For a young franchise, Splinter Cell has been blessed both with incredible success and a surprising number of iterations. After the rousing success of the first Splinter Cell, Ubisoft moved quickly with its Shanghai studio to produce Pandora Tomorrow, the first stealth game to implement a solid multiplayer effort. One year later, we’re already playing the third game in the series, Chaos Theory. Given this schedule, it’s completely understandable to ask whether Ubisoft has pushed these games out too quickly, or whether the games themselves have suffered in the process. In a word, the answer to those questions is “no.”
Ubisoft’s Montreal studio began development of Chaos Theory almost immediately after completing the first Splinter Cell, and the time they took to polish their work is evident. Chaos Theory is hands-down the best game in the Splinter Cell franchise. In both spirit and gameplay, Chaos Theory is also more of a true sequel to the original game than Pandora Tomorrow, making it much more worth the purchase than Sam Fisher’s second outing.
The two aspects that most make Chaos Theory a true sequel to Splinter Cell are the length of its campaign and the artificial intelligence of its enemies. Pandora Tomorrow (read DailyGame’s review) was arguably brief, with the single-player story often feeling tossed together to entice players to buy what was really a multiplayer experiment. Chaos Theory, on the other hand, is clearly a single-player game first, with online and split-screen multiplayer elements added to an already-excellent title. The campaign is considerably longer than Pandora Tomorrow, and the story is equally compelling, if not more so. There’s no good way to estimate the number of hours it takes to complete the game, though, because it supports the traditional stealth approach as well as a more run-and-gun style. As a result, the game will take more or less time depending upon whether you sneak or spray bullets.
This gameplay variation is a fantastic move on Ubisoft’s part, because it makes Chaos Theory more accessible to a wider audience while still supporting a more slow-paced game. Maybe Ubisoft learned from Ghost Recon 2, which it changed to make the game more accessible but in the process removed much of the strategy that endeared it to gamers in the first place. Where Ubisoft reinvented Ghost Recon, it simply expanded the Splinter Cell series with Chaos Theory. That’s a big difference, and a welcome one.
Chaos Theory’s excellent AI also supports the more-open gameplay, offering different challenges depending upon your style. Sneaking through the levels, for example, will test your patience and anticipation of enemies’ mostly random patterns. Meanwhile, gunning through levels will test your aim and reflexes, because a trigger-happy style will set off more alarms and make enemies don more armor, making them harder to defeat. Both styles are acceptable, and both can lead to success. In fact, the only compulsion to play through one way more than another is that Chaos Theory’s new scoring system generally gives higher scores for stealthy play than it does blasting your way to success.
While the desire to get a higher score might add to the game’s longevity, the scores themselves can crush a gamer’s morale. After completing the first level, for example, I sat back waiting for my score, feeling confident that I had done well. After all, I’d played every game in the Splinter Cell franchise, I had moved stealthily through the first level, and I met all but one tertiary objective. I scored a 66 percent. My second-level performance was bound to be better. It was. I scored a 78. Ouch. Did you see that? It was my self esteem jumping from a window….
Perhaps it was the length of time it took to complete the levels. After all, Chaos Theory offers the largest levels in the Splinter Cell series, and my penchant for creeping slowly and quietly made for longer completion times. The large levels lead to some somewhat lengthy pre-level load times, but once the level is loaded, nary will you see another loading screen.
Chaos Theory also marks the return of stealth-based online multiplayer, this time with options for both versus and co-operative play. The versus multiplayer is essentially the same from Pandora Tomorrow, with two two-man teams competing in various spy vs. mercenary objective-based games. As in Pandora Tomorrow, it’s still imperative to memorize the layout of each map, and it’s still best playing with friends. It’s also still a very different type of multiplayer, but if you enjoyed it in Pandora Tomorrow, you’ll like it in Chaos Theory.
If you weren’t overly fond of those versus options, Chaos Theory also offers online co-operative missions for two spies. In theory this is a nice addition, but there are several omissions that keep it from being a perfect solution. For starters, the co-op mode does not include a map, and in levels this large, it can be annoying to repeatedly ask your teammate “where do we go now?” The omission of mid-mission save points only aggravates these inquiries, because unless you have an hour or more to devote to completing each level in a single sitting, you’ll have to replay it once again the next time you log on.
The co-operative mode is also available via System Link and split-screen play, although split-screen is a hassle. Kudos to Ubisoft for supporting it; not enough games do. It’s simply that Chaos Theory, like all of the Splinter Cell games, is dependent upon players’ field of view and awareness of everything going on around them. With the screen split vertically, the field of view is necessarily cut in half, making it considerably easier to stumble into an enemy or accidentally wander in front of a security camera you never even saw.
As is evident in the screens accompanying this review, Chaos Theory is one of the prettiest console games ever released. From high-resolution textures to outstanding animations, Chaos Theory delivers in a way unimaginable just one year ago. Part of its magic is the lighting, which casts real-time shadows for every object in the game, but the overall quality of every object, character and environment seals the deal when it comes to graphical immersion. If the current-generation consoles are indeed nearing their end, then Chaos Theory is their graphical swan song.
From an audio standpoint, Chaos Theory is just as strong, but its finer elements and environmental sounds are best experienced with 5.1 headphones (these are the ones we use on a regular basis). A standard Dolby Digital system will suffice, given that the positional audio is quite capable of setting the sense of place, but playing the game with 5.1 headphones makes it even easier to notice the amount of detail that went into this game’s audio track.
I’ll be the first to admit that Chaos Theory isn’t for everyone, but I’ll also be the first to say this is the best game in the Splinter Cell series so far. If you liked the other games in the series, or if you need a break from “twitch” shooters and can tolerate the slower pace, Chaos Theory is one of the best games you’ll purchase this spring.
- Gameplay: 9.3
- As stealthy as you want it to be, but it also supports more action-oriented play.
- Graphics: 9.6
- Easily one of the top three best-looking games of this generation, if not the best.
- Sound: 9.1
- Outstanding use of surround sound and environmental details, but the dialog can at times feel a bit too cute.
- Replay: 9
- The scoring will compel you to replay some levels, but the versus multiplayer isn’t for everyone, and co-op still has some kinks to work out.
- Overall: 9.5
- A remarkable game by any standard, Chaos Theory is the new stealth-game king.
— Jonas Allen