Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Sam Fisher creeps into a Japanese house and begins shimmying along a pipe suspended from the ceiling, just above an unsuspecting guard. Slowly, but oh-so-surely, holding on to the pipe with his feet, he silently manoeuvres his hands into position, grasping the shocked enemy by the neck and wringing the last vestiges of life from his struggling body.
I'm only a few minutes into the E3 presentation of the brand new Splinter Cell game and already there's been a massive revelation - everyone's favourite Third Echelon operative can now perform ninja-style stealth kills. And that's just the beginning. Splinter Cell 3 (working title) is a major rewrite of the stealth series in terms of graphics, level design, animation, Al and gameplay. It also boasts some stunning new singleplayer and multiplayer features that are sure to leave fans of Tom Clancy's most famous undercover gimp breathless with anticipation.
Even though Pandora Tomorrow has only just been released, the third Splinter Cell game is already well into development and most surprisingly, has only been officially confirmed as a PC title, to be launched later this year. Set in 2008, the story revolves around an 'information attack' on the world's electrical and telecommunication networks (apparently from North Korea), that's allowed terrorists to remotely hijack military defence systems.
"We want to keep the game believable, so we reckoned that in a few years it could be possible that something would happen between Japan, North Korea and South Korea," says lead programmer Dany Lepage. "We're still moving from one area to another, which is what sets us apart from say. Metal Gear Solid, where everything happens in the same place. We want very different and diverse environments, so Splinter Cell 3 is set to have missions in New York and Peru."
The new title emphasises Sam's unique ability to get in really close to enemies, and with the addition of the new stealth kills, offers you a very different Splinter Cell experience -especially with the addition of a combat knife and some spectacular new moves.
"In playtesting, we found out that 80 per cent of the NPCs were killed by the players, but until now we haven't had that many ways to finish them off," continues Dany. "Sam is now much more powerful from close proximity because of the knife."
Although you can't use the blade for the actual killing (to keep the game's non-18 rating), you can hold it against an enemy's throat before removing it and silently choking them. Also, you can use the knife as a tool to cut ropes and even slice through soft-body materials to give you access to previously inaccessible areas of a level.
Guns 'N' Gadgets
In another impossibly cool sequence. Sam uses his optical camera to spy into a room occupied by two goons, one standing just the other side of the door. In a split-second, Sam bashes open the door, knocking one enemy instantly to the ground before taking the remaining guy down with a blast from an extremely powerful shotgun. Yep. you read right -Mr Stealth has re-armed himself with more powerful weaponry.
"The shotgun could look weird for a stealth game, but it's nice to have. Sometimes, in the first Splinter Cell, you were seeing two or three guys in a room and you couldn't do anything. Now you have the choice of being able to kick the door in and shoot everybody."
Of course, this piece of gameplay also nicely demonstrates the game's new ragdoll physics, that according to Dany, proved to be a huge challenge for the development team. "The position of an NPC can be anything now, so the question is, how do you carry a ragdoll? You can't just use a straight animation, so we needed to create some special technology. It's not just about killing someone with a rocket launcher and obliterating them - you have to dispose of the bodies by carrying and hiding them." Or indeed, as in another beautiful sequence set on top of a rain-swept lighthouse, hang from a ledge below, reach up and pull enemies off the edge and into the sea.
Other new gizmos include a sniper rifle attachment that can zoom in huge distances and shoot through objects such as wooden planks; and an E-beam, a device that disrupts any electronic equipment. In the demo, Sam uses this technology to distract a guard watching television by interfering with the signal. Once the poor fool gets out of his chair to investigate the sudden deterioration in picture quality, Sam creeps into the room behind him and deftly snaps his neck like a dry twig. "Also, we might include another gadget based on expenmental real-life technology that uses low-frequency sounds to increase the level of fear in NPCs. They may decide not to enter a dark area covered by this non-lethal weapon because they feel unusual -it actually affects their behaviour."
Mission (Not) Impossible
All the weapons and gadgets are accessed through 'goggle-vision', a new slick HUD that mimics being inside Sam Fisher's distinctive headwear -further immersing you in the Splinter Cell universe. As for the new open mission structure, this apparently came about mainly because us fussy PC gamers complained about the fact that missions were quite straightforward, and could be completed by simply causing distractions, using stealth or shooting enough enemies until you made your way past an obstacle.
