It's not often that a series not only improves visually, but adds completely new elements with each installment. The original Splinter Cell
introduced a new stealth action hero in the form of Sam Fisher. The game looked and played great, but what really stood out was the potential for a successful franchise. Pandora Tomorrow
broke new ground by creating an online multiplayer stealth-action game. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
continues the trend with improved controls, graphics, a highly polished adversarial mode, and new on- and offline co-op missions. It is amazing to see the range of gameplay elements that have been squeezed into this title. It is even more impressive to experience how well each of them works.
Chaos Theory contains three unique gameplay types, but this doesn't mean the solo mode has been overlooked. The story follows a typical Tom Clancy formula of throwing as much globe trotting and technical jargon in a person's face as possible. While Sam Fisher is a step above the typical meathead video game protagonist, he seems to have a very small emotional investment in his job. There are no Metal Gear love triangles or family disputes; Sam is simply a soldier who is doing his job.
There are 10 levels of single player international espionage and each one contains multiple paths to complete the primary and secondary objectives. The levels are larger and better designed than the other games in the series. While many of the scenarios in Pandora Tomorrow were easy on the eyes, they felt too short and lacked depth. In Chaos Theory, the levels are not only visually impressive but they are expertly designed to offer a ton of replay value.
The combat in the first two Splinter Cell games contained a slight contradiction. While they emphasized stealth, Sam Fisher was in possession of the equipment and the abilities to kick some serious ass. Pandora introduced incremental alert stages in which enemies would outfit themselves with better equipment as the alarm level increased. This addition, along with some very touchy AI, seemed to force a more restrained type of gameplay. Thankfully, this feature has been removed from the game and instead Ubisoft lets gamers decide their style of play.
At the beginning of each level offers an equipment selection screen giving players the choice of a stealth or assault package. There is also a third option called "Redding's Recommendation" that usually contains a mixture of items best suited to the level. This doesn't solve the problem of having an overly powerful protagonist, but it does address the issue. Whether players choose stealth or action, Chaos Theory offers an assortment of new moves and improvements.
First off, Sam now carries a knife that can be used for quick, lethal takedowns. Sam either jabs an enemy in the gut or takes him down with a quick throat slash. He also brandishes the blade when interrogating an enemy, which is a bit more threatening than a headlock. The lethal knife attacks are executed so quickly that it can be very enticing to take care of every threat in this fashion. The knife can also be used to cut through plastic sheeting and paper walls. This creates even more pathways from which to approach your objectives.
There are also a number of environment-based kills that allow players to take out the bad guys with style. When a spy is hanging over an enemy he now has the option to grab him from above and either knock him out or snap his neck. When approaching a door there are now four options: open door, open door stealth, bash door, and optic cable. The stealth opening allows players to manually push the door ajar, so as not to disturb whomever is on the other side of it. "Bashing" causes Sam to enter the room with a quick kick, which knocks out any unlucky soul on the receiving end of the swinging door.
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When Sam brings out the heavy artillery he also has some new tricks up his sleeve. The SC-20K now comes with a sniper and a shotgun attachment that blows enemies off their feet. You can no longer shoot when pressed against a wall; instead you have the option to switch the over-the-shoulder-view from the right to the left side. The SC pistol has an alternate fire that that interferes with electrical circuits and disables lights for a short period of time. Because this technique is completely silent it is a more attractive choice for the ultra-stealthy gamer. Most enemies will find the outages suspicious, but it won't set off any alarms.
That brings us to the game's revamped AI system. In Pandora Tomorrow the slightest mistake would set off alarms and have enemies madly firing off their weapons. Chaos Theory has a more robust, multi-tiered alert system that allows spies more chances to stay hidden, but less chance of survival when their cover is blown. Making a noise or moving through a dimly lit area will still spook guards, but it won't set off any alarms. Instead the enemies will go through a routine of checking out an area, switching on a light source such as a flare or flashlight, and then investigating the source of the disturbance. They no longer randomly follow Sam as he sneaks away through the shadows, and he remains silent he can expect the enemies in the area to return to their patrol patterns. Overall, this makes it easier to judge just what you can accomplish while remaining hidden from view.
Staying out of sight is a good idea, because once Sam is out in the open, he only has a few seconds to take cover or eliminate any threats in the area. Enemies work together by retreating to a better vantage point and flanking their targets. At close range with an automatic weapon they can fully deplete a player's health in the blink of an eye. Aggressive spies will want to keep this in mind if they attempt to run through a level without caution.
