I don't know why, but I am a huge fan of the Tom Clancy games on console – not so much on the PC - but the Ghost Recons, Rainbow Sixes and Splinter Cells really do it for me, no matter how hard or frustrating or contrived they are. Love them. But right now, we're focussing on the stealth baby. Unusual in that it is the only non-squad based game and actually has characters with personalities, due mostly to the superb voice work of all involved, but especially Michael Ironside (Sam Fisher) and Don Jordan (Irving Lambert) who from the first game have provided what felt like a properly believable long standing relationship that has stood up through all the games and becomes very important especially in the closing level of this game. While I'm pretty sure they've probably never met and do all their work in separate booths on different days, the two actors have fantastic chemistry that really adds the winning edge to the series.
The main difference here is that this time around, Sam Fisher has decided to take on the most dangerous mission he can following the death of his daughter. This mission is presumably so dangerous because Sam's history appears to be military in nature with the emphasis on wetwork and action, rather than undercover infiltration. We'll ignore that tiny logic jump. So he gets planted in prison (with his OPSAT on his wrist and concealment indicator strapped to his back (Ignore the logic jump!)) in order to meet up with a domestic terrorist leader whom he befriends to infiltrate the group. Following this, he performs missions for the terrorist group JBA (John Brown's Army) and the NSA (armed with his specially modified secret service SC2K rifle (Logic jump - ignore!) and his FN 5.7mm pistol (not an entirely common weapon, by the way…).
Ignoring what amounts to a massive leap in logic (I said I loved them no matter how contrived!), the game boils down to the same mission structure as before with "interval" levels where you have 30 minutes in the JBA base to perform a set amount of tasks - for example, you will be told by the JBA guy to complete an obstacle course and practice on the firing range, while Lambert will tell you to bug their antennae. This adds some superb tension as Sam won't run in the base. No doubt some people will hate these levels as they break up the action, but when viewed as an espionage thriller with the levels acting as the action set-pieces, I feel that the pace is tremendous.
The mechanic that doesn't really work too well is the "trust" system whereby certain acts will raise or lower your trust level with either the JBA or NSA. As I am a bit of a completist, I will do every side mission offered by a game, so this mechanic made no difference to me. I imagine that if you don't maintain trust with both parties, you will be railroaded into certain decisions in order to keep playing as there are points where you are given two conflicting objectives – for example, the NSA say don't kill a hostage, while the JBA put the gun in your hand and tell you to do it. While this particular act doesn't have far reaching consequences, later in the game they become more important. My problem with this is that if your trust drops, you simply get a scrolling message that says "We don't trust you any more. Game over." or something similar. It doesn't seem like enough of a consequence, is all.
Another minor annoyance for me is how I could imagine the developers saying "How can we shake up the game? People buy it for the sneaking around the dark, so we need to shake it up a bit". No, no you don't. Most people like the night time sneakiness, so the day-time snow level (the weakest in my eyes, especially as Sam is bizarrely wearing his super hi-tech suit – and also the only mission in any of the games that I haven't got 100% stealth in!) and the glary African war zone (where your vision enhancer is actually a pair of sunglasses) seem a little out of place.
Other than this, though the game is mostly identical to the previous game in the series, Chaos Theory (which had only moved on a little from Pandora Tomorrow), and seems to use an awful lot of that game's animation, but with nice crisp textures layer over them. No complaints there. The graphics are superb – I especially like the unevenly shaved heads of the characters that do look realistically buzz-cut. Even a couple of years on, the graphics still really stand up to scrutiny. Although it has been there since Chaos Theory, I still love the way that Sam moves his body weight away from an enemy when he's sneaking, it really make the game more believable and tense. To optimise the movie style of the game, the HUD has been mostly scrapped and you need to rely on the previously mentioned concealment indicator strapped to Sam's back. It seems a bit too simplistic with green for "safe", yellow for "not safe" and red for "you're getting shot". I still don't know if I'm entirely happy with the removal of the HUD, and would have liked the option to view it like previous games. But, I suppose it adds a little more tension.
Speaking of tension, the music is better than ever. There way that the "proximity" music builds to a crescendo as you sneak up to an enemy is fantastic, if a little stressful. The way it cuts off suddenly when you grab or hit them is quite a relief as well as being stylistically awesome. You could possibly play the game without any visual clues as to how concealed you are as there are fantastic audio stings as you leave and enter darkness. One irritating sound feature is the lady on the menu screen. When you move to a menu item, she helpfully explains what each one means. Without her I would never have known that Play Single Player Game meant that I could "Play Sam Fisher's New Adventure!" I thought that maybe it would bake me a pie and eject it out the disk slot. Disappointment was avoided by menu lady.
Best look at the negatives a little bit, I suppose… There are times when it seems impossible for enemies to see you, yet magically, they do. Worst for this is the aforementioned snow level (while it is not a slippy slidey snow level, I somehow STILL hate snow levels in games…), when you can't see the enemies through the snowstorm, but they can see you. It is something that has been there since the first game, so you should be used to it. There is the odd occasion that hitting someone triggers an alarm as well, even though they make no sound and no one is around to see you. On occasion, Sam has a relaxed attitude to picking up and dropping bodies, as the animation is so long that for both that you often left completely at an enemy's mercy while Sam gently lays down his dead foe. It is quite endearing in a way.
For the most part, the weapons and gadgets in the game are superb. I love the fact that Sam is equipped with the only weapons he needs in his rifle and pistol and doesn't need to worry about finding one better than what he has. The kineticism that can sometimes be lost when using silenced weapons in games isn't a problem here due to the excellent feedback both in Sam's animation and in the vibration. If you're playing the game properly, however, you shouldn't ever need to fire a shot. The pistol even comes with a secondary fire mode that disables lights without breaking them. The sticky shockers are as non-lethal but essential as ever. But some of the new unlockable gadgets make it all a bit too easy, like the automatic lockpick and hacking tool, or even the colour night vision goggles.
Now, the major problem. Anyone who loves Splinter Cell will already have bought and played the game (years ago, actually…), but it still bears mentioning that the control system is HIDEOUS. I spent the first three games playing with the horizontal controls inverted, apparently. I didn't know this, because it was the default control method. The new default control is what I would call inverted in that the right stick moves the camera left and right from Sam's point of view, rather than around him like a detached camera in the previous games. Easy enough to fix, yes? Change it in the options. Of course. In the previous games, the aiming mode wasn't affected by the inversion of the camera, but this one is, so the controls are always inverted mean that when you go into aiming mode, left moves right and vice versa. This boils down to having to learn how to play the game from scratch. To me, that was a MAJOR problem, but to be fair it was one that I overcame in about a week.
I also have to say that the story slightly comes apart at the end, but that might be in order to allow the multiple endings... But nonetheless, the single player is a superb experience with a cracking story.
The multiplayer is excellent as well, but I can't really base my review on it as it is so different from the Single Player as to be a completely different game. The dynamic of the First Person Shooter Upsilon guards and the free running third person Spies is superb and fairly well balanced, although any team that effectively communicates will destroy the competition. As it stands, the multiplayer for me is a welcome distraction, rather than a necessary component, so won't really affect the final score negatively.
In summary this is an excellent continuation - and something of a subtle evolution - of a franchise, that leaves the way open for great things in the future. This is almost the perfect balance of change and familiarity.