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Tom Clancy was a novelist known for his storylines about the military and espionage. His name was used as branding for several video game franchises, some of which were based on his novels. I remember his name used to actually mean something in the gaming world back in the day. At least I thought so. Things have changed over the years but I used to associate his name with thinking and tactical elements because of games like the early Rainbow Six titles and the first Ghost Recon. But one series I never got into as a kid was Splinter Cell. Pandora Tomorrow was the first one I played and it was on PlayStation 2 and I don’t think I had the patience for the stealth gameplay at the time so I gave up. I returned to the series years later with Splinter Cell: Blacklist and that’s the one that grabbed me. Despite some of the backlash it received, I enjoyed it and since then, I’ve been meaning to jump back into the franchise, starting with the first game.
Developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell was released for Xbox in 2002 and PC, PlayStation 2, GameCube and Game Boy Advance in 2003. A remastered version along with remastered versions of the sequels, Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, was released for PlayStation 3 in 2011. For this review, I played the PC version. I do want to mention that the PC version and Xbox version received Bonus Missions but they don’t come with the Steam release. However, they do come with the GoG release and you can download them separately. If you’re wondering why I didn’t play through the remastered version on PS3, it’s because I tried it once in the past and remember encountering frame rate issues.
I did consult the game’s PCGamingWiki page before playing and applied some fixes. I installed ThirteenAG’s Widescreen Fix and I’d like to point out that ThirteenAG’s site also offers the HD textures from the PS3 version. If the game is installed on modern hardware, shadows will be broken so I used dgVoodoo 2 to fix the shadows and light sources. I installed Improved Loading Screens which adds new and more appropriate loading screens for the bonus missions and I also installed the Spell Check mod which fixes typos. I do want to mention that some fixes and modifications can come with eyesores or visual oddities. For example, the widescreen fix works great but cut scenes are no longer presented in full screen.
Set in 2004, the story follows former Navy SEAL officer Sam Fisher, voiced by Michael Ironside, who is part of a new division of the National Security Agency called Third Echelon. He is sent to Georgia to investigate the disappearance of two CIA agents and discovers that the Georgian president has mobilized the country and plans to attack to the United States. After the U.S. is hit with cyber attacks, they declare war on Georgia and Sam is sent on numerous operations in an effort to end the war and information crisis. Ultimately, I thought the story was alright. It feels like a typical Tom Clancy tale complete with action, espionage and international conspiracies. The story combined with the gameplay often reminded me of film franchises like James Bond, Mission Impossible, and Bourne.
Splinter Cell is a stealth game and from what I understand, it was inspired by other stealth games like Metal Gear Solid and Thief. I think for the time it released, Splinter Cell was pretty cool stuff and I went into this expecting it to be more frustrating than it is. I expected to get detected, fail objectives, and die a lot just based on my experience with other early Tom Clancy branded titles. But I’m happy to say that’s not the case. Splinter Cell is not like Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon. It’s a straight up stealth game and the first level or mission which is the training mission will teach you almost everything you need to know.
Splinter Cell is a game somewhat grounded in reality. There are no traditional fantasy elements and Sam doesn’t get to utilize magic powers, abilities or items. What I feel makes the game stand out is the whole covert aspect. Third Echelon is a top secret initiative, a black-ops type of thing, and the player is put in the shoes of a highly trained operative – infiltrating hostile locations, moving around like a ghost. It’s just cool. Playing the game now, the gameplay does hold up primarily because there’s not much to it. Stay quiet and out of sight. That’s the key to success. You want to stick to the shadows, crouch and move slowly, and use firearms as a last resort. You need to be aware of enemy placements, lighting conditions, and the surfaces you move on. Ammo can be found in the environments but it’s not in abundance so running and gunning isn’t wise. You want to make every shot count.
I think my biggest complaint with Splinter Cell is that it’s way too linear. There’s usually one way to progress – one way to get through an area, room, hallway or what have you – and it can result in bouts of trial and error gameplay. If you don’t take the right path, you risk alerting enemies or may even die. In that case, you keep trying until you figure out exactly what you’re supposed to do or the safest way to proceed. There was a few times I wasn’t sure where I needed to go but I quickly learned that backtracking is a rare occurrence so the path forward is usually always nearby. It was usually something I missed like a vent or something I needed to interact with. NPCs can be sensitive so one wrong move and they’re alerted. That means if you move too fast and make noise or move into the light at the wrong time, enemies will spot you and usually begin shooting. You can shoot lights to create darkness, shoot and kill foes, grab them and use them as shields, knock them out, some can be interrogated for information, and you can pick up and move bodies.
