The Metal Gear Solid series changed the world of video games by introducing the stealth genre. Instead of mindlessly running and gunning down enemies, you take the silent approach, sneaking up to enemies from behind and incapacitating them. In Splinter Cell, we have another take on the stealth genre, however this time, you play with light and shadow to go undetected as you approach your enemies. In Splinter Cell, you spend a lot of time shooting out light bulbs in outdoor venues at night to create pitch black shadows that make you practically invisible to nearby bad-guys. This clever change to the Metal Gear Solid formula would prove to be a hit; the Splinter Cell series ended up a trilogy for the original Xbox, with future games to follow on the Xbox 360. Though at times the game feels shoddily rushed to market, lacking a lot of the polish Metal Gear Solid has in terms of environment art and voice acting, Splinter Cell is a fun sneaking-around game in a series that only got better as the trilogy progressed.
You are Sam Fisher, part of the Third Echelon black ops division of the NSA. A Georgian (the country) billionaire Kombayn Nikoladze has become president of Georgia and declares war on the United States, while developing nuclear warheads in violation of international treaties. As Sam Fisher, you are on a mission to stop Nikoladze in his tracks. The game is largely a hunt across Georgia and some of China to find Nikoladze. Sam can hack computers and pick up “data sticks” (presumably USB flash drives) that offer clues to Nikoladze’s whereabouts. The plot is OK, but it’s a little generic in terms of good guys versus bad guys. It also doesn’t get nearly as heavy as a Metal Gear Solid game can get as far as having plot points that really make you stop and think. The plot is revealed through 24-hour news clips and talks with Lambert, your tough-as-nails no-nonsense boss at NSA headquarters.
Sam has got some cool technology as far as top secret NSA spies go. He has a lock-pick, which can open most doors that aren’t already unlocked or don’t need a key-code. But he also has the ability to snake a small camera under a door, just in case he wants to scope out the next room before he barges in. Sam has a pistol and an assault rifle, but you might be surprised when I tell you the number one thing you do with a gun is shoot out light bulbs, so you can run around in total darkness. Naturally, Sam has night-vision goggles for seeing through this total darkness, as well as thermal-sensing goggles for detecting heat on enemies, lights, computers, and more. You have a limited number of stun gun shots for incapacitating foes instead of outright killing them. Last, a med kit will revive any health lost from the occasional skirmish, the result of failing to be super stealthy.
You can actually play through the game only incapacitating most of the guards. Of course, some need to be outright killed, but if you’re someone opposed to lethal violence in video games, incapacitating enemies is a nice plus. Once a guard has been taken down, you are wise to put him in a dark, shadowy corner of the room, where he is unlikely to be found by other guards. Running up behind a guard and stealth karate chopping him in the neck is the default way to take someone down, but a neat alternative is a special grenade that can knock out as many as three guards. It would be super cool if you could play through the whole game without killing anyone, but alas, that is impossible.
Graphically, this game was really pushing the limits of the original Xbox hardware, but as of the time of this writing, we are about to be three generations removed from the original Xbox hardware, so naturally the graphics are showing their age. Most impressive is the work done with shadows. Sam has a very realistic shadow that shows on floors and walls. Of course, what ray-tracing can now do blows these shadows out of the water. Also, all the characters have a square / rectangular look to their head, neck and shoulders. Unfortunately much of the environment is square and rectangular looking as well. Impressive however is the use of sound design. The slightest noise from Fisher can tip a guard off to your location, so you listen to this game almost as much as you watch and play it.
Showing its age is a good way to describe Splinter Cell on the whole. Despite the fact that this was a top-tier triple-A title at the time of its release, sneaking up behind guards and knocking them out gets old after a while, and this is a short game, too. There’s a sluggishness to every movement you make, which made me feel kind of bored. The plot is a little generic, with Eastern Bloc bad guys and American good guys. And the levels are all pretty much a straight line – nothing like the real world – making it impossible to get lost. Though Splinter Cell really blew me away when I first played it in ’02, held to more modern standards, it doesn’t hold up as well. There’s still fun to be had, but don’t be surprised if you turn on a Final Fantasy XV video and think, “That looks way cooler.”