When Splinter Cell made its Xbox debut, we were all pretty amazed by what its developers at Ubisoft had managed to pull off. The shadows, the cloth physics, the stealth gameplay - it was all so new and so shiny.
It made a successful trip across to the PC, and subsequent iterations have been great showcases for cutting edge graphical hardware - the Shader Model 2 effects in Chaos Theory, for example.
Whilst the graphics may have gotten snazzier over time, gameplay, however, hasn't really changed much. The last version of the game, Chaos Theory, didn't really add anything to the single-player experience, although it did introduce some cracking multiplayer gameplay.
So for this, the first next-gen outing for the series, we were expecting great things. Not only have Ubisofts Montreal and Shanghai gone back to the drawing board to develop a new game engine, but we have also been promised new types of gameplay mechanics too. Can Sam Fisher be re-invigorated and have a happy run of life over the next-gen? That's what we're here to find out.
Sam swings both ways
We're reviewing the Xbox 360 version of the game, which is almost identical - in terms of storyline and gameplay - to the PC version, which is out on Friday. We will be looking at the graphical prowess of the desktop version in due course, but for now, let's talk about how the game plays out.
The basic plotline is thus: Sam Fisher's daughter has died and in a fit of grief, he is throwing himself into his work - taking his most dangerous mission ever. His job is to infiltrate a terrorist cell called the JBA, and to do that he has to help bust one of its members out of prison. Back at the JBA headquarters, Sam has to live a dual life, carrying out the orders of the JBA (blowing things up, killing people and the like) whilst also keeping tabs and reporting back to the NSA, his government employers.
And this is where the first new gameplay mechanic comes in. Sam actually has choices about what he wants to do in game. Whilst on a mission for the JBA, the NSA will often be piping in things Sam needs to do. For example, whilst on a mission to get on a cruise ship and plant a bomb to blow it up for the JBA, the NSA tells Sam to plant smoke grenades in strategic places to alert guards and evacuate the ship.
The balancing act becomes an issue because of the dual trust bars (located on your HUD) - health-o-meters reflecting how 'well in' you are with each of the two factions. Should either of the bars hit zero, it's game over, with one of the parties deciding that you are too far gone.
The second new game mechanic is also related to the issue of faction trust. On four seperate levels, you'll be given the choice of completing various smaller missions which will subsequently raise or lower your status with either of the two opposing factions. In these multi-mission levels, you'll be tasked with some small jobs to do for the terrorist group - such as assembling mines or decoding emails - as well as tasks to do for the Government, such as breaking into safes and stealing documents. You have a set time - usually twenty minutes - to complete as many objectives as you can. By completing the missions you keep the two sides happy, fail and your respect will drop.
I love blowing things up
Other missions are more like you'd expect from the series, and really don't offer anything too original. The missions are the standard mixture of stealth and action, with Sam expected to make his way through various problem areas: get from one side of a cruise ship to another, descend from the top of a skyscraper through to a bedroom protected by guards, or drop via parachute to the engine room of a tanker. There are multiple objectives and sub-objectives, relayed through your PDA, which also, as usual, houses your map data.
There are also a variety of sub-games that have been introduced to solve certain problems. Getting into a computer requires some hacking cred, and this is achieved by scanning numbers rolling down the screen for the correct series of codes - something you'll be getting used to by the end of the game. There are also email decryption mini-games and many others designed to represent the little everyday tasks of the super-spy assassin.
Making his life easier are a variety of gadgets, and these also contribute to mission and mini-games. Sam has a laser voice recorder, and you'll sometimes need to record someone's voice surreptitiously so that you can play it back to unlock a voice-command door. As in previous games, you'll spend plenty of time absailing down walls, and judicious use of the slide-it-under-a-door-cam will be needed to time entries just right.
If you've played any of the previous games, you'll know exactly what's going on - only you'll be watching it with far nicer visuals than ever before. The new engine that Ubisoft has created for the game looks stunning with hi-def, anti-aliased, HDR polygons making their way across the screen in a manner that looks simply gorgeous. The frame-rate is rock solid, and the level of incidental detail around the maps is stunning - there has been some major effort put in to make Sam's world appear as realistic as possible. It's the best looking game on the 360 by far, short of Gears of War, and this really adds to the immersion and the enjoyability of the experience.