Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell has undoubtedly been one of Ubisoft’s greater successes, but they went dark on it for a long time, too long if you ask me. However there’s been a recent upsurge in Splinter Cell popularity, showing that true to form Sam was there waiting in the shadows for the perfect moment to burst into the light.
We’re here to give the series the appreciation it greatly deserves, giving fans a trip down memory lane and reminding everyone why Sam Fisher is still one of the best. So without further ado….
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (2002)
Sam Fisher stepped gracefully from the shadows and onto our screens back in 2002 and what an experience it was! Splinter Cell was Ubisoft’s step into the stealth/action genre that at the time was pretty much solely owned by Metal Gear Solid. Splinter Cell was different to Metal Gear in just enough ways to keep them unique but similar enough that fans of one could appreciate the other.
We were greeted with a grizzled veteran turned super spy stealth operative, voiced by the legendary Michael Ironside. Badass name aside, Michael brought Sam to life and allowed him to become the icon he is today. The story was like something out of a movie and fans cried out for a movie adaptation (which we’ll get to later) despite the track record.
Splinter Cell was built in a modified version of the Unreal 2 Engine, allowing for the characteristic light/dark gameplay that came to define the series. The original Splinter Cell was and forever will be a work of art, flawed perfection that spawned a whole franchise of games and novels.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (2004)
Second in the series, Pandora Tomorrow is regarded as one of the best. It’s rare that sequels are more fondly thought after but Pandora Tomorrow is a perfect example of the exception that proves the rule.
The plot of Pandora Tomorrow is probably my second favourite, next to Conviction (Blacklist comes in as a very close third), and for good reason. The first game is all intrigue and spycraft revolving around an assassination and eventually coming to a suitcase nuke, Pandora Tomorrow broached the heated topic of bioterrorism on US soil. Tom Clancy’s legacy of deep research and incredibly well crafted narratives has clearly rubbed off on Ubisoft as we can see in their later games, but Pandora Tomorrow is clearly where it all began. The threat of a weaponised smallpox outbreak is no small situation and so naturally you bring the best spec ops soldier in the world to defeat it.
Largely unchanged from its predecessor, the gameplay changes that were implemented made the world of difference. Small tweaks such as being able to open doors while carrying a body or shoot while hanging upside down really enhanced the experience and smoothed out some of the more annoying issues. It also featured the first multiplayer mode available in the series. It wasn’t great but it was a step towards something more awesome.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2005)
Chaos Theory has the best title of all the Splinter Cell series, not that they aren’t all great and very fitting for their individual plots, but this one always sticks out. Not only does it have the best title, it features the largest overhaul in mechanics, engine and graphics for the time. The addition of HDR lighting, ragdoll physics and parallax mapping are just some of the underpinning features that helped to make Chaos Theory the best of the bunch.
It didn’t just look prettier but it handled far better and introduced the “aural monitor”, meaning you had to keep an eye on the amount of noise made while carrying out your mission. Sam’s also given access to “kits” that allow for different playstyles, meaning if you wanted to start gunning everyone down you had the option…it just wasn’t recommended. The combat knife addition was a bold move as it earned the series its first M-rating, allowing players to kill hostages rather than knocking them out after interrogation.
Sam’s arsenal wasn’t the only thing built upon in Chaos Theory, the ill-fated multiplayer mode got reworked and turned into something truly great too! Featuring local and online co-operative and competitive modes, Chaos Theory’s multiplayer was a huge success, further cementing it as the best of the bunch. The co-op mode was especially good, featuring two rookie agents sent out to help with the developing crisis of the main story. It was a great use of concurrent story-telling without hampering the main gameplay for the solo players out there.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent (2006)
Double Agent is pretty widely regarded as the worst of the series, with the exception of Splinter Cell Essentials on PSP, an accolade not wholly undeserved but poorly justified. Double Agent starts with Sam mourning the loss of his daughter, Sarah Fisher, after she is tragically killed by a drunk driver. Lambert, being the heartless bastard he is, preys on Sam’s grief and manipulates him into going undercover with a terrorist organisation called John Brown’s Army (JBA) as a Double Agent.
Double Agent is the only Splinter Cell title to feature a “trust system”, where completing objectives influenced how much either the NSA or JSA trust Sam. It’s also the only game to feature different endings depending on the decisions made and the level of trust obtained. Not only that but there were two versions created, one for sixth generation consoles and another for the previous gen. The 6th generation version had a different level order and the maps were laid out differently to those in the other version as well as a significantly different story line.
With all this going on it’s no surprise that it didn’t really play out the best. It’s a shame as it probably had the most potential and it’s definitely unique. Despite the different endings being available only one features a “To be continued…” screen, which is understandably the cannon ending, although the exact events of Double Agent aren’t really mentioned aside from how things go with Lambert but…well he had it coming. Not to mention that both versions of the game feature different multiplayer modes, that give widely different experiences.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction (2010)
Conviction picks up Sam’s story shortly after the events of Double Agent with an opening sequence that sets the tone of the game flawlessly. Sam is lying low after being betrayed and hunted by the government for being a terrorist and whatnot. He gets handed a phone and a bluetooth earpiece (it’s an important piece of kit) with the now-badass Grimsdottir on the other end, who says that they never lost track of Sam but now he’s in trouble and he better move. Short time later you’re smashing a dude’s head through a urinal and slamming his face into a mirror.
Sam’s back in the game! Turns out there was a big conspiracy and Sam was the fall guy because he was an ageing agent and would be “easily removed”. It’s cute when they get it wrong. So now begins Sam’s quest for retribution and it’s one helluva ride!
Each of the Splinter Cell titles are perfectly suited to the tone of each game, Conviction especially. Sam isn’t given much chance for character development until Double Agent where things get dark, then Conviction comes along and things get a lot darker when Sam realises that the government he swore to protect hung him out to dry. It’s rare for a sequel to be better than its predecessor, even rarer still for the 5th instalment to be even stronger than that, which is exactly what this is.
Conviction played very differently to the previous 4 titles, making use of a cover system and more action-based mechