Written by guest writer and friend of the site, Shane Raymond.
It’s the dead of night. It is not raining, but it would probably be a lot more noir if it was. You’re standing outside the Chinese Embassy, attempting to, essentially, prevent World War III. You’ve already completed your objective, obtaining proof that the Chinese government, or at least, a portion of it, is actively supporting anti-US terrorist actions. Between you and extraction lies one more guard. There were two others before, taken out silently and efficiently, with only your hands, but there’s no clear way to sneak up on this one. You’ll have to shoot.
You crouch, aim through the sights, and place the reticle solely on the target’s head. What appears to be onset Parkinson’s does not help with aiming, but you manage. Finally, centered directly on the target’s head, you fire. You miss. You fire again. He hears you that time. You fire six more rounds in succession, each shot determined to stray further off the target than the last. As if out of pity, you graze his shoulder once before you are blown apart in seconds by his pinpoint accuracy. You reload your quicksave.
God damn it.
This is the pain of playing Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell.
It is not the only pain, and it is one that makes sense in terms of overall game design (at least in theory), but the gunplay is certainly one of the bigger annoyances. Platforming sections are clearly worse, and make less sense, but are rare enough to not be that much of a hassle. Some techniques for getting around are only ever used once or twice, such as hug-climbing a horizontal pipe. Others, I am nearly positive, have no use anywhere in the game, like the weird two legged wall climb thing Sam does in the tutorial.
It seems easy to follow that what the developers were thinking; they wanted to make shooting unreliable, encouraging stealth based gameplay. This explains why the foam darts (supercharged with a AA battery) Sam shoots out for non-lethal distance takedowns are usually far more accurate than bullets. The same goes for the “ring rounds” that you use to bop terrorists in the face before running over and punching them (because that sort of thing is what spies do, apparently). Sam should probably stop taking advice from “that one guy” at the agency in charge of his ramshackle weapons. Presumably, the same one who informs him that assless chaps are a fine, professional article of clothing to wear over his spy suit.
Aggravating the above, the stealth itself seems somewhat poorly designed. Some enemy patrols will simply not allow you to sneak up on them without wasting resources, or engaging in mind boggling trial and error. If you walk too fast, they’ll hear you, and if you walk too slow, he’ll be turned around by the time you get in melee range. Being a stealth game made ten years ago, it is not incredibly unbelievable that the range, reaction, and intelligence of the enemy is very inconsistent. I have murdered dozens of them simply due to their absolute insistence that no light should ever be turned off under any circumstance. It does not matter that seven people walked in the very same room to turn off the light and never returned. It does not matter that they heard the screams. They walk in. In the end, the room has more unconscious men than a shady kidney parlor.
On the other hand, enemies are also occasionally smart enough to aim at pinpoint accuracy in near total darkness, after I step into the business end of a light fixture.
As you may have inferred by that really stupidgreat paragraph about Chinese Embassies up at the top, the story is hardly groundbreaking. Or maybe it was for its time? Back in 2002, “Thoroughly Modern Millie & The Goat” won the Tony’s and that useless hunk of a country Switzerland was allowed into the UN, so I can’t tell you with much authority what those crazy people were thinking back then. Outside of talking to your mission handler, and cutscenes in between missions, the story is mostly told through data sticks that drop from dead/soon-to-be-dead enemies. About half of this is something along the lines of
“Hey, Bortkrazrov, I see you are a shit today. Stop being a shit. Also, the door code is 593043. You should burn this immediately so no spies will steal it from your corpse.”
“Hey, Inrgatzia! Long time no see! How are the kids!? Also, be careful of the mines next to your patrol, you should probably have thermal vision on or you’ll blow up into a billion pieces! Haha! Have a great day, friend!”
The rest are snippets of backstory, minor character motivations, and whatever it is wacky terrorists and CIA spies like to talk about. Unfortunately, this is rarely used effectively. In one mission (spoilers for a twelve year old video game) you’re infiltrating a CIA base to find a spy, where you will, after electrocuting (non-lethally) a father of four, read an email from his wife hoping that he’s still safe. Still, a surprising amount of humanization occurs with the terrorists. I occasionally read emails from worried loved ones, or eavesdropped on conversations that range from the silly to the morally unsure. None of it is as emotionally impactful as the father, but I applaud the effort. Considering the amount of real life terrorist stuff happening around this time, I might actually say it was a brave decision for Ubisoft.
Despite every part of the game being of a dubious level of quality, I can’t help but say I enjoyed it. Perhaps it was just a bit more than the sum of it’s parts. I got frustrated a few times with some spotty segments, but due to my reliance on quick-saving nothing became unbearable. Splinter Cell also excels in the little things. Sam’s character, who tends to be rather quiet and gruff, shines best during interrogations. It’s a strange character that becomes most endearing with a gun to someone’s head, but that’s just the way he operates, I guess. I would say the game certainly has enough charm to stand on it’s own, or at least, enough for me.
This the part of of the article where some authors would try to make some sort of tangentially relevant point to give the game some twisted state of meaning. Perhaps some forlorn attempt to examine the real difference between enjoying and despising a game. Perhaps, a lazy effort to discuss the argument that a story can redeem gameplay. I could also, god forbid, really get into that “games reflecting real life” business and talk about 9/11’s influence on society’s portrayal of America’s enemies. But really, I’m not qualified to talk about any of that.
I’d like to leave you with a quote. “It’s part of a writer’s profession, as it’s part of a spy’s profession, to prey on the community to which he’s attached, to take away information – often in secret – and to translate that into intelligence for his masters, whether it’s his readership or his spy masters. And I think that both professions are perhaps rather lonely.”-John le Carre
It’s a good thing I’m not a writer.