Originally created 11/27/02

'Splinter Cell' may be the best Xbox game yet

If you love spies, covert operations and exciting military tales, you know the name Tom Clancy. His books have sold millions of copies around the world.

So when he lends his name to a videogame, you have to assume it will be detailed, realistic and a blast (no pun intended) to play.

That's exactly what you get - and more - with "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell," from UBI Soft. This is unquestionably the best Xbox title I've played since "Halo," and in my humble opinion, it's better.

You play as lone operative Sam Fisher, a square-jawed legend in the shadowy world of spies who's been sidelined for a while. He's brought out of mothballs by the National Security Agency to find out what happened to two earlier specialists. His quest to find them and solve a mystery of world-shaking dimensions takes you on an adventure like none you've ever played.

You may see parallels to "Metal Gear Solid" or other stealthy titles, but "Splinter Cell" is better. For one thing, Fisher has a vast collection of moves to help you through the game, from being able to shoot while rappelling down a wall to doing the splits at the top of a dark hallway and dropping like a bat onto unsuspecting enemies.

He also has a great collection of gadgets, many of which I don't recall seeing in previous games. There are cameras which stick to walls, optical cables to allow you to look around doors and walls and two types of lock picks.

Fisher is great at sneaking around, clinging to shadows so his visibility gauge remains pinned to the "virtually invisible" end. He carries and uses an excellent collection of weapons, but ammo is limited and you're usually better off sneaking up on enemies and disabling them than blazing away.

The game isn't designed to let you breeze through in a few hours. The levels are huge and complex, pretty much guaranteeing you'll be dying on a regular basis.

Adding to your woes, when you return to try again, your enemies will act differently than they did the first time you ran into them.

For example, in a kitchen scene, part of a larger section I played about a million times, you have to silence two chefs. You can't shoot them because they're civilians, so you sneak up on them and knock them out. The first time, if you take out the closest chef, the other one will run to sound the alarm. The next time you have to deal with him, he may fall on the floor in terror. The third time, he may try to escape. Guards have similar variations in how they respond.

Daunting is the word.

Equally flexible is the route you take to achieve your goal. You can handle each mission in several different ways, each leading to the solution and each requiring different techniques or equipment. Experiment if you fail to get past an obstacle. Come at it from a different angle or through a different door. Try everything, look everywhere. Information is your business.

Graphics get an A+. They are simply spectacular in every way. Watch how curtains flow as you pass, how mist fills a walk-in freezer and how Fisher's breath comes in tiny puffs while he's inside. Watch how the lights and shadows interact. This is a gloriously beautiful game.

Control gets an A. It's easy to make Fisher do what you want, and he always follows your instructions. There are one or two camera angle problems, but in general your ability to see your environment is excellent. Targeting is simple and efficient, and Sam's many stealthy moves are a delight to perform.

Sound gets another A. You will be amazed at the quality, from the spooky soundtrack to the excellent voice acting to environmental noises so accurate you'll think they're in your neighborhood, not in the game.

"Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell" gets an enthusiastic A+. It's the best Xbox game I've ever played, and I'm not putting it up until I've squeezed out every detail and experience. If you have an Xbox, this is a must-have.

"Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell" is rated T, for ages 13 and up.

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You can contact William Schiffmann at bschiffmannap.org


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