The mark of a good stealth game is the ability to pass through a level without any trace of your ever having been there in the first place. While the likes of the Assassin’s Creed and the Hitman series have near perfected the art of hiding in plain sight, when it comes to skulking in the shadows no game does it better than Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell.
You always know what you’re going to get with a Tom Clancy title, which is likely why Clancy’s is still pinned to titles years after his death in 2013. Tons of weapons, high-tech gadgets, espionage, and realistic military tactics set against a complex backdrop of real-world socio-political intrigue are all par for the course, welcome tropes of Clancy’s enduring legacy.
Enter Sam Fisher, the gruff, over-the-hill, high-tech ninja memorably voiced by the gravel throated Michael Ironside. Together with a team of experts lead by Irving Lambert (voiced by Dennis Haysbert) whispering in his ear, Sam must undertake stealth operations around the globe to unravel a plot by a Georgian dictator trying to bring about World War III. As a black ops veteran recruited into the newly formed NSA splinter cell Third Echelon (Oh that’s why they called it that), Sam approaches his skulking, shooting and killing with the day-to-day air of a dad doing the school run.
Shadows are at the core of Splinter Cell, all rendered in a modified Unreal 2.0 engine that delivers fantastic dynamic lighting that stills holds its own despite its age. Lattice work fences cast criss-cross patterns across Sam’s body, computer screensavers bathe his stubbled face in a dull blue glow, and Sam’s trademark tri-focal goggles peek out from the darkness as he performs his clandestine activities.
Like any Clancy game, it’s the little details that really sell the experience. Things like Sam nodding his goggles onto his head when his hands are otherwise busy, realistic screensavers and icons on computer desktops, guards leaving heat signatures on keypads after punching in the codes, or the sprinkling of glass shards from broken windows that crunch underfoot as you’re sneaking up on enemies. Splinter Cell’s world feels plausible even down to the bric-a-brac lying around on people’s office desks.
Splinter Cell is decidedly angled more towards stealth than action and rushing in guns blazing will often end poorly for you. For all the good the game does, the shooting mechanics are remarkably janky and conserving your bullets for well placed shots from the shadows is preferable. The game further pushes you towards stealth through an escalating alarm system, reach three alarm triggers in a single level and it’s mission failed.
Like any finely crafted stealth masterpiece, Splinter Cell is best enjoyed slowly and carefully. There’s a thrill to be had while hanging precariously in the shadows above an unwitting enemy, or slipping through the slightest of gaps in their patrol without being seen. Whether you kill without mercy, or move on without a trace, the choice is yours to make and Splinter Cell does a great job of barely ever forcing you to kill anyone.
The Splinter Cell series is essential playing for any stealth game enthusiast, improving its stealth mechanics with each subsequent instalment after the original game. The series reached a crescendo of near perfection with 2005’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory before the rest of the series became marred with a more action-oriented approach and the eventual departure of Michael Ironside as the voice of Sam. However all it not lost and there are rumours on the wind of Ubisoft’s announcement of a new Splinter Cell iteration at E3 this year. If this is true I can only hope that Ubisoft will take the series back to its skulking stealth roots.
C’mon Ubisoft, I know you can do it, prove to me you’re better than the rest.