Spies Like Us
One highly-anticipated aspect of Chaos Theory is the addition of an on- and offline co-op mode. This isn't just the single player game with two spies thrown into the mix, or a co-op version of the versus mode. Instead Ubisoft has specifically designed four levels for two spies to cut loose in.
Besides the standard equipment from the single player mode, in the co-op missions spies also have access to a set of team moves. Each of these techniques is outlined in a co-op tutorial that must be played to unlock the following levels, but the lessons are barely necessary considering all the two-player maneuvers are handled through the use of a single button. It was a brilliant design move to make the system so simple. Instead of fumbling with a new set of controls, players simply identify areas that require teamwork and tap the "co-op" button.
Spies have the ability to boost each other over walls, become human ladders, and use ropes to lower their partner down to otherwise unreachable areas. There is also a super cool torpedo move where one spy is turned into a human missile. One spy simply gets ready by pressing the co-op button and a targeting reticule appears behind him. When the second spy joins up, he is flung towards the target. Not only does this move instantly knock out anyone in its path, but it can also be used to cross gaps.
Once again, excellent level design elevates the gameplay by structuring the co-op levels to encourage teamwork. The alternate fire on the SC pistol must be held down in order to disable electronic equipment. In some situations, one spy will jam a camera's signal while the other player moves past the threat. My only complaint about this feature is that there are only four co-op levels. Perhaps we will be blessed with some downloadable content in the near future.
The addition of Xbox Live play in Pandora Tomorrow was impressive just for its excellent handling of two separate gameplay interfaces. It pitted the classic Splinter Cell third-person perspective of spies against Rainbow Six-style mercenaries. Ubisoft expands this mode for Chaos Theory.
Most importantly, there are 11 new adversarial maps that are more interactive than anything seen in Pandora Tomorrow. Players will find more switches, vent shafts, and crawl spaces than in the last version. There are now three game modes for the online versus experience. The first game type is a story mode that combines a couple different types of the "seek out and neutralize" gameplay from Spies vs. Mercs into one map. As Spies complete one task, a new section of the map becomes available along with a new set of objectives.
The next mode is called disk hunt and in it Spies must collect computer disks randomly scattered across a map. This game is far more straightforward than the story mode and requires less knowledge about the environment. For people who want to think as little as possible there is also a deathmatch mode. Only one gadget is allowed per side so Spies carry flashbangs and Mercs carry flares. To even the balance even further Mercs do not have access to their spinning melee attack or any of their advanced vision modes.
Both spies and mercenaries can exchange equipment and heal each other throughout the course of a match and spies have access to a limited set of co-op moves. The jerks of the world will also be happy to know that now both spies and mercs can whisper nasty comments in each other's ears before taking out their opponents. The online game also looks remarkably good even when compared to the beautiful single player experience. The versus mode will feel familiar to those who enjoyed the multiplayer aspects of Pandora Tomorrow, but for new gamers the rules of the game take some getting used to.
Sights and Sounds
Every aspect of the sound in Chaos Theory is top-notch. The environmental effects are incredibly detailed and include radio chatter, raindrops, wind, and mechanical hums. The noises not only add to the atmosphere; with the new sound meter they are an important gameplay element. Directly below the light readout, there is a bar which displays how much noise Sam makes along with a sliding indicator of the ambient noise in the environment. As long as Sam's clatter stays below this mark, enemies will not be alerted to his presence. Silence has always been necessary in the Splinter Cell games, but now it is quantifiable, giving gamers more control.
Not every spy likes to tip-toe around and sometimes it is necessary to make a little noise in order to lure the enemy into a dark corner. Once again it is possible to make Sam whistle in single-player mode in order to grab someone's attention. In co-op mode the whistle button is replaced by the Xbox Live headset and noise proximity awareness. In between communicating with a team mate, players can holler to a guard in order to bring him in for the kill.
Not surprisingly the visuals in Chaos Theory have improved even more from Pandora Tomorrow. Creeping around in the dark has never looked as good as it does in this game. Flickering candles, creeping shadows, and environmental effects add to the atmosphere. When combined with the excellent animations, the game feels incredibly cinematic. Each level is a grand set-piece in which players stylishly accomplish their goals. The entertainment industry loves to speculate on the convergence of video games and film; visually, Chaos Theory is the best example yet.
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