"You had a great amount of freedom inside an area, but not freedom between areas," says Dany. "Now you can complete objectives in any order and we've included secondary objectives that are earned from one mission to another if you fail them. So, for example, if you don't get access to a computer and some badly-needed files, you need to get them on the second map. If you don't, you're not going to be able to access them on the third map. It'll also be a lot more forgiving with the reasons for mission failures."
If you enjoyed the stealthy multiplayer of Pandora Tomorrow, you'll also be chuffed to know that there's now a potentially cracking co-operative mode for two players. This involves you and a friend co-ordinating an infiltration mission against computer-controlled opponents, with brand-new moves exclusive to these levels.
In the demo, I watched mesmensed as Dany and a Ubisoft colleague used USB headsets to plan the infiltration of an office building, beginning with one operative giving the other a simple leg-up over a wall and ending with a Mission Impossible-inspired raid on a computer terminal, with one agent lowering the other down on a rope. You can also use this drop move' to lower your partner on a line, grab an enemy from above and strangle them.
If you have the voice system on a headset, it works really well because you can co-ordinate your tactics, creating diversions so, for example, it'll help the other player. But not everyone has this feature, so we've had to work on a way to make the standard communication fun and easy to use, as we definitely have two maps where both olayers are split apart for a while.
The Al in Splinter Cell 3's co-op mode appears to be very advanced too. So, for example, if they think there's just one operative and they see you, they come directly towards you, giving your partner an opportunity to sneak up on them from behind in a Jurassic Park Raptor-stylee.
Finally. Splinter Cell 3 looks absolutely stunning, fully utilising the latest graphics cards and DX9 routines. New weather effects have rain splashing off Sam's clothes and collecting in puddles (see Weather with You', opposite), while soft shadows and silhouettes can be projected onto walls depending on a character's position in relation to a light source. Reflective surfaces can reveal Sam's whereabouts to enemies, whereas gobsmacking glass diffusion effects give a real impression of being in a real physical space. Sam Fisher himself is much more detailed, so you can now see his muscles, as well as 90 bones for realistic limb movement.
Splinter Cell 3 could be the best Tom Clancy adventure yet, ironing out many of the last two titles' gameplay quirks. What's more, with the addition of ragdoll physics, a new HUD, co-op multiplayer modes, shotgun diplomacy, a brutal door bash, knife-play and sneaky choke kills, there's also a genuine adrenalin kick to the stealth action genre. The world may be a more dangerous place, but we'll sleep safer in the knowledge that Sam Fisher is out there, watching over us in the darkness with green nightvision goggles...
Download Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Will: With two players who know what they're doing and who know the pitfalls of Ubisoft's frustrating Internet play malarkey. Splinter Cell co-op can be wonderful. Hanging into a room with your good spy-friend clutching onto your trousers, hurling each other around the room and generously rubbing masculine thighs - it's all brilliant. Unsettling, but brilliant. We had a few moments of high-level tension when one of us (well, me) ineptly blundered into direct view of hoodlums and terrorists, but overall this is co-op of the gods. The main problem is simply that I want more maps.
Prez: Agreed. Splinter Cell is one of the few games that's looked at the needs of co-op gaming and specifically designed itself around them. I was less worried about the unintentionally homoerotic overtones, but then I'm a grown-up and mature and that. That said, a close-up of Will's arse is never a good thing...
What did worry me was the frighteningly high level of expertise shown by some players when I briefly ventured off-message and online making me all the more grateful to get back to the ham-fisted, amateur hour buffoonery displayed by Team ZONE.
Pissing About Potential: Pissing about often ends in alarms being slammed and Fisher getting angry. Best avoided really.
Sam Fisher Has saved the world more than a few times now, but we regard his biggest and best adventure so far as last year's Chaos Theory, which saw the superspy stuck in the middle of a massive global information war. Before Sam gets a new hairdo and goes all bad in Double Agent, we managed to get an audience with series producer Mathieu Ferland (right), who gave us the lowdown on the making of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory - and more importantly, his attempts at finding girlfriends for two members of the development team...
