For a guy who makes a living in the shadows, Sam Fisher sure maintains a high profile on the Xbox. In an espionage sense, then, Fisher has been much more successful on the PS2, having ventured onto that system twice while hardly catching the attention of the Sony public. If anyone saw him, they probably thought he was Gabe Logan.
Sam’s new appearance on the PSP, Splinter Cell: Essentials, is equally low-key, but impossible to mistake for Logan’s luminous Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror thanks to its wonky control scheme and lack of polish. Essentials provides a bit of sneaky fun, but remains in the shadow of other, better PSP titles.
The confusing and uninspired plot, told through a series of flashbacks to past Splinter Cell missions, dimly reflects the pale effort that went into Essentials. Sam has left Third Echelon, allegedly coordinated a terrorist attack, and is arrested at his daughter’s grave site. His files have been altered to portray him as a lunatic, and you must set the record straight by replaying the episodes the way they really happened.
So while Essentials touts itself as a brand new Splinter Cell title, nearly all of its playable content was ported from other console games, including a couple levels from the upcoming Splinter Cell: Double Agent. This game is more a compilation than an entry designed just for PSP gamers.
Still, playing through classic Splinter Cell levels on your PSP is impressive, and Sam’s bag of tricks is mostly intact. You can creep through the shadows, throw cans or bottles to distract enemies, switch to night and thermal vision modes, shimmy along pipes, climb narrow spaces with the split jump, and basically do all the things that made these levels so fun on the consoles and PC.
Except for shooting out lights. We understand that’s an issue of system power that we also saw on the PS2 Splinter Cells, but we consider the ability to spread shadows and strike fear into the hearts of enemies essential to Sam Fisher’s quasi-demonic persona. That isn’t to say there are no mortal lights in Essentials, but they’re so far between they might as well not have been included at all. Instead, this Sam Fisher merely creeps through existing shadows, knifing the bovine enemies he happens across like some wannabe Jack the Ripper.
When we say bovine, we exaggerate, because these enemies make porterhouse steaks look alert. They usually stand within the faint aura of an indestructible lamp, completely surrounded by pitch black shadows. They’ll shoot if they see you, but they won’t pursue, and they’re only aided by others in the immediate area if they call for help. As a result, cutting your way through the game’s nine missions is much easier than it should be.
And just in case you have trouble, you can save anywhere. This was huge in Chaos Theory, where lethal obstacles required cunning solutions. Here, due to the lack of difficulty, it isn’t such a big deal, although that doesn’t stop the game from taking forever to save and load data.
Which is also about how long it takes to wrap your brain around the control scheme. Moving, jumping, crouching and climbing are governed by the nub and face buttons, but most other commands are somehow mapped to the D-pad. For example, tapping left on the D-pad will toggle your vision modes, and holding it will make you lean against a wall. At least none of the double functions conflict - you won’t ever intend to fire your gun, but accidentally duck.
Instead, you’ll fire and miss wildly due to the imprecision of the analog nub. Simply walking up and stabbing enemies is easy, but successfully shooting them from ten feet is nearly impossible if they move. You can switch camera modes to aim with the face buttons, but these are even more sluggish and out of control than the nub. Now we know why Sam likes to sneak past his enemies.
The camera is just as unwieldy. To control it, you have to move the thumb nub while holding ‘Circle,’ or you can switch to an alternative mode where tapping the down button on the D-pad turns the face buttons into a second analog stick. Neither of these schemes is particularly elegant, but they don’t really get in the way of the gameplay since Splinter Cell generally doesn’t require you to move and aim at the same time.
The ad-hoc Spy vs. Spy mode does however, and suffers greatly for it. Don’t let the borrowed name fool you, the only match type is death match, and the only outcome is a short, confusing knife fight in one of four poorly lit rooms.
No series depends more on great lighting than Splinter Cell, yet the PSP’s meager tech can’t even come close to providing it. As a result, the game is pitch black (normal view), green and black (night vision) or blue and red (thermal vision), but never good looking. On top of that, there’s a visual glitch where walls disappear when you get too close to them. This can be confusing when you’re looking for a way out of a cramped area.
There’s nothing confusing about the music or voice acting, this game sounds like Splinter Cell. Most of the dialog, sound bytes and music are as recycled as the levels, but still, Michael Ironside’s Sam Fisher is as likeable as ever, and the music by Amon Tobin is catchy and classy.
If only the same attention to detail had been applied to the rest of the game, Splinter Cell: Essentials could have been a must have for your PSP. As it stands, it’s a lackadaisical, recycled romp that tries to emulate the Splinter Cell experience. But without the good graphics, A.I. or multiplay, all it does is put the “Why?!” in spy.