), but it can also launch the abovementioned cool sticky cameras. The SC-20K primary fire can be used to break most of the lights; compared to the silenced pistol, it has the advantage of a special sniper mode, which lets you carefully aim at farthest objects.
Sam can also perform an amazing number of moves. He can crouch, roll, climb, slide down zip lines and wires, kick off a wall to jump higher, perform his infamous split jump move (look at the screenshot), rappel down walls, shoot while hanging or in split jump position, peek through doors, peek around corners, move bodies, use enemies as a human shield, force them to cooperate when you need to unlock a retinal scanner, and much more. The Dual Shock works perfectly in Splinter Cell; since all the buttons are used, it takes a while to master the controls, and a bit of confusion is inevitable at the beginning. Anyhow, the Playstation 2 controls feel extremely more intuitive, more logical than those in the Xbox game, also thanks to refinements made to the already good inventory management menu. If in the Xbox version you had to open the inventory and select the lock pick every time you wanted to use it on a door, now you are automatically prompted to use the lock pick when you approach a door; similarly, when you approach a key pad lock, the right passcode is automatically displayed, with no need of reading through your mission notes. A simple, but welcome change. Just like in the Xbox version, the left stick is used to move the character; the right stick gives you full control on the camera, a useful feature when you need a quick look around corners or you need a precise angle of view.
The original Xbox levels have been adjusted, in order to offer a more balanced experience. The result is that the Playstation 2 (and GameCube) Splinter Cell is an easier game and has a gentler learning curve - this makes the game more enjoyable from the very beginning. The level layouts have been altered, most of the times to remove some difficulty that developers probably considered just tedious (like long jumps, an excessive number of guards, and so on). Other changes are more difficult to understand: the oil rig level, that in the original game takes place at sunset and looks like a clear reference to Metal Gear Solid 2's Plant episode, now starts at night, under a shiny full moon. Finally, the Playstation 2 levels are divided in smaller sections: this means that there are more frequent loading times, but also more continue points. Once again, this make things a lot easier, and less frustrating.
Splinter Cell isn't a perfect game; in fact, it does have its noticeable dose of flaws. First of all, the incredible gadgets and special moves available to the player are in practice little more than very cool "extras"; with the exception of the lock pick, the night vision goggles, the SC-20K, and the optic cable, most of the other objects are really useful just in a couple of situations throughout the game. The same can be said of Sam's special moves: I would have loved to have more than a pair of chances of making good use of the split jump, I would have loved to have the possibility to interrogate more than just a bunch of pre-defined enemy soldiers, I would have loved to believe that all those moves were something more than stuff that made me look cool.
The A.I. of your opponents is sometimes suspicious, to say the least. When you are forced to happily exchange shots with them, even the most insignificant guards turn into Clint Eastwood. They never miss the target - that's you, you know - and considering that a pair of well placed shots mean death to Sam, you'll get used to think twice before attacking even the lonelier scoundrel. And strangely, while the enemies are usually unable to spot you when you hide in the darkness, during gunfights they attain superpowers that let them shoot you down even if you are in the darkest corner of the room. But the worst thing is how stupidly they behave during gunfights. They don't even seem to know the meaning of "taking cover" or "cooperation": they stand all there, poor pigeons, in the middle of the room, shooting at you and waiting to be killed. This kind of problems can make the pure action sequences in Splinter Cell far from being realistic or exciting, and most of the players will probably choose to reload their latest save game every time an enemy spots them.
Anyhow, the most serious problem regards the structure of the missions. Like Hitman 2, Splinter Cell is heavily based on a classic "trial and error" game mechanic; in comparison, Splinter Cell is extremely more limited in scope than Hitman 2, and overall, the technology behind its game system seems less organic and less convincing. I'll be clearer. In Hitman 2, you can complete any mission in countless different ways: the layout of the levels is never linear, you are always given multiple access points, and like in reality, there are no pre-scripted paths that you have to follow; adding to that, Hitman 2 doesn't use "triggered events": the whole level is always "fully functional", all the non playable characters keep on playing their "roles": sentinels guard the courtyard, waiters serve guests, the secret spy keeps an eye on any suspicious guest, guests have fun at the party, and so on; so if you have to prevent a certain character from doing a certain action (for example, opening a safe), you can't wait for the event "character opens the safe" to be triggered by your actions; you know that in a few minutes that guy must open the safe, and you must stop him before it's too late.
Splinter Cell is the exact opposite. The levels are linear: there is usually just one insertion point, and just one path to follow. Maybe you can complete the objectives in a different order, but the levels are designed to force you to pass through all the areas. The non playable characters' actions and all the in-game events are always triggered by your actions: you'll soon realize that sentinels actually start to move only when you enter a certain corridor, and that there is no danger that the terrorists will actually delete the precious intelligence stored in their laptop until you've entered a precise room. This strongly hinders the tension and the sensation of realism in Splinter Cell, and coupled with the fact you'll be replaying the same sections over and over again, it sometimes turns the game into a sort of big puzzle more than a realistic stealth action game, a gaming experience that despite its high production values is very old-style: there is only one solution, and you must find it. Splinter Cell can be an incredibly frustrating experience, an hypnotic repetition of the same section until you've discovered the right solution, even if the Playstation 2 version is easier than the Xbox release. More than "stealth action redefined", Splinter Cell offers "stealth action pre-defined".
This big limit, paradoxically, is also the key to understand Splinter Cell's charisma: the game constantly asks the player to think, to reflect, to create a strategy; each room - to do justice to the game we should say each "area" - is a puzzle, and you have to move your pieces - lights and shadows, sounds and silence, gadgets and weapons - in the right way if you want to win. Many could say the game is too difficult, but this is not because it requires amazing gaming skills. Splinter Cell requires brain, and we all have it. Maybe.