Splinter Cell: Stealth steps up a 'gear'
Genre: Stealth-based action thriller
Developer: Ubi Soft Montreal
Platforms: Xbox / PC CD-ROM
Release Date: November 2002
UBi Soft's Splinter Cell on show at ECTS is quite simply stealth on a stick; it's a hi-tech espionage experience that leaves Mr Bond's martini decidedly shaken and Solid Snake well and truly stirred up. Purchase with extreme prejudice.
Splinter Cell is set in the Tom Clancy universe, a world that exists 'the day after tomorrow'. Your character, Sam Fisher, is the finest field operative of a secretive black-ops sub-agency of the NSA, poetically called the 'Third Echelon'. Conveniently, you're equipped with gadgetry that has been thoroughly researched to the extent that the NSA is either developing such gadgets or has working prototypes, which they intend to lavish on their agents in due course.
It's a highly topical setting, as you play an operative with 'carte blanche' to get the mission completed, existing outside the law as a 'last resort' to keep the US government secure from the threat of terrorism in all its guises. The demo that I played was, for instance, set in Georgia, where a group using cyber-terrorism tactics had been collecting data and attacking key infrastructure installations, such as utility companies in an attempt to nudge the country into an economic crisis. Your job is to get in, find some missing agents, collect data and get out. I saw this mission played out many times in so many different ways during the three days at ECTS and, as any good demo should do, it illustrates one of the most compelling features of this game - free-flowing gameplay.
Gadgets - gotta try'em all
As well as using an FN2000 (with grenade launcher attachment) or a pistol with silencer attachment, you can simply select a gadget from your small arsenal by holding down the black button and scrolling to it. They are simply an inspired selection, easy to use and fun to experiment with: Sam's goggles, for example, can flick through grainy night vision and into a predator-like heat detector mode. Great for when you want to ambush a guard after shooting out all the lights and leaving him panicking in the dark.
Sam also has a fibre optic camera or 'snake camera', which you can slide under a closed door for a quick peek. If a door is locked you can even try your hand at unlocking it with a pick. Probably the favourite of most gamers will be the sticky camera, which you can shoot into any surface with the grenade launcher on your FN2000. Once deployed you can pan through your various vision settings to find prowling guards.
There are loads of gadgets to choose from and this is just a preview, but personally I like some of the simple gear, like ammo rings for knocking out guards or electric charges for stunning them into a crumpled heap on the floor.
Having a whole load of military toys to play with wouldn't be much fun if the characters you faced were mindless robots that banged into walls, juddered in doorways or pointedly ignored you until you passed over a designated spot. The AI (artificial intelligence) on show in the preview, if a reflection of the whole game, should make you think carefully about what you're doing. Gregoire Gobbi, Executive Vice President - Editorial, elaborated on what goes on in the mind of every henchman, so skip the following paragraph if you want to be pleasantly surprised, but don't expect to able to get away with the usual 'grenade, pray and charge' tactic, it ain't gonna happen. For a start, getting shot will hurt alot in this game - get hit in the head and it's mission failure and home to an unmarked grave (or the dog meat factory depending on your hosts).
NPCs (Non-Player Characters) have five states of awareness. They will investigate noise, so pick up a coke can and toss it down a corridor or shoot out a strobe light and they will come gun in hand. Make too much noise and they'll panic slightly and take pot shots into the shadows or run off and bring back their mates. Fortunately for you there's a little stealth meter, which if you don't hide bodies sensibly (yes, you can do that), it'll rise rapidly until eventually you're informed that you've failed the mission.
More intelligent enemies, obviously, allow you to come up with even cleverer solutions, like deploying a sticky camera in a nicely lit area, so that an NPC will investigate the noise and allow you to quickly activate a burst of deadly gas to reward him for his diligence.
Fit for duty, sir
Sam doesn't rely solely on his bag of tricks to get through, in fact, you could, if inclined, run through a mission using your wits and Sam's athletic prowess to evade detection entirely
Sam is a slick mover, grabbing ledges, hanging or moving along pipes and peeking around corners. His drop attacks make patient pipe hanging worth while and after you've crumpled a guard with your boot you can hide the evidence. If you're quiet and quick you can stun or grab enemies and take them on a guided tour, using them as human shields against their mercenary buddies. My personal favourite, as it just looked so cool, was the ability to jump up and wedge Sam in the box-splits position (Jean-Claude Van Damme style) and wait gun trained on an opening door.
Gregoire told me that there will be 14 missions across 26 levels through 4 countries to conquer in any way you choose. Each level will be lushly rendered using the Unreal 2 Engine with a sizeable amount of extra development having been spent particularly in the areas of AI, graphic rendering and lighting. The built in Xbox lighting features are finally being put through their paces, so you can expect to see self-shadowing, which actually changes the way you think about what your doing in the game. Ubi Soft has also used what's called 'soft body physics', so objects like curtains will ripple if you brush past them or will show up the shadows of NPCs, allowing you to take potshots at their heads while hidden behind a curtain.
So it's not simply the gadgets and special moves that make this a game to get your hands on - it's a combination of easy control; atmospheric graphics that generate an immersive, shadowy world; and an intelligent, believable back story that will no doubt gather greater credibility as the missions develop (Trust me, if you'd heard the way Gregoire talks about Sam Fisher you expect the shadowy agent to walk through the door any second).
I've also been told that the game will utilise one of the Xbox Live features. Hold on; don't start thinking you could waste your life hiding in the shadows for a perfectly executed headshot on some guy playing in Basingstoke, no, Splinter Cell will only be using the download feature. So you should be able to get add-ons like new levels and gadgets. Whether this will cost you more cash is a question that only Ubi Soft can answer and currently it's "No comment".
Splinter Cell does seem great, but I'm not sure whether this game will stand up to lengthy play. I have a slight niggling doubt that redoing later missions, because you've not been stealthy enough could become frustrating (a later mission in a Chinese Embassy, for example, requires you to get in and out without killing anyone or even being seen). But as Gregoire argues, this game is set in a believable world of espionage, where grenading everything has its place, but playing Rambo all the time ain't going to happen. So prepare to be Sam Fisher: 'Silent at as a whisper, deadly as a blade' and try and get out alive, there's a good chap.Chris Thornett