IGN Review of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Essentials
It's no easy task squeezing a complex game into a portable package. Developers struggle against a bunch of stuff, not the least of which is strict hardware limitations. So when it comes to a game as sophisticated as Splinter Cell, things become even more complicated. These complications ultimately keep Splinter Cell Essentials from achieving greatness. And yes, it could have been great. Even with handheld engineering conundrums, the recent crop of PSP offerings prove that developers can make astounding products for the PSP given sufficient time and resources.
That's just not the case with Essentials. It feels rushed, even slightly broken during certain parts. Beyond this, the game plays as though it doesn't belong on the PSP. It yearns for a second analog stick and an extra pair of buttons, for instance. Not only that, it suffers quite a bit in the performance department - you'll rarely see the game running smoothly. Making matters worse is that Essentials doesn't look all that spectacular. This from a series that always pushes the boundaries of current technology.
At this point things may sound a little grim. But it's not all bad. Essentials does surprise you occasionally with a few cool sequences. Thing is, it occurs so rarely that when it actually happens it even hurts. And here's why: you can almost see it all working. You can see what a 'no compromise' Splinter Cell would be like on a handheld. Too bad it never lasts. Almost as soon as these blips of awesomeness occur, they vanish, only to reappear hours later in another mission. This repeats until the end of the game when you realize you've spent a dozen hours on passable gameplay and maybe a dozen minutes on the good stuff.
That's the short version. Those who need a little more clarification can keep reading. Essentials has everything that makes the series so popular, including all the moves, weapons and gadgets. Fans of the series won't miss anything in terms of content. It's impressive that portable Sam Fisher can keep up with his console brethren in terms of flexibility. But he does. You'll still hang from ledges, shimmy along walls and perform split jumps. You can even do half split jumps, drop attacks and shoot while rappelling. That's the good part.
But as groovy as it may sound to use people as human shields or to sail down zip lines, it won't be that fun if not executed properly. And that's precisely where Essentials falls apart - execution. While the moves make the translation from console to handheld, precise and efficient controls do not. To start, Essentials just isn't that responsive. At times tapping a button to shoot or grab an enemy works, and sometimes it won't. This isn't a common thing, but it happens enough to get annoying.
While the control scheme is far from perfect, it actually works well once you get used to it. This will take a lot longer than in most games, mind you, since the game adopts two different input methods depending on the situation. The first, with movement relegated to the analog stick, comes into play when your gun hangs lazily on your back. Here, you need to press the circle button to first activate the camera and then use the analog stick to pan the camera manually. It's annoying, but it works fine. The second input method appears when your gun is drawn. Movement is mapped to the four face buttons while the analog stick aims the reticule. Again, both schemes work fine, but it feels clunky. It would have been better to have a single, unified system.
You'll find a variety of mission objectives throughout Essential's single-player campaign. You'll spend time rescuing captives, diffusing explosives, intercepting information and assassinating hordes of people. Each of these objectives doesn't take long to complete, which helps make things mobile-friendly. You can play for 10 minutes, finish an objective and then stop playing. Another huge plus is the game's very player-considerate save system. It saves automatically throughout each mission, but you can also save manually whenever you feel like it. And the game doesn't just lump these personal saves into the checkpoint system, either, you load the game from wherever it is you saved. Ah, the convenience.
As for the multiplayer experience, it doesn't do much to improve the rest of the package. The only option available is 'spy vs spy' which pits one player against another, deathmatch style. Which would be fine if Essentials was an action game. Since it leans heavily toward stealth, multiplayer comes off as a little awkward. It's not like it is on consoles, where stages seem custom-built for multiplayer. Here, it's an overly simplified frag festival. Making matters worse, much of the experience suffers due to heavy lag, even with only two people playing.
There's also a severe lack of options. You can only pick a stage, set the time limit and frag count then head into battle. As such, things get boring quickly. Lastly, the stages dictate the kinds of weapons available during a match, but there's no indication beforehand as to what's available. As for the design of the stages themselves, they're simply ok; they function without adding much in the way of obstacles or hidden vantage points. Unfortunately, there's no game sharing or infrastructure mode available, either.
From a visuals standpoint, Essentials is equally rough. It mirrors the look of the console games, at least in terms of style, but it suffers from a list of very noticeable issues. Environmental textures look worst of all and actually hinder gameplay. It's hard to see what surfaces you can climb, for instance. There's supposed to be big differences in visual detail between climbable and un-climbable surfaces, but it's really hard to see most of the time. It gets worse when using night vision, and the game forces you to use it constantly since most stages lack decent lighting.
Sure, it's supposed to be a dark game, but when you're forced to use night vision for the entirety of certain missions, it's too dark. You'll also notice an array of glitches. Weapons and body parts will often go through walls. The camera gets so close at times that it passes through Sam Fisher's head and you can see the facial texture staring back at you. As for character animation, some of it does look pretty good. And there's an impressive detail on enemy characters - weapons and clothing look about as good as on consoles. The game also has a cool soundtrack and sound effects from gunfire and explosions won't disappoint. It's too bad music and sound effects tend to cut in and out. Shucks.
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