Chaos Theory impresses not only in the structure of its individual missions, but how it fits those missions into its overarching theme; the use of rapidly advancing computer technology in warfare. Each mission sees a slight escalation in the technical capabilities of your opponents, and your surroundings become increasingly high-tech as the game progresses. In the first mission,you infiltrate a decaying Spanish colonial fortress, where the lightbulbs run on generator power and the most advanced tech is a laptop. By comparison, the final mission is set deep in the Japanese ISDF headquarters, a place where you can't turn around without seeing rows upon rows of server banks. It's wonderfully subtle way of complementing the narrative.
Speaking of which, I worried that the focus on hackers and computer technology would cause the game to age badly, given how far things have moved on in the last decade. But I was surprised to find this wasn't the case at all. Indeed, the relentless technobabble that runs through the main story is just as baffling as it ever was. I was also concerned about how the game's theme would feel in the context of recent revelations regarding our own government's attitude toward espionage. It's difficult to picture Western spy agencies as the good guys now we know they're snooping on everyone and his mum simply because they can.
Again, Chaos Theory largely avoids feeling quaint or naive here, largely down to the fact that it never took itself too seriously in the first place. This is one thing I'd completely forgotten about; how good the writing is (jargon aside). Chaos Theory's Sam Fisher is immensely likeable. The way he quips and banters with his team over comms, and makes in-jokes about earlier Splinter Cell games. ("Let me guess, three alarms and it's over." "Of course not! This is no videogame Fisher!") Even his interrogations are laden with tongue-in-cheek humour. (" Are you going to kill me?" "Only if you say the word 'Monkey'"). It's pure spy fantasy, played with just the right balance of levity and severity. Because of this I reckon it will continue to age far better than the recently released Blacklist, with its pretensions of grandeur and overly serious tone.
Chaos Theory's singleplayer is undoubtedly the best in the series. But it's worth remembering that it included two of the best multiplayer experiences ever conceived as well. The excellent Spies vs Mercs mode returned from Pandora Tomorrow. But it was the cooperative mode which really caught my attention. Nowadays every other game shoehorns in a cooperative mode in some form or another. But back in 2005 cooperative multiplayer was still pretty rare, especially one tailored so specifically to the task.
I'd forgotten how substantial it is too, with seven missions designed entirely around cooperative play. I don't have quite as many fond memories of the cooperative mode, simply because I haven't played it anywhere near as much as the singleplayer. But I do remember trying to use the spear-tackle move at every possible opportunity, even though it was usually far easier to dispatch guards using more conventional methods.
Yet it wasn't the unique moves or missions that made the cooperative mode interesting, but learning how to work together efficiently as a spy duo. Prior to Chaos Theory, most of my multiplayer experiences were about how quickly and efficiently I could kill another player. Chaos Theory was a completely new kind of multiplayer experience, not just cooperative, but much slower and more thoughtful. You'd approach a new building or a new room, and have to form a plan together about how to tackle it (sometimes literally, as I mentioned earlier). That was what made Chaos Theory's cooperative mode special, those discussions and debates you'd have, the satisfaction you'd gain when the resulting plan worked, and the laughter you'd share when it didn't.
I think Chaos Theory remains so good because it knows exactly what it wants to be, what its audience wants it to be, and it considers every possible angle of accomplishing that specific goal. This is something a lot of games, especially Ubisoft games, have forgotten in recent years. So many of their titles attempt to please everybody by including every system and mechanic under the sun. While games like Assassin's Creed Unity or Far Cry 4 or Splinter Cell: Blacklist are often fun, sometimes <i>enormous</i>fun, I'd hesitate to call them special. They're brownish games, ubiquitous, flabby and vague. Chaos Theory, by comparison, is honed to a razor-sharp edge. Perhaps the extensive knife imagery was fitting after all.