One thing I really don’t care for is how grabbing enemies works. You have to be directly behind them to grab them and it can be frustrating trying to sneak up on moving foes. They walk faster than you can sneak at your slowest speed and if you increase your movement speed, you risk them hearing you. It’s better to wait for them to stop and then sneak up on them. If Sam is spotted by a camera or bodies are found, the alarm stage can increase making sneaking around more challenging. Hiding bodies in the dark is very important. Bodies can be found by patrolling enemies but the game also does a sweep behind-the-scenes. After Sam leaves an area, the game sweeps for any bodies in well lit spots and if any are found, enemies will automatically be on alert at the start of the next area.
There will be sequences where you’ll be forced or encouraged to use your firearms to engage foes and shooting can be challenging simply because the crosshair doesn’t guarantee accuracy. To take an accurate shot, you must wait for the outer lines of the crosshair to come closer together. However, this doesn’t mean you’ll always hit what you’re aiming at. I guess it’s designed to convey a form of realism in the shooting and also feels like the game’s way of encouraging stealth over running and gunning. You’re always outnumbered so if you’re not forced into a firefight, it’s usually better not to initiate one. Typically, anytime a mission forces you into a firefight or action-oriented situation, you’re forewarned. For example, you’ll be made aware enemies are on their way. The shooting mechanics can prove to be annoying when you’re trying to shoot something like a light at close range and keep missing, wasting ammo.
Sam can use firearms and a variety of equipment to sneak around and stay alive. His primary weapons are a suppressed pistol and the SC-20K which is a modular assault rifle. It can be equipped with different modules or alternate fire modes like sticky shockers, ring airfoil projectiles, and gas grenades, all of which can incapacitate foes. It can also fire different cameras like sticky cameras which let you get a better view of things and diversion cameras which can lure enemies and spray gas to incapacitate them. Some items and equipment can be found in the environments like frag grenades, wall mines, disposable picks, medical kits and objects like bottles and cans that can be thrown to distract foes. You can pick locks, use an optic cable to peek under doors and activate night and thermal vision at any time. I found myself using the night vision quite frequently because remaining in dark areas is a crucial part of the gameplay. Thermal or “heat” vision is great for detecting enemies by their body heat and also for detecting heat on keypads so you can figure out what keys to press to unlock doors. I actually thought that was a pretty cool little detail.
The enemies in the game can be found standing around or patrolling. Sometimes enemies appear only after you complete a specific objective or move to a certain spot. You’ll encounter soldiers, mafiosos, and special forces later in the game. Some levels include dogs which can track Sam’s scent and I thought was another nice little detail. Enemies are alerted if they see you moving or hear a noise which means you really have to be mindful of your surroundings. All it takes is one wrong move and then you’re being shot at. That said, the trial and error gameplay as a result of the linear environments can make getting through some areas tedious. You may find yourself quick saving and quick loading often. Several areas include cameras that can be destroyed, avoided, or jammed with the camera jammer. You will have to be careful not to trip laser security systems and be on the lookout for turrets and wall mines that go off if they detect motion. I will say the game’s audio does a great job at conveying what the situation is – whether you’re safe or being hunted. When you’re spotted, more intense tunes kick in and that’s usually the indication you fucked up besides alarms going off or enemies shouting that is.
The game will take you to several different locations around the globe including a police station and palace in Georgia, CIA Headquarters in Virginia, the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar, and a submarine in Russia among other locations. You’ll sneak through rooms, hallways, offices, parking garages, ventilation shafts, and even utilize ziplines from time to time. Sometimes you can flip switches to turn lights off in a room and as mentioned before, you can also destroy lights with gunfire. Sam can jump off walls to reach higher elevations, hang onto and shimmy along ledges, perform a split-jump between narrow walls, and climb and move along pipes. If you get stuck or are not sure where to go, it’s probably because you’re missing something like a ladder, pipe, door, or something you need to interact with. Much of the time, there seems to be a very specific way to progress. You’re not given a lot of options. As you navigate through the environments, you’ll come across computers you can interact with and retrieve data sticks which contain information including codes you may need for keypads. Then there’s the areas blocked off by retinal scanners which means you’ll have to find the right NPCs and use them to get passed the scanners.
