For the past couple of years, Sam Fisher's Splinter Cell
exploits on handheld systems were relegated to a strict side-scrolling environment due to the limitations of the hardware. Two titles were developed on the Game Boy Advance platform with varying levels of success, but neither game really captured the feel of the original design created for the much more powerful console systems. That's changed for the Nintendo DS, as Ubisoft has tapped the handheld's 3D capabilities to reproduce as much of the tactical espionage gameplay. The problem is, it seems the added horsepower of the dual-screen handheld isn't quite enough for the game design, or at the very least, the direction that the handheld team took it; Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory
on the Nintendo DS is certainly faithful to the console design, but at the same time it's a technical mess with poor framerates and awkward control.
Splinter Cell Chaos Theory puts players in the role of one-man army Sam Fisher, specially trained to go unseen in very risky and volatile situations. By sneaking around in the darkness, Sam can creep up on unsuspecting members of an evil enemy faction and get all sorts of information out of them. There are eight different missions for players to guide Sam through, putting all of his special training to use to maneuver through open areas and tight corridors, hacking computers for special information vital to the mission at hand. Weaponry comes into play during these challenges, though most missions require that Sam holster his weapons until absolutely required. So if you're looking for a run-and-gun game, Splinter Cell Chaos Theory is not your game.
Even though the developers push as much of the console gameplay onto the Nintendo DS platform, the level designers went more the route of offering linear missions instead of open-ended constructions; there's really only one route to complete a mission's task on the Nintendo DS. If you've never played a console version of Splinter Cell you'd never realize this was an option. These linear level designs bring to light one of Splinter Cell's weaker elements: it's heavily weighed on the "trial and error." Accidentally trigger a hidden alarm or get jumped by a guard hiding behind a door? Simply go back to previous save and avoid the trap. There aren't any real surprises in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory since everything is laid out and scripted specifically for the mission and never deviates from that plan, with the exception of triggering enemy AI reactions if you make too much noise.
Gameloft, developers of the Nintendo DS launch title Asphalt Urban GT is responsible for the Splinter Cell DS design, which is based around the team's N-Gage version released a few months back. Unlike Asphalt Urban GT, however, Splinter Cell on the Nintendo DS has had far more focus placed on the hardware's functionality. On top of pushing a 3D engine, Gameloft has also worked a ton of touch-screen related functionality in-game which mirror a lot of what the original console producers pulled off on the Xbox, GameCube, and PS2 versions of Chaos Theory. Players will touch the screen to navigate the inventory and menu screens, activate Sam's night vision and heat visors, and, most importantly, move the camera so players can see where they're walking. By dragging your finger around the screen, you get mouse-like camera control, something that comes in handy if you want to either A) see what's going on, or B) aim with pin-point precision.The unfortunate problem: all of this functionality actually clutters the game up quite a bit. It's already slow-paced enough, but the game requires the use of every button and the touch screen in some spots, which sort of makes quick reactions nearly impossible. And even though weapon fire is minimal in Splinter Cell, aiming is an absolute chore even with direct stylus control; trying to target a camera with one weapon, and then switching to another gun to take out a guard is not a task that you'd consider "quick" or "intuitive."
Another main issue comes from its visuals. The game features a two-fold problem: a sluggish framerate and incredibly dark environments. The game is intentionally dark to keep in line with the console design and encourage the use of nightvision goggles, but the dark environments come off almost too dark on the backlit LCD screen, which means players will want to kick on the nightvision almost regularly. Unfortunately, the standard, sluggish-but-playable framerate kicks down to a nearly unplayable pace when activating either of the two goggle effects, promptly discouraging their use and forcing players to deal with the dark imagery instead.
If you can deal with the technical visual limitations and the clunky control structure, the single player missions in Chaos Theory aren't all that bad. The designs are challenging, and, even with the wordy text-based dialogue instead of full-spoken cutscenes, the storyline and scenarios are compelling. It's just a little on the sluggish side, with a lack of any real energy in the action. That's intentional, but in the same boat it's not everyone's cup of tea.
Gameloft attempted the same focus on multiplayer as the console developers did on the console version of Chaos Theory, with Gameloft pushing two-player co-op missions as well as the incredibly popular four-player "spies versus mercs" two-on-two deathmatch.
The co-op missions are fine due to each player working together using the same control scheme, but the "spies versus mercs" matchup is almost completely broken due to both sloppy implementation and the awkward and clunky controls; spy players maneuver their character in 3rd person fashion using Sam Fisher controls, with merc players operating in a first-person shooter perspective. Merc controls are locked down, requiring players to use their right hand for stylus control and push A, B, X, or Y at certain moments of action. On the flipside, spy players have to compete against mercs using a much more clumsy interface, and in our office match-ups, the completely unbalanced gameplay sided with Mercs in nearly every single challenge. Which means, while multiplayer was a huge savior of the console version of Chaos Theory, on the DS it's almost not worth the grief.
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