Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory – PlayStation 2
Platform: PlayStation 2
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: March 21st, 2005
Nerd Rating: 7 out of 10
This month of August, 2016 marks the third year of Nerd Bacon’s flourishing existence. What better way to celebrate that than by playing the third game of a series? Personally, I tend to be a very serious gamer, and have found that by the time a series reaches its third iteration and so on, it eventually comes time to put the old horse down. However, this cannot be said for Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, the third addition to the infamously difficult Splinter Cell series. In honor of Nerd Bacon’s third anniversary, let’s dig into this hidden gem for the PlayStation 2.
The Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series of today spans a long line of licensed video game history, chronicling the complex and twisting story of NSA field agent Sam Fisher. The long right arm of the United States government’s most secretive bureau, Sam Fisher is the cool, collected badass that gets sent into harm’s way to gather intel, destroy evidence, and occasionally kidnap or assassinate international aggressors, all in the name of national security. Many may remember the first Splinter Cell title as one of the games that got packaged with their new PlayStation 2, alongside Turok (but let’s not speak of that one). Brutally difficult with an extremely steep learning curve, the first Splinter Cell game seemed hell-bent on punishing the casual gamer with impunity. It’s a wonder that I ever got around to picking that game back up, because today I would consider the Splinter Cell games as gems of the PlayStation 2 era.
While it was a solid game, the first Splinter Cell title was by no means perfect; controls were often wonky, AI would behave in unpredictable and irritating ways, and, towards the end of the game, the developers were intent on forcing the player into high-octane combat situations. All that said, it was a great game that has only seen improvements with its successors.
Enter Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, the third in the line of Splinter Cell titles. The year is 2007, and Japan is on the brink of war with China and North Korea. The situation only escalates from there, with multiple parties getting involved in an increasingly complex situation with Sam Fisher thrown in the middle of it all, doing everything he can to prevent a possible world war.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is a stealth action game based in the real world. Using shadow and sound, Sam Fisher can disguise his movements from enemies, perform acrobatic feats, such as climbing poles and scaling walls, and employ a diverse array of spy gear and weapons to dispatch and distract enemies without putting himself directly in harm’s way. Sam Fisher is not an invincible, hulking powerhouse that can absorb bullets like no tomorrow; he is, in fact, relatively fragile, his lightweight armor unable to withstand more than a couple of shots. This means that all of these stealth tools and techniques are not only available, but they are necessary in order to play this game proper. This marks a pretty solid deviation from the majority of shooters and military-based action games. I’ve generally enjoyed the Tom Clancy games for their constant striving toward more realistic, yet engaging interpretations of modern warfare and espionage, and Chaos Theory is no exception.
The controls, in general, are a significant improvement from the previous Splinter Cell titles. Being released on the PlayStation 2, the first two games, Splinter Cell and Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow were relatively clunky, and it was extremely easy to accidentally perform a run-breaking move, like knocking a guy out when all you wanted to do was open a door, or causing a lot of noise by jumping when trying to climb onto a pole. Chaos Theory takes a lot of the mechanics already present in the first two titles, tweaking them in ways that make dispatching enemies and navigating the terrain more seamless. Sam no longer has to approach an enemy from behind to knock them out, and even has a handy combat knife for quicker kills. Performing context-sensitive actions feels a little less finicky, and Sam generally seems to move around the space a little bit easier. There is also a handy sound monitor added to the HUD, so that the player knows at all times how visible and how noisy they are, at the same time emphasizing the role that the environment plays in the Sam’s ability to sneak around effectively.
The level design in Chaos Theory is pretty solid. There is a good mix between sprawling and more compact levels, and almost all of them are structured in ways so that the player can choose multiple avenues of infiltration. Some of the levels are even designed with open-world philosophies in mind, so that no area is sectioned off from the inquisitive player, allowing them to explore the spaces at their will in search of their objectives, opening the game up to repeat play-throughs. Of course, not every level is like this; some levels are pretty linear, with a solid beginning and ending, but there are always several funnels along the way that give the player multiple choices in accomplishing objectives.
One of the interesting things that stood out to me in the level design of Chaos Theory is the way that they’re structured almost like puzzles. While there are usually several ways to get through an area, sometimes enemies and structures will be set up in meticulous ways in order to challenge the player to find the exact series of actions that will perfectly clear an area. In most situations, a little run-and-gun can do in a pinch, but for the perfectionist, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of dispatching a group of security guards with none of them the wiser. I’m not sure if there’s a term for this, but I’m inclined to call these levels action puzzles, since they rely in equal parts on the player’s logical thinking and their ability to time actions perfectly. In later Splinter Cell titles, this starts to disappear, with a heavier emphasis on non-linear spaces and less predictable guards, but I think Chaos Theory did a great job utilizing the technology available at the time, even opening the game up to the potential for some really skill-based speed runs.
Another great feature of Chaos Theory is the way sweeping for bodies works. In the first Splinter Cell game, whenever the player moved on to the next area in a level, the game engine would do an objective sweep over how well the player hid the bodies of dispatched guards, whether or not an NPC was actually there to discover them. Even though this promoted a stricter discipline in the player, it just didn’t make sense. In Chaos Theory, on the other hand, bodies are not discovered unless an actual NPC is able to walk up to them and physically run to raise an alarm. This allows the player to be slightly more careless, sure, but it makes more practical sense, and can also lead to some pretty hilarious situations, like chasing a character down to kill them or knock them out as they run towards the nearest alarm.
A level will get harder the more alarms a player raises, and too many alarms will result in a game over. I think this is a pretty neat feature, requiring at least a modicum of care and thoughtfulness from the player, while never making the game downright impossible.
The NPCs, in general, are much smarter this time around, and their behavior can change drastically, depending on how much the player interferes within their spheres of operation. They’re not too difficult to trick or distract with sounds and objects, but they’re no pushovers, either, and they’ll come running at the slightest hint of trouble. The NPCs are probably the most unforgiving part of Chaos Theory, capable of raising alarms, warning others, or just outright killing Sam with assault rifles. With just a little bit of practice and skill, however, any player can learn a whole host of tricks that will help them outwit these nefarious NPCs.
One feature of stealth or real-world-based games is the way that many developers will try to inject morality choices (hiding endings from the player or offering transparent cost-benefit situations based on the player’s “moral choices”). I’m not really a big fan of these systems, since it kind of misses the point, teaching players to think of morality as a transaction rather than an intrinsic concept, and I think that there are much more clever ways to make a player feel morally “bad” or “good” for their decisions. The Splinter Cell series, of course, takes place in the real world, and in real-world espionage, it is sometimes crucial that innocent parties not get killed. In a compromised effort to maintain player immersion while keeping a realistic attitude toward life and death, Chaos Theory generally allows the player to kill as many people as they want, without some annoying voice chiming in to remind them about their moral obligations. Every now and then, however, a sensitive mission will pop up where the player is not allowed to kill anyone. I think this is a great compromise, adding more contextuality to certain missions while not entirely restricting or punishing the player for playing the game the way they want to play it.
There’s also a multiplayer component, where two players can team up to tackle little mini missions. When this game came out, I remember this feature being marketed pretty heavily. Some people may remember the G4 web series Splinter Cell Co-Op with Special Agent Bob and Secret Agent Steve. I know I sure do. Anyway, the co-op play is…okay. It’s a little underwhelming, really; each level is extremely small with only one or two objectives, and they’re really difficult right from the bat, making it extremely frustrating trying to play this thing with anyone who’s not well-versed in the control schemes. All in all, I’ll pass on the co-op mode, but it is nice that it was put in there. This feature will go on to see improvements in future Splinter Cell titles.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is not without its flaws. Sometimes, levels are designed extremely esoterically, and more than a few times I found myself wondering what the hell I was supposed to do in an area, reduced to gunning down a whole group of guards just so I could explore the space at my leisure and find out what my objective was. Usually the causes for breakdowns like this are entirely avoidable, if only the development team had made mission objectives a little more clear or made the context-sensitive actions more obvious. As it stands, there are moments where the game’s difficulty breaks down in areas that shouldn’t even be connected to the difficulty at all, so this is not a good thing. The first two games of the series also had these problems every now and then, so it’s a shame that this was basically par for the course.
While these problems are pretty jarring, there is at least one problem that Chaos Theory didn’t seem to inherit from its predecessors: forced combat sections. Now, before I continue, I want to reiterate that the Splinter Cell series is a stealth series. Yet, for some undiscernable reason, the development team on the first game felt like that wasn’t good enough. In order to fix it, they made the last two levels or so extremely combat heavy, equipping guards with night vision or something so that they would gun down Sam without even giving the player a chance to try to sneak around them. In a game that is already slightly clunky and also not designed with high-octane combat in mind, this seems so counter-intuitive that I’m not even sure how these levels made it in. Splinter Cell: Conviction, a more recent title, even went on to do the same thing, and for the life of me I don’t know why. Perhaps the developers didn’t trust the player to maintain interest in the story if the combat didn’t escalate. I really don’t know. That said, Chaos Theory does away with this concept, and to great effect; the challenge of the game remains, at all times, to avoid combat, rather than sustain it. Just the way things should be.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is the third iteration in a series of stealth action games that allows the player to live out all their fantasies about being a covert spy, expertly executing actions to steal sensitive documents, rescue international hostages, and prevent the onset of a war. There are many stealth tactics available to the player, all encouraged and facilitated by the level design in ways that improve upon the previous two titles. The level design, in turn, sometimes deviates from the traditional point-A-to-point-B scheme, employing more circular and open-world levels that allow the player to explore various options and complete mission tasks in their own order. The controls may be wonky at times, and there are points where the difficulty absolutely breaks down for reasons that could have been avoided with just a little bit more effort. All that said, Chaos Theory marks an improvement upon a series that belongs to a relatively sparse genre that not many developers feel comfortable in exploring. It’s great to know that games like this were spearheading the movement during the days of the PlayStation 2.
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