It seemed that with Metal Gear Solid (1998) and its sequel (2001) Konami had the third person stealth genre to themselves. However Ubisoft would soon step in with their take and give the house that Kojima built some real competition.
Using the military and espionage themes of author Tom Clancy as a basis for an entirely original property, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (2002) was developed by Ubisoft Montreal and first arrived; on Microsoft’s original Xbox console, becoming a signature release thanks to its superior graphics and gameplay.
In Splinter Cell players take on the role of Sam Fisher, who works for Third Echelon; a secret government organisation specialising in digital and physical espionage. Fisher is basically a high tech ninja able to sneak, hack or break his way into any location to achieve objectives only a man on the ground can solve.
Infiltration requires a fair number of skills and thankfully Fisher has those in spades. The developers were able to imbue him with an impressive amount of agility beyond just climbing and crawling; hanging from the ceiling to shoot or using a split jump to hide above enemies in tight corridors opened up options to players beyond just hiding behind boxes and corners.
Understanding and taking advantage of light and shadow was key to avoiding detection and ultimate mission success. A light indicator was helpful in determining just how dark it was in your hiding spots and how likely you could be spotted. A lot of this could be judged just by eye alone and game’s lighting effects were graphically impressive.
Sometimes though you needed to mix things up by turning lights on or off or use your silenced pistol to shoot out a light bulb or two – all of these options could work to your advantage. And in the pitch black you can fall back on your night vision to stick to your mission, making you an even deadlier opponent. Admittedly I’ve sometimes just sat around shooting out all the lights one by one just to see what I could get away with.
Having actor Michael Ironside voice Sam Fisher was a smart move by the developers as his tone really fits the character’s backstory of a grizzled veteran. And you hear him a lot during missions and cinematics too so it doesn’t feel like any corners were cut on the voice acting budget. Though he was later replaced by Eric Johnson for the most recent game (Blacklist), there’s rumour he might be reprising the role again in the future.
One thing that I felt the game succeeded well in doing was encouraging players to take their time – though to observers it might make artificially extend the length of levels, trying to avoid detection so as to accomplish your mission can feel really rewarding. Having to navigate areas through distraction and broken lights can feel like a thrilling experience.
I remember taking hours to work my way through the CIA HQ mission, which had a no fatalities clause, and using all of the tools at my disposal to get through it successfully. It also helped to justify many of the nonlethal tricks Fisher could use from sneak attacks to airfoil rounds from his SC-20K rifle. Maybe not the most notable of the missions in the game but it was the one I was most rapt to complete; the pile of unconscious people stacked out of sight was a testament to that.
Another great section involved navigating your way through a burning building which succeeded differently by creating a more immediate feeling of tension as you risked life and limb quickly finding your way out to safety. It’s an impressive sequence with good use of fire, explosion and smoke effects that were rarely used so effectively in games of the era.
Even though the PC version is easier to find now, I still prefer being able to play the Xbox version using a controller which is something that version unfortunately lacks. It’s a shame as this version is still an attractive game that can display at relatively high resolutions. The game was also available on Gamecube and PlayStation 2 but as the below video shows there were some differences between those and the original Xbox/PC version.
The series would continue in many sequels. Pandora Tomorrow (2004) was developed by Ubisoft Shanghai and tasked Fisher with stopping a biological weapon attack. Multiplayer modes made their first appearance here too. Chaos Theory (2005), developed once again by Ubisoft Montreal, is considered by many to be the best of the series. On the Xbox it was a spectacular game with some great looking locations and a soundtrack by Amon Tobin that helped build a great atmosphere within the world. The cooperative modes added to multiplayer were a revelation allowing players to work together in ways beyond simply shooting the bad guys.
Both Double Agent (2006) and Conviction (2010) would place Fisher on the other side of the law and though I think it was commendable that the developers tried to do something a little different I think that deviating from the core tenets of the early games did more harm than good. Though the Jason Bourne like quick takedowns were a nice touch from Conviction.
The most recent game is Blacklist (2013) which attempted to bring the series back to its roots and was moderately successful at it too thanks to some neat gadgets like a drone and a new storyline that featured a younger version of Fisher.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell took a genre that was often based in more fantastical settings and applied modern military fiction to it to give players the feeling of what a well equipped spy operating in the real world might be like. That it was able to teqch a trigger happy FPS player like myself the virtues of patience and planning was a credit to the developers in building a world that let me make Sam Fisher the sneakiest tough guy you’ll (n)ever meet.
Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.