"While Pandora Tomorrow's teams in Shanghai and Annecy (France) were dedicated to creating a new type of multiplayer experience, the Montreal team were already working on Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Our basic intention for the game was to provide the best quality in every element of its design - those that have real meaning to gamers. To achieve this, we read a lot of fan forums and conducted research to clarify what elements gamers most appreciated and to discover what content is less popular. From these observations and based on our own instinct, we identified many features to focus on in Chaos Theory, and our mindset and main objective was to include them all so we could make the best Splinter Cell ever.
"Basically, gamers wanted more open environments and free objectives: they wanted to create their own experience. Implementing this was such a challenge in a game like Splinter Cell because it deeply affected many gameplay elements, and so forced us to think of all possibilities and make things work whatever the player did. We wanted to improve the general tension in the game based on proximity and provide contextual cool situations to deal with, but also to equip the player with appropriate skills and tools, like Sam's knife and close-combat abilities."
Wrestling With Technology
"Pushing technology is always a risk because being the first to do something implies that you might use primitive tools to develop content, as well as investing a lot of money in R&D. We wanted to provide a real next-gen feeling on current generation hardware. The technology had been developed early enough in development to switch to production quite efficiently. However, it was a real challenge because tools to produce such quality visuals were not totally optimised at the time. More importantly, we realised that creating such high levels of detail was time consuming and very costly for the project Still, we wanted every level to be different and every zone to be unique. We'd never have reached such quality were it not for the massively motivated efforts of the whole team.
Adding And Subtracting
"There were a few restrictions we needed to take into account when considering new weapons or gadgets. Globally, we were more restricted by animations than by actual gadgets. Considering the new systems and gameplay possibilities, we had to make choices with the player's weapons and abilities. For example, the 'SWAT turn' was removed in Chaos Theory, but we tried to design the game so that players didn't feel the need to do it - and they didn't miss it as a result. We did increase the gadget and weapon possibilities though, especially for fire-fight situations such as the shotgun and sniper rifle. We were able to keep most of our original weapon list, but we had to 'organise' them appropriately in different weapon's attachments to keep the controls simple."
"Considering the ambition and complexity of Chaos Theory development, it was a lot of work - bloody hard work too. In fact, the team had to fix more bugs than in any other Ubisoft game ever: more than 50,000! Bugs or quality issues were mostly coming from the non-linear navigation. There was often a new context found by the QA team that we needed to deal with. Moreover, because of the high quality of the graphics, we needed to match many other elements like sound effects, animation, interactive objects or simply to improve collision detection, otherwise we could have seen a quality gap between the elements making up the game. Unfortunately, some of these gaps were unpredictable, since many parts of the game were put together late in development."
"There are some things we would have liked to have included in Chaos Theory if we'd had more time. Just as an example, we wanted to have more special features for the top alert level; when Al is in the highest level of stress, looking for you and firing at you. The Al was supposed to build barricades and use it as cover while shooting, stuff like that. We had to give up this feature though, for both technical reasons and time. Still, we were satisfied with the results on Al. Also, I wish we could have developed more co-op missions in the game, but I m pretty pleased with how they turned out because they proved to be very popular with gamers."
"The technology in Chaos Theory was highly improved over the previous Splinter Cell, and we needed to make everything online compatible in order to develop a type of experience we had in mind for a long time: a true co-operative experience. In Chaos Theory, we wanted to add an extra dimension to the game by adding the ability to play with a partner using the core solo mechanics. The pace of Splinter Cell, with its large number of slow animations and tactics was a perfect match for a nice co-operative experience, especially with the nice third-person camera angles. I really do think there's a lot of potential for co-op games in the videogames market, as long as you can match the interest with core gameplay mechanics."
After development on the original Splinter Cell finished, there was no time for Sam Fisher to don a pair of loafers and smoking jacket and gently slip into an alcohol-induced coma. No easy life for our Sam - he was sent straight back into the field to be put through his paces by Ubisoft France for Pandora Tomorrow. And if that wasn't enough, he was also limbering up for his third outing Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory - courtesy of a 200-strong team at Ubisoft Montreal. As the title suggests, this particular outing for Sam Fisher revolves around the idea that small things can have a big impact, and the game has a much more of an up close and personal approach. This will see players drowning in the stench of sweat and Hai Karate as Sam gets closer to his enemies than ever before.
