[GAME MASTER]Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos TheoryThe original “Splinter Cell” was a milestone. Previous games had attempted to build truly open-ended gameplay, and some, like “Deus Ex,” even came close to succeeding. But it was “Splinter Cell” that accomplished this goal, with an elegant interface that kept the user abreast of ambient noise and light levels while providing seamless night vision and heat vision. It also featured the most physically flexible character ever: Agent Sam Fisher could fold himself into air vents, squeeze between walls and hang from almost anything without distracting from gameplay.
Naturally enough, developer Ubisoft has decided not to fix what isn’t broken, and so two sequels have rolled off the line since: last year’s “Pandora Tomorrow” and, now, “Chaos Theory.” The former sequel introduced a new team multiplayer mode to great acclaim, but “Chaos Theory” has fewer new features to offer. In fact, it feels more like an expansion pack than a new game.
The story this time puts Sam Fisher on the trail of another nutcase cutting-edge computer warrior intent on taking over the world. The identity of the villain is ostensibly not revealed until the very last level of the game, but frustratingly it turns out to be exactly who you thought it was from the very beginning. Giving a villain a sinister voice and a big flashing red logo with spikes on it is not a good way to disguise his identity.
When the programmers who developed the world’s most advanced “weaponized algorithms” start being abducted, Sam is dispatched to South America to investigate, eventually following the trail to Japan and the Koreas, where most of the game takes place. One level, in which Sam infiltrates a computer center in Seoul during a North Korean invasion, is likely to induce cringes in this country.
In fact, the entire storyline, caught up in real history and politics, hits too close to reality to work as well as its predecessors. The wargame-like plot of the original “Splinter Cell” focused on a rogue computer guru with a private army camped out in the Caucasian nation of Georgia, but it might as well have taken place in a made-up country. The cultures of the nations involved were irrelevant. But “Chaos Theory” tries to graft its James Bond story onto a serious, real international situation, and the result is sometimes ridiculous and unsatisfying. It’s hard to see how the game could be released here as-is, considering the censorship of scenes with the North Korean military in the film “Stealth.”
Though the game’s format has changed little, the level design has taken a leap forward. Each location is excruciatingly detailed, and the tactics required to get through them are varied and interesting. The stopgap “three alarms and we abort” rule is gone, and in its place is a much more realistic escalation system. Each alarm triggered past the first one adds an obstacle, such as a greater number of enemies or soldiers shielded by body armor. Toward the end, the game gets more difficult, but not by trying to overwhelm the player with numbers. Instead it gives the enemies more equipment and better AI and narrows the player’s stealth options, keeping gameplay engaging.
Fans who are looking for more stealth action (and aren’t bothered by cultural stereotyping) will find “Chaos Theory” fits the bill. There’s not much new here, but the engine is still so much fun, and the level design so enjoyable, that it doesn’t much matter.
by Ben Applegate