The spy who fragged me.
When it was announced that a new, revolutionary Splinter Cell was going to be released approximately a year after its sequel, we were very skeptical. A year is usually just enough time to build some new levels, throw in some new dialogue and release basically the same game with a fancy, hip subtitle. From all the hype and advance demos, we expected a completely revamped single-player game and the same old Versus mode, plus a nifty little co-op feature. So when we discovered that the single-player game was more refined than revolutionary, we were a little crestfallen.
And then we played...and played...and played. We got sucked into interacting with the incredible environments as Sam Fisher, and lost ourselves coordinating co-operative ambushes. When we finally got around to Versus mode we found it completely revamped and improved. Our expectations for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory were correct, just backward.
In Chaos Theory, ace sneak Sam Fisher is called on to investigate the kidnapping of a mathematician by a group of Peruvian rebels. After breaking several backs and hacking into scores of computers, Sam spies his way into the middle of a potentially earth-shattering conflict between Japan, China, and both Koreas.
The source of the trouble is the I-SDF, a Japanese version of the CIA. North Korea and China claim that the existence of this agency violates international law, while Japan claims that I-SDF research has proven that North Korea and China have been conspiring to disrupt Japan's economy. Both sides are being manipulated by shadowy characters who seek to profit from a huge conflict, and these men are your targets. Be afraid, Colonel Sanders, be very afraid.
International quagmires involving information warfare and corrupt constitutions may interest academics and politicians, but when it comes to video games, such things always boil down to "The world is about to end, and only you can save it." Throughout the course of the game, the threat of World War III is milked repeatedly in an attempt to add drama and urgency to your missions. This scenario has become a dramatic crutch for the series. In the first game it was cool that this unknown spy was all that stood between peace and war, but we've all sort of gotten over it. Just blow up the damn world, Ubisoft, and let us get our post-apocalyptic espionage on.
Even though the overarching story is dry and none of the characters are particularly interesting, the dialogue is well-written and funny. By now you've probably forgotten what the Masse kernels even are, but the fear and dread that creep into Anna Grimsdottir's voice when they're mentioned tells you all you need to know.
Ultimately, Chaos Theory's story is just an excuse for you to explore and gather reconnaissance in several diverse and perilous locales. Every environment has been brilliantly crafted to create the illusion of open-endedness, and all are full of obstacles, from rough mercenaries to squeaking, ninja-proof floors. Instead of placing you in open, labyrinthine levels, Chaos Theory provides you with several, intertwining avenues. You might choose to make your way down a hallway taking out lights, guards and cameras as you go, or sneak through a crawl-space and drop into an office. Both means will take you to the same end, so you'll never get lost. Chaos Theory's blend of alternate routes and linear progression ensures that you will always have a choice and never feel as though you're simply being pushed from one corridor to the next.
The intricacies of each level are compounded by the plethora of tools and abilities at Sam's disposal. There are a couple new additions, including an electro-magnetic scrambler pistol attachment that can temporarily disable electrical devices. It kicks ass, providing yet another way to bypass sticky situations and adding to Sam's nightmarish mystique. Imagine from a bad guy's point of view mysteriously having the lights flicker off for a moment, only to turn back on to reveal your partner stabbed to death
Speaking of which, Sam also has a new combat knife he can use to slice through any fabrics or enemies he comes across. Some might find the knife a little bit too easy to use, but we respect it as a means of making the game a little more accessible. The beauty of Splinter Cell has always been how it allows the player to make the game as hard or easy as desired depending on their approach to a situation. The knife definitely provides a new approach.
Apart from the scrambler and knife, Sam relies on all the same gadgets and most of the same moves that he used in the original Splinter Cell. Before missions, you are given three different equipment options: stealth (few bullets and lots of gadgets), assault (all guns and grenades), and Redding's Recommendation (stealth with more bullets and fewer sticky cams). This is an improvement over the system used in previous games, but simply allowing players to customize their own equipment would have made a lot more sense.