"With Chaos Theory we wanted to push the concept of stealth," explains Mathieu Ferland, the game's producer. "The most important part is the tension and power you feel when you're close to danger. You have to make a tough decision as to whether you stay hidden in the dark or come out into the light to perform a specific action. This is what we've tried to build the game around."
Now Sam has never been much of a man for procrastination, but this new approach to the gameplay gives him a lot more split-second options when faced with either the front or back of a nearby enemy. Thanks to Sam's newly acquired and much-asked-for knife, he can now do a lot more interrogating than ever before. In fact, the developers reckon there'll be about four times the need for interrogations than in previous games.
You've also got the option of knocking your enemy out, or if you're not feeling charitable, then there are quick and deadly knife actions that will do the trick. Other moves demonstrated by the team include lowering yourself down on a rope, kicking doors open LAPD-style, and using your new laser device to disable electric equipment for short periods of time. Sam also has multiplayer specific moves as well (see 'It Takes Two Baby...', right).
"Chaos Theory is in many ways a game about choices," claims creative director Clint Hocking. "You have the choice to pick a door lock or kick it down, execute a lethal or non-lethal move, disable a light or shoot it out. We had to get the balance right between power and tension. Getting closer and closer makes you feel powerful, but at the same time more and more apprehensive."
Despite the fact that the developers admit that approximately 80 per cent of players will take the easiest route through the game, the team have tried to make Chaos Theory a more linear experience, building on what Pandora Tomorrow established. The game will have multiple paths to choose from and different ways of carrying out your objectives, of which there are five different types. Primary and secondary objectives are obvious (although if you don't complete the secondary objectives they'll be bumped up to primary ones in the next mission); collectable objectives may involve things like finding all the documents or taking out all of the cameras. You'll only have fallback objectives when the shit really hits the fan, and bonus ones are scenarios that the developer has put in where Sam has to make a few decisions of his own. But I won't spoil the surprise.
As he wrote the script, Hocking is keen to press the fact that Chaos Theory has an in-depth storyline, but as it's a Clancy franchise, you can guess it's not really going to involve singing furniture or dancing pink bunnies. The story is what can loosely be described as a military/geo-political thriller, and what will interest franchise fans is that it brings back characters from the previous games, such as the computer programmer Abrahim Zherkezhi, Admiral Omoto and your old friend and ally Douglas Shetland.
There has also been a concerted effort to clean up the cut-scenes from the original Splinter Cell by er... Not having them at all. This intentional omission is being touted in Prince Of Persia 2 as well (see page 44) which is, unsurprisingly, also by the same studio. The whole idea is to let the player interact with what is happening rather than stopping the flow of the gameplay. Chaos Theory also includes what Clint describes as "memorable moments". This is where players will be shown parts of the story through dramatic in-game events. When developing these particular scenes, the team worked with Andy Davis, director of films such as The Fugitive and Under Siege, to ramp up the sense of emotion and tension.
"You can understand that something is being shown to you without resorting to the rudimentary tool of being forced to watch it," comments Clint. He demonstrates this in a level where Sam rather disturbingly sees a prisoner being tortured to death by watching shadows on a wall. Hurrah for Hollywood!
Camp outside your newsagent's door for the latest from ZONE on Sam Fisher -he's looking more and more like a bona fide movie star.
It Takes Two Baby...
Why Have One Sam Fisher When You Can Have Two?
While Pandora Tomorrow offered us four-way action in a spy versus mercenary scenario, it might as well not have happened as far as Chaos Theory is concerned. This time, the multiplayer is very different. For a start it's only for two players and you can only play versus Al, rather than other people - something that we hope the developer will reconsider.
