It's not often that a series not only improves visually, but also 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 polished adversarial mode, and new co-op missions. Like the other games in the series, Chaos Theory
will wow you with its visuals and technical bravado, but lacks the depth of the other high-end PS2 stealth-action game, Snake Eater
Still, 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. Stealth-action games don't require the storyline of a Spanish soap opera sure, but gamers would become more involved in the story if the main character showed some amount of personal investment.
There are 10 levels of single-player international espionage and each one contains primary and secondary objectives. The levels are better designed than the other games in the series and Chaos Theory is more of a true sequel than Pandora Tomorrow. Gamers should know that once again the levels have been reworked from the Xbox version to accommodate the PS2 hardware. The larger environments have been broken down into more claustrophobic hallways and small rooms. This affects the game in two ways: on the positive side, the game still sports eye-popping visuals when compared to other PS2 games. But infortunately the smaller environments offer fewer alternate pathways and light sources that dramatically cut down on the strategy and replay value of the game.
The levels are also broken up by a couple of loading points. However, the loading times have been greatly improved from previous installments, so while the pauses break up the continuity of a level they don't become frustrating.
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. This is especially true when Sam only has one route to accomplish his objective and it is guarded by an enemy. A confrontation is forced and the stealth aspect of the game falls to the wayside.
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 and instead Ubisoft has decided to let the gamers choose their style of play.
At the beginning of each level there is an equipment selection screen that gives players the choice of a stealth or assault package. There is also a third option called "Redding's Recommendation" which 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, and 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. Sam performs his lethal knife attacks 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, which 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 their 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 whoever is on the other side of it. "Bashing" causes Sam to enter the room with a quick kick that knocks out any unlucky soul on the receiving end of the swinging door. All these additions are great ones.
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 which blows enemies off of 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 interferes with electrical circuits and disables lights for a short period. 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 if 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 Sam'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.
Of course any game on the PS2 that includes stealth elements is going to be compared to His Holiness, Solid Snake. The Metal Gear games have the significant advantage of being specifically designed for PS2 hardware. In this way they are structured to offer multiple pathways and more depth in a tighter package. The Xbox and PC version of Chaos Theory could certainly go up against the likes of Snake Eater. However, the truncated levels of the PS2 version leave the game lagging behind Hideo Kojima's classic.
One highly-anticipated aspect of Chaos Theory is the addition of co-op mode. This isn't just the single-player game with two spies thrown into the mix, or a co-op version of versus mode. Instead, we get specifically-designed 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 of 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 can 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.
The level design elevates the gameplay by structuring the co-op missions 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. Unfortunately the co-op missions are broken down into incredibly short segments and many of the areas feel too small to accommodate two spies working together. Half of the teamwork becomes staying out of your partner's way.
The addition of the multiplayer element in Pandora Tomorrow was impressive just for its excellent handling of two separate gameplay interfaces. It pitted Splinter Cell's third-person spy perspective Rainbow Six-style mercenaries. In Chaos Theory this mode has been slightly expanded upon. There are three multiplayer game modes: neutralization, extraction, and sabotage. Each mode has the spies sneak to an objective and either take, leave, or hack something. They are all very similar in terms of gameplay and approach to the map.
Unfortunately, the joint moves introduced in co-op do not appear in versus mode. This is probably because many of the multiplayer levels are the same as those in Pandora Tomorrow. Cinema, Vertigo Plaza, Krauser Lab, Warehouse, Mount Hospital, Museum, Schermerhorn, and Deftech Belew have all returned, along with four brand new maps. Like Pandora Tomorrow, half of mastering multiplayer mode is in memorizing the map, so Splinter Cell veterans are going to have a huge natural advantage over new players.
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 players the rules of the game take some getting used to.
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 is a bar that displays how much noise Sam makes, along with a sliding indicator of the ambient noise in the environment. As long as the 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 surprisingly, the visuals in Chaos Theory have improved even more since Pandora Tomorrow. Creeping around in the dark rarely looks as good as it does in this game. Flickering candles, realistic shadows, and environmental effects all add to the atmosphere -- and when combined with the excellent animations, the game feels very cinematic. The only real hitch here is that if you've played the Xbox version, the smaller levels and missing environments come across as a little less impressive. But if you're a one system person and never saw the Microsoft version to begin with, then you'll probably never care.
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