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Splinter Cell: Essentials

In Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Essentials for PSP, Ubisoft attempts to take gamers back in time and give them some more of Sam Fisher the Super Spy’s backstory. As far as fleshing out Sam’s story goes, the game succeeds, but as far as being playable, well, that’s left to question. If you’ve never played any of the Splinter Cell games, the simplistic gameplay might make this a passable purchase, but hardcore fans are going to be let down by the poor camera, average graphics, bland mission design and unimaginiatve multiplayer.

The story starts with Sam visiting his daughter’s grave, which serves as nothing more than a quick introduction to the control scheme. As such, it’s quick, painless and gets the job done. Once you’ve accomplished this, you’re thrown into the real storyline, one in which Sam is arrested for treason and you’ll go back in time, revisiting his past missions as a Navy SEAL and NSA operative to uncover clues that will show that Sam’s actually been framed. Missions follow the standard Splinter Cell formula – sneak around, climb stuff, avoid bad guys, break a few necks and move on. Except in the console Splinter Cell, the mission maps are expansive enough to offer a variety of options to the player for accomplishing all that stuff. With Essentials, there’s typically only two options available – sneak or kill, and at some point, it seems like you have to always need kill someone, which goes against what Splinter Cell fans have been trained to do in the other games. Early on, Sam’s packing plenty of heat in the form of guns, which is something that again goes against Splinter Cell’s classic gameplay, and feels awkward and forced, forced as in “you’d better use the gun, because sometimes, there’s such a delay in melee attacks, you’ll never get a stab or neck snap move off in time.”

Probably the biggest issue with Essentials is the camera, which is skittish and just plain weird. When it’s not completely pointing in the wrong direction, it’s forcing you to use a button/analog combo to reset or aim it. You spend far too much time in Essentials trying to get the camera right, which makes things grow more frustrating by the minute. The camera gets really weird whenever you’re close to a wall, as the clipping is insane, allowing you to pretty much see through any wall, so long as you’re facing it at an angle. At other times, the camera flips around in weird ways, giving you a view of Sam’s eyes looking directly at you – an image that’s so freaky, it’s burned into my nightmares. It’s like watching those flashback sequences from The Exorcist, but done in night vision.

Speaking of night vision, expect to practically live in that mode if you hope to get anywhere in the game. This is due to it being incredibly dark on the PSP, so dark, you need to either constantly play with the night vision on, or take your PSP into a very dark room. Forget about toting this game with you on the bus, subway or to the movies, as all those areas would be too bright for you to be able to see anything in the game. While we’re on the subject of the game’s visuals, well, they’re quite a mix – as sometimes they are on par with those of the PlayStation 2, and other times, they suffer horribly, both in a nigh-unplayable framerate and sloppy texturing. You’ll feel the pain caused by the texturing in an early mission where you need to climb vines to get up a canyon wall. First off, the vines are impossible to see in the dark, and in night vision, they are still almost impossible to discern from the surrounding textures, leading you to far too much trial and error to simply find a vine.

Enemy AI is improbably stupid – seemingly unable to deliver a killing shot, while at the same time following specific patrol routes (even after they’ve spotted you) and staying to fight when they are clearly outclassed. What’s really ridiculous is your ability to kill anyone, even in the wide open, so long as you’re sneaking. Keep Sam quiet – and he’s unstoppable, so don’t bother playing the “hide the body” game that’s a core element to combat in the console games’ gameplay.

Splinter Cell: Essentials is one of those games that’s bound to disappoint the faithful. Newcomers may find it a respectable introduction to the franchise, since the dumber than dirt AI and reliance on weapons will make it an easy entry into Sam’s game empire for them, but even they may tire of the camera issues and sloppy graphics. Lest I forget to mention it, the multiplayer is laughable, offering a basic “spy vs. spy” deathmatch that is tedious and boring, and frankly might as well have been left out.

Gameplay: 7
Classic Sam but dumbed down with too much gunplay and brain-dead AI
Graphics: 7.5
Mostly excellent for a handheld, but suffers from a horrible camera and framerate
Sound: 7
It’s a game about being quiet – so there’s not much to judge, what there is, it’s good
Replay: 5
One trip through is enough, thanks. Multiplayer might as well have not been included
Overall: 6.5
Sure to disappoint fans of the franchise, but may be a nice “lite” introduction to newcomers
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