Retro Reviews: Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell

Thermal Vision

Some 11 years after Splinter Cell was first released, I gave it a try for myself. From playing the debut of one of the most praised stealth game series I’ve come to a realization: I don’t think I like stealth games. Sure, I love Metal Gear, but stealth in general is just a genre I can’t pick up and really get into, I base this on the fact that everyone seems to love this game, and I just can’t see why. If this is the top tier that the genre offers and I can’t enjoy it, I’m certainly going realize it’s me and not the game.

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell is one of the most popular stealth espionage series available. Coming off the heels of Metal Gear Solid’s success, Splinter Cell dropped all the fantastical elements of Metal Gear and went for a more ‘realistic’ approach to being a ninja spy. Its debut came to the Xbox in November of 2002 and was quickly dubbed a ‘Metal Gear Killer’ by Xbox fanboys. Since this is Microsoft and exclusivity is scarce behind Halo, PlayStation 2 and GameCube ports followed suit the following year. The game received near unanimous praise for its lighting effects and use of the Unreal Engine. It wasn’t until its sequel, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow that the game truly got put on the map, mostly for its use of innovative multi-player that really shined on Microsoft’s first console.

Night Vision Powerplant Binoculars

From there, Splinter Cell has become a household name and if it doesn’t command the level of popularity Metal Gear achieved, it’s come darn close.

Let’s get the first thing out of the way: This game has Tom Clancy’s name only; The storyline and script had little to no input from the political fiction author and it certainly shows. This began a sort of franchise of Tom Clancy games where slapping his name on the box got adults interested in them. It certainly worked if you judge the sales of the games. Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon certainly gained more popularity by having an association with the author’s name, so it is easy to see how Splinter Cell is no different.

Cob Web Hurry Up, Fisher

The game takes place in modern times. You are Sam Fisher, an operative of the NSA’s Third Echelon, some blacker than black secret service connected to NATO. A dictator has seized control of Georgia (the country, not the state) and Sam’s job is to conduct covert missions abrasive to the new Georgian regime. In true Tom Clancy style, a lot of the story is revealed through news stories, interviews, etc. showing the effects of Fisher’s intel. I want to say there’s a great story here—but level by level my interest lessened. Part of it is lack of an ideal antagonist for Fisher, the other part of it is convoluted recaps of what happens between missions and how you got from one place to the next. By about the fifth mission, I stopped caring.

It’s really a wasted opportunity. Tom Clancy was never known for literary masterpieces, but his stories, even if convoluted, gave readers incredible overarching plots. His characters, while two-dimensional and clichéd, at least had heart and soul so you gave a crap. Outside of Sam Fisher, who I came to feel intrigued at best about, there was nothing here to get excited. This wouldn’t be so bad if  such a great storyline screamed from this game, demanding to be told; the comrades who die, the bad-guys who are whispered about, so much potential oozes from the game’s storyline and it simply falls flat. If you’re going to tell a deep military story, tell a deep military story.

I’m further annoyed by the top tier voice acting they had for the game. Michael Ironside does an excellent job as Sam Fisher and Don Jordan gives a satisfactory performance as Irving Lambert, Fisher’s boss. Why they decided to recruit such great talent and then whiff on the storyline is beyond me. Had they kept it, I may have felt a need to finish the game.

Graphically, the first Splinter Cell still looks really good, even on a console two generations old. The lighting effects and textures were definitely ahead of their competition back then and today the graphics still manage to impress me. The running animation is stiff as expected, but I’m fairly impressed with how nice this game looks as a game launched months after the Xbox console. Nathan Wolff’s design team makes some pretty stages too. Yes, there’s a lot of cubicles and office rooms to flip switches in, but each new room had a certain freshness to it or a different coat of paint I didn’t really feel like things grew repetitive.

Dynamic Shadows Crouching Sam

That’s about all the praise I can really give the game though. Sure it looks pretty, but the gameplay seems thrown back to the PlayStation 1 era.

The game lives and breathes by how you hide in the shadows. Unlike other games, if you’re seen you aren’t going to live very long unless you find a way out of site and quick. The bread and butter is your light meter in the lower right hand corner. One end makes you invisible to guards (despite the glowing night vision goggles…meh) while the other end makes you seen to everyone in a four mile radius. The guards are crack shots and if you’re seen you have a very low chance in later levels of surviving.

Trying to kill everything isn’t going to help you either. You have very limited ammo and your life get sapped much quicker than other games in the genre. If you can’t be patient and hide in the shadows, memorize patrol routes, and move SLOWLY, you’re going to get killed.

I wouldn’t be so critical of the pace, but by slowly I mean slowly. Once you figure out a pattern to the guards and weaving your way through black areas out of sight, it’s all just a matter of waiting for them to move and get out of the way. Not a bad way to do things, but with the game’s ridiculous checkpoint system, you’re repeating the same sneaking far too often. Once you’ve figured out a path to a particular area, you’ll be doing it again and again until you go through two or three scenes of guards to merit a checkpoint. Die anywhere beforehand and it’s doing the same tired and proven strategy to get back to the area that gave you problems.  This drives patience so far up the wall, you’ll want to just run through and hope you can find a safe hiding spot after saving with dozens of guards chasing after you.