The linearity aside, the environments are well designed and I found successfully sneaking through an area unnoticed and even quietly knocking out or killing enemies to be quite rewarding. It’s fun watching Sam grab and enemy from behind and slowly walk them backwards into the shadows before knocking them out. Personally, I think using weapons and equipment is one of the more satisfying aspects of the gameplay, especially if you’re clean. I enjoyed being the guy hiding in the shadows and sniping enemies from a distance or quietly dropping them as they walked by. In the more action-oriented scenarios, I enjoyed placing wall mines around an area if I knew enemies were approaching and then watching them blow up as they try to advance towards me. I enjoyed using diversion cameras to knock out multiple foes at once. Basically, I enjoyed all the different options I was given in terms of engagement and I like that you’re not punished for how you go about your business. The only punishments are mission failure and death. In either case, you can simply restart from the last save point and try again.
One thing that disappointed me a little is the lack of any kind of reward or rating system. Now maybe it’s because I’ve grown accustomed to other stealth games since the release of Splinter Cell, but if I’m being honest, there’s not a lot here to keep me coming back. To be clear, reward and rating systems are not the only things that increase replay value in a game but in this case they wouldn’t hurt. The linearity doesn’t help, there’s no collectibles to find, and there’s no multiplayer. The game comes with two difficulties, Normal and Hard so that’s some incentive I suppose. You’re not scored or rated based on how you did in a mission. If you complete the mission, you did it. It’s not like Hitman or Manhunt where a good score or rating or enough experience earned results in an unlock of some sort and you can always try for a better score or rating next time. There’s nothing like that here. Every mission feels very one and done. It’s not even like Thief where the loot you steal equates to money that can be spent on equipment in future levels. The levels in Thief, and even Thief II for that matter, are somewhat open-ended and encourage exploration which is also not the case in Splinter Cell.
For the time it released, Splinter Cell was a pretty good looking game. The environments are diverse, the lighting effects are great, and the texture work is solid. The presentation does a good job at making each location feel somewhat realistic and distinct. There’s no doubt it looks dated now but it still holds up pretty well and I would say the lighting and shadows hold up the best. The gameplay is backed by a great soundtrack consisting of what I would consider moody and dramatic tunes and as mentioned earlier, the music is somewhat informative, letting you know what the situation is. Personally, I think it’s implemented really well. The audio work in general is great. The sound effects help add to the immersion. You’ll hear ringing phones and the sounds of typing in office areas, radio chatter on guards and different atmospheric sounds which fit the location you’re in. On the technical side, I’m happy to say I encountered no major issues.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed Splinter Cell. Actually, I was a little surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did. I honestly expected it to be more frustrating. That’s not to say the game is perfect but just from what I’ve heard over the years, I was expecting frequent bouts of frustrating trial and error gameplay up until the third game, Chaos Theory. Splinter Cell does include some scenarios like that but the mechanics are easy to learn, the stealth is simple to understand, and you’re given a lot of cool equipment and items to help you get a round, evade and engage enemies, and stay alive. My biggest complaints with it are that it’s way too linear and the lack of replay value. There’s very little here to keep me coming back. Not that every game needs to have open-ended levels or a reward system or unlockables. But in this case, I think these things would have been beneficial. After I beat it, I did not feel compelled to replay it. I saw all there was and it’s not like I could get through the game all that differently on a subsequent playthrough. There’s only two difficulties and no multiplayer or cooperative modes. So the story is all you get. Regardless, it is fun and I enjoyed my time with it.
I would absolutely recommend Splinter Cell. It’s a solid stealth game. I do think there are better games in the genre and it’s not because the gameplay is better per se, it’s because Splinter Cell doesn’t have a lot of lasting appeal. The linearity is what really holds it back. But what’s on offer makes for a good time and you can find digital copies for pretty cheap nowadays so definitely check it out.