Chaos Theory Review ★★★★★

If you're like me, you've enjoyed the first two installments of the Splinter Cell series enough to suspend disbelief that it's possible to routinely sneak up on people without being noticed - while indoors. That's a lot of disbelief suspension, and is testament to how fun it can be skulking around in high-tech gear, saving the world one silent victory at a time. In Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Ubisoft has offered Splinter Cell fans a third go at Sam's stealthy style, but there just isn't enough fresh material here to overcome the stale feeling of "been there, done that."

On the surface there are some new moves, and you've got a knife now, but it makes no difference in terms of game play. You approach some fabric, an option appears to cut the fabric, you walk through. It's just another mouse click, no different than, "Open Door." A statistical assessment of your performance is calculated after each mission, with points deducted for setting off alarms, killing guards or failing to complete secondary goals. I kept getting really low ratings until I realized that a captured guard is killed with a left-click, knocked unconscious with a right-click. The animations aren't particularly helpful in revealing this distinction, and I now find myself drenched in the virtual karma of a serial murderer.

A "Loadout" feature at the start of each mission is a weak attempt at providing some customization to various play styles, as there's rarely much need to use the different equipment you've selected. In fact, grabbing a guard from behind is the only way to initiate an interrogation, so using the equipment you're provided is actually discouraged. Maps have the already-overused crawlspace/pipe/elevator pathing that I suppose gives some a sense that options abound, but in my experience these have always been more about what you notice first rather than which gameplay style your prefer. A bank entry through an unlocked dome light is particularly ridiculous as the rope you rappel down was already hanging from the ceiling, right over the teller's area!

Chaos Theory's graphics are quite the mixed bag. For those who choose shader model 2.0, there's no antialiasing - a major bummer. AA is a must for me, as I'm playing on a native 1024x768 projector at 90 inches, so the screenshots you'll see here are all shader model 1.1. And what's the deal with the many faces of Sam? Here's some shots of various versions of our hero: (1) (2) (3). If you consider what Ubisoft is planning for Sam's next outing, it gets even more bizarre. Did the artists even share notes?

One huge improvement is the elimination of the checkpoint system, whereby the player is prevented from advancing due to previously-unhidden bodies. You still need to hide the bodies, but only if they are likely to be discovered by nearby patrols. These patrols have even more dialogue options now, and combined with their behavioral AI, one can feel a decent sense of immersion while playing cat-and-mouse with the NPCs. This is the real appeal of the Splinter Cell series and, happily, the game is as strong as ever here. A series of instructional videos are informative and fun to watch -- I hope to see more of this tutorial style in the future.

Audio in Chaos Theory is as mixed as the graphics. Michael Ironside's excellent vocals as Sam Fisher are in stark contrast to Dany Wells' laughable attempt as the gruff ship captain Arthur Partridge. The sound track gets the job done professionally, but really doesn't justify Amon Tobin's bio in the "Extras" area, or make unlocking his tracks much of a pull. (Granted, musical taste is completely subjective, but Jon Hallur's work for EVE Online or the wonderfully-effective inclusion of Barber's Agnus Dei in Homeworld are more what I consider worthy of such attention.)

Playing the third installment of anything runs the risk of becoming rote, and sometimes more of the same isn't necessarily a bad thing. Ubisoft has a good thing going with this series and they certainly don't want to mess it up. Those who enjoyed the first two Splinter Cell games will most likely enjoy Chaos Theory, but for the third time out I would have enjoyed a bit more innovation and a lot less repetition.

- Last Update 04/07/07