A sinister plot.
If you’re a PC or Xbox owner, Sam Fisher is like Santa Claus. Year after year he shimmies down the chimney, neutralizes your dog and leaves behind incredibly cool spy toys. He’s the patron saint of stealth gameplay.
If you’re a PS2 or Gamecube owner, on the other hand, he’s just some creepy dude trying to break into your house.
And now, if you’re a DS owner, he’s like a drunken hobo using nightvision to go through your trash. While we hate to see one of our favorite heroes in such a sad state of disrepair, we hate playing his new Nintendo DS game, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, even more.
The game tries to recreate the console versions by including a single-player campaign, Co-op mode and Spy vs. Merc, but all three suffer horribly from a whole universe of technical maladies and bad design decisions.
The only element to survive the translation intact is the story. You are a tiny version of Sam Fisher, sensitive information was tortured out of a guy, and somehow the end of civilization is at stake. It sure sounds like Splinter Cell.
And for the first minute or so, the DS version kind of feels like Splinter Cell, too. In an attempt to emulate the 3D console games, this version lets you move Sam around with the D-pad and control the camera with the stylus, but as soon as you attempt both at once, things get a little sour. The camera can be controlled analogously by moving the stylus around in the center of the touch screen or digitally by pressing on arrows at the four edges, but regardless of your choice, it never moves smoothly and neither does Sam.
To its credit, the camera does try to follow your movements – most of the time you don’t have to screw with the touch screen at all – but it only manages to keep up if you make nice, wide turns. If you make a sharp one or spin around quickly, the camera swings out of control. This would be a non-issue if the game included a “center camera behind Sam” command, but it doesn’t, so you frequently have to stop what you’re doing and readjust the camera yourself.
This terrible control extends to aiming weapons. How’s this for wonky: press’R’ to make Sam aim, then press’Select’ to enter Zoom mode. To zoom in or out, press “X’ or “Y’ respectively, and to aim you have to drag the stylus around the touch screen. Wanna shoot? Try pressing ‘A’. In other words, you can’t aim, move and shoot at the same time. Just trying to kill one of the stupid bad guys requires four hands and more patience than a mountain. Awesome mechanic.
Splinter Cell is supposed to be about finding your way through tricky environments with the help of some high-tech toys, but the DS version is too linear and limited to provide that quality of experience. You can’t shoot out lights or cameras and you don’t get the electro-magnetic scrambler, so when it comes to dealing with these obstacles, you only have two options: sticky shockers and chaff grenades. You get three of each per mission, and a large part of the “game” lies in trying to figure out how not to use these up.
Occasionally, this is impossible and can ruin everything. I got to the end of a level only to discover I was missing a door code. So I started backtracking, using up all my chaff grenades and sticky shockers until I found what I was looking for…except the code was now useless, because I was out of electrical jammers and all the cameras and grids had come back online. So after wasting all that time, I had to reload.
Ultimately, I had to reload from the beginning of the level since I had saved my game at a checkpoint well after the location of the information I needed. Argh, Argh, Argh. And since the game is literally a long, linear chain of rooms and hallways, there’s no skipping anything.
Well, that isn’t entirely true. The framerate skips all the time. Right after loading a game, the screen will go completely black for about a half second, and then, to your disappointment, everything will come back and it all looks terrible. The textures are grainy, the colors are dull and washed out, the enemies don’t animate well, nightvision looks nightmarish and thermal vision is usually incomprehensible.
The sound effects and music are just as poorly rendered, but unlike the graphics, you can play without them.
This awful web of bad design choices and technical blemishes also enmeshes the Cooperative and Multiplayer modes. Cooperative mode manages to include some of the maneuvers, but the same factors that blew the single-player game’s cover still apply. The same goes for Versus mode. If three of your friends seriously own this game, it’s time to find new friends.
And while you’re at it, find a better game. While the DS is a very versatile machine that can adapt to different play mechanics thanks to its stylus and touchscreen, there are some things it obviously shouldn’t attempt. This is one such thing. Avoid like a trip-wire.