However, a lot of thought has gone into making the multiplayer a unique experience. This includes four special maps and a host of two-player moves such as giving your partner a leg-up, lowering each other down on ropes and a rather precarious flipping move, which is quite elegant when you've learnt how not to throw you partner into a wall. Due to the superb Al in the game the multiplayer maps are actually a lot of fun, especially if you're in the same room as the person (if you haven't got a headset it's going to be tricky to do otherwise). The maps present a genuine challenge and getting through them gives you a real sense of achievement -and even if you don't, then the flames that engulf you when you both fail to diffuse a bomb properly are really quite pretty.
With Double Agent stealthily worming its way towards us, and the new season of 24 just finishing or starting (it's hard to keep track), what better time to release the latest in the neck-snapping series at the low, low price stated above? Featuring the most famous secret spy in the industry, Sam Fisher (voted Third Echelon employee of the month twice), Chaos Theory is a fantastic game to both look at and play.
It's only been 18 issues since we gave the game a Classic award too, and even though we haven't seen a full-priced copy on the shelves in ages, the low, low price is still a tempting offer - especially as the game hasn't been bettered. It's still the best stealth experience around. It's also the only one we're aware of in which you can do that cool move where you pull a guy over a ledge. Everyone deserves to play this.
The News that the feverishly awaited (by us anyway) new Splinter Cell game had been delayed until next year sent shockwaves through all those expecting Fisher for Christmas. But take heart, as Ubisoft has given us some consolation with these amazing new screenshots, not to mention the announcement that the splendid Versus multiplayer game from Pandora Tomorrow is set to make a triumphant return.
If you played Pandora, you'll know this is very good news indeed, as the Spies vs Mercs multiplayer was a genuine revelation when it appeared earlier this year. Chaos Theory is set to expand upon the template, treating us to a bunch of new maps, manoeuvres, weapons and gadgets, including the devastating therm-optic camouflage suit seen on these pages. There will also be a range of new hand-to-hand combat options and takedowns, as well as a completely new gameplay mode -Disk Hunt - in which the location of the objectives is randomised, which ought to give the maps a new level of intrigue.
All this is in addition to Chaos Theory's other new multiplayer mode. Cooperative, which if anything looks even more compelling. We're literally climbing the walls in anticipation.
It's another day at the office for Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, but don't come in expecting casual Fridays. Instead, expect international espionage action complete with all the shifty shadows that's made the Splinter Cell franchise such a hit.
The big shift in Chaos Theory is that it's not such an incredibly linear experience anymore. You can tackle mission objectives a few different ways, opting either to be sneaky, silent, and not all that violent, or you can just throw caution to the wind and kill anyone and everyone you see. In a way, it helps offer a bit more freedom since Sam Fisher was usually under a no kill policy in the first two Splinter Cell titles, but now it's up to your discretion whether or not you want to dole out the punishment.
Sam Fisher no longer has to rely on his elbow of steel to take out alerted enemies; now, he has a knife, and boy, what a knife it is. Such a simple advancements makes a much bigger impact on the game than you would think; it does a lot to alleviate the sometimes-painful difficulty level found in the last two Splinter Cell titles, especially since it's rare where you're put into instances where one screw up will put your entire mission in jeopardy.
The spies/mercenaries mode makes a return in Chaos Theory, and it's just as fun as it was in Pandora Tomorrow. A few new maps and gadgetry have been thrown into the mix, but otherwise, it's the same thing - and by that, I mean it's a hell of a lot of fun. A decent tutorial mode will help sink newcomers into the experience as well.
The versus mode may have the stole the show in Pandora Tomorrow, but the new co-op mode is the real star of the show in Chaos Theory. Unlike most co-op modes found in other games, these co-op missions don't just throw another player into the mix of the single player game; no, the co-op missions are specifically tailored to take advantage of the interaction between the two players, so that in order to complete each mission, the two of you will have to stick together and, more importantly, work together. Unfortunately, the co-op mode comes to an abrupt end right where you think the climax of the game is about to begin, but even so, it's an absolute blast, online or off.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory has an incredibly realistic quality that, when combined with the series' hallmark of incredible lighting and shadowing effects, will easily immerse you into Sam Fisher's world.
It's hard to find any major faults with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, but the polished and refined qualities shine right through. If you mildly enjoyed or even mildly disliked the last two Splinter Cell titles, chances are you'll dig Chaos Theory.