Live Map 21 Live Map 1

I wouldn’t nag on the patience factor—that’s part of the fun of stealth games, if it wasn’t for the fact how long you sometimes have to wait. I’ve clocked patrols at 5 minutes before I could move around. It’s not a simple 10 second wait and you move on, mess up and you’ll be donating your time, not just Fisher’s life. This is further aggravating by the fact you get to hear the same boring conversations between guards and from your boss before you can get the scene moving. Someone just inject this with a fast forward button.

But the thing that drives me really nuts is the A.I. of the guards. If you’re supposedly invisible and they come near you, they instantly know where you are, and clock you accordingly. If you are seen and vanish into the shadows, they follow along and know exactly where in whatever dark stairwell or room you are in. The frustration is further compounded by the game’s insistence of making sure if you are going to do a melee takedown that you are A: directly behind the victim and B: not moving too fast or moving on the wrong terrain as your sounds can alert them. Coming in from the side while squatted down won’t cut it 8/10 times. You need to be directly behind them. There’s been times where I’ve devised good strategies of sound to lure guards into the shadows to knock them out, only to fail because I came up on the side rather than behind.

Speaking of sound, the game insists on scattering bottles, cans, and other objects around the area for you to pick up and throw to manipulate the guards to move around. Sounds good except they ignored giving Sam a knock gesture. It’s so grating when I’m in a sewer concealed in a long area of darkness and Sam can’t knock on the wall to lure a guard in to check it out—I have to go pick up a can and throw it to get attention. The game tries so hard to be realistic it is almost punishing me for wanting to have fun. Instead I’m left not trying to devise how best to get through a particular section of a level, I’m trying to devise the quickest way to get to the sections I died at—being detected or not. I’m sick of playing by the game’s rules and doing the same action over and over again for 10 minutes at a time.

Sam on Pipe Sam in Night Vision Goggles

The game’s aiming system doesn’t help. Fisher’s guns are used mostly for shooting out lights, though some of them oddly enough can’t be shot out (which makes no sense since you’re programed to shoot them to conceal yourself). In the rare instances where you need to start killing groups of enemies, the aiming moves painfully slow and picking off enemies is more about luck than skill.

I think the greatest disappointment in Splinter Cell is the lack of trying to give us any idea of what the hell to do in these levels. A good example is one stage where guards begin using wall mines that explode when walked across. A very cool concept, but when Sam’s forced to disable the wall mines to save a group of tech workers in the same area, the game doesn’t bother explaining that you need to disarm it when it blinks green. If you start to do it when it blinks red the mine will explode and it’s instant game over. If it does explain this somewhere, then it needs to be more in the open as this is a crucial piece of information. With the voice cast having no chemistry, having Lambert radio Sam to warn him about these mines would certainly go a long way with the characters since we never get any interaction from them besides the same boring mission objectives.

You also are in charge of finding keypad codes hidden on satchels on guards. And this whole time I thought I was supposed to be sneaking through an area. Now I have to get up to guards, make sure they have a satchel, or just knock them all out by trial and error hoping one of them has the number I’m looking for. If I knock them out, by all means, I need to make sure they are completely hidden in black, and offer up a prayer that no one finds them. If someone does find my chaos, they will set off alarms and three of them mean game over.

Splits Between Walls Thermal Vision

With how painstakingly slow I have to move and the AI getting increasingly frustrating, I finally just said to hell with it on the seventh mission (out of nine I believe) and realized I just can’t get into stealth games. A lot of people who enjoyed Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy games also didn’t enjoy RPGs outside of that and I think that may be my relationship with Metal Gear and the genre as a whole. I’m willing to concede these games just aren’t for me, even though I play by their rules, I don’t have the time to continue running around over and over again with little payoff in the story and annoying enemy A.I.

But if you’re looking for what I would say of this as a game, I would say Splinter Cell is a very overrated mess in a genre still in its infancy. Given that I’ve read the formula hasn’t changed much between the sequels I can say the only reason I’ll be playing another game in this series is going to be for the multi-player only, which I can see being phenomenal with human controlled characters. The gameplay had me stopping this game and from what I’ve seen out of the storyline there’s no reason for me to follow Sam Fisher through the generations as a badass. I really do wish this had been a novel, because then maybe Clancy would have wrote it and then, maybe, it wouldn’t have been so frustratingly boring.


Play it or forget it: NA. Given my realization with the stealth genre I don’t think my opinion holds much weight. Considering the storyline, I’d say just go pick up a later title. There’s nothing to see in the initial few releases.

Editor’s note: Splinter Cell originally debuted on the original Xbox, but you can pick it up for the PC on Steam here.

Patrick is a freelance gaming journalist and crime-fighting penguin at night. He has tweets, and you can follow them.