The combination of Sam's myriad capabilities and the dynamic levels makes Chaos Theory an incredibly malleable game. If you're feeling impatient, you can go for an assault loadout and assassinate everyone you come across. If you're in a more easygoing mood, you can explore levels to see what secrets they hide, or if you want to go hardcore you can attempt to navigate without attacking any soldiers or ever getting spotted. No matter how you play, the difficulty really ramps up in the latter half of the game. This is clutch, because if you've played the other games you'll breeze through most of the early and middle levels. Also, a new quick save feature will spare you a lot of time and effort. Trial and error gameplay used to plague this series, but the quick save allows you to easily save at any point, and then try all the different approaches you can think of without having to play back through anything unsavory.
Even though Chaos Theory provides a fairly deep campaign, it isn't nearly as ambitious as we hoped it would be. Instead of taking the series in a new direction or adding a major new twist, Chaos Theory's single-player mode is more of the same. While we can hardly blame Ubisoft for not wanting to take chances with their most successful franchise, Chaos Theory's similarity to its predecessors can really curb your enthusiasm; you've probably already seen much of what the Story mode has to offer.
We're sure that you haven't seen the co-op, though. While it only contains four levels worth of content, co-operative play is a major new element (especially for the Gamecube version, which isn't playable online). You can enjoy co-op play online, but the mode's most important function is in providing offline multi-play, something the series has sorely lacked.
Co-op mode also introduces some new moves. Your spies can boost each other up to high places, climb each other, hurl each other over laser grids, and rappel down steep surfaces. If injured or knocked-out, spies can heal each other with a miraculously beneficial adrenaline shot. Ouch.
These co-op moves have been extended to the spies' arsenal in Spy vs. Merc mode, too, which has been substantially rebalanced and improved. For one thing, mercenaries are now extremely unpleasant to tangle with. A new spinning attack makes them very dangerous in close quarters and will knock out or kill spies going for an ill-advised neck-snap. Mercs can also shoulder charge for the KO and then kill spies with a new finishing move, complete with the ability to talk smack before delivering the death blow. A new combat shotgun makes them practically untouchable in a close-quarters fight. In this game of cat-and-mouse, the mercenaries are definitely the cats.
Since the mercs have such a combat advantage, the emphasis for the spies is on completing objectives without ever staring down the business end of an Argus assault rifle. They'll have to rely on stealth, speed, and each other to get the job done. Aside from the new moves, spies have a new thermoptic camouflage suit that is straight out of the Predator movie and is great for giving mercenaries the slip, as well as a heartbeat sensor that alerts spies to all beating hearts within 15 meters.
While these changes seem to favor the mercs, the new multiplayer level designs are full of little holes and avenues for tricky spies to scurry in and out of. As a Fragdoll I played with put it, "the levels are like big pieces of swiss cheese." They're also much more interactive than those found in Pandora Tomorrow, especially in the new multiplayer Story mode.
Multiplayer Story mode includes all three objective types: neutralization (where you simply hack a computer), disk hunt (where you steal a hard disc and return it to your spawn), and bombing (where you blow up a target). Instead of simply neutralizing three objectives, here the objectives lead naturally to one another and can actually change the geography of the map.
When you take it all together, Chaos Theory's multiplayer is equal parts tactics and action, and is pretty much the deepest, smartest around. Breaking the surface can be really difficult, especially if you're completely new to the series, but the hardcore competition is its own reward.
The co-op and versus modes didn't benefit from significant graphical upgrades, but the single-player game did. And since you spend so much time checking out your surroundings in Chaos Theory, this graphical upgrade is a real plus. The lighting is the most sophisticated we've ever seen. The textures, reflections and explosions are incredible. Sam's animations are damn near perfect, and the rag doll physics make dropping enemies from high places a real treat. What a beauty.
Chaos Theory sounds great as well. The ambient effects are varied and clear, the voice acting is superb, and the score, composed by Amon Tobin, is hip and catchy but also understated and mysterious " perfect for a Splinter Cell.
While Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory doesn't deliver a terribly original single-player experience, it introduces a useful new co-operative mode and manages to improve upon the incomparable multiplayer. The Xbox version of Chaos Theory is one of the system's most complete and valuable titles, a must-have. If you like your games hard and your competition brutal, don't let Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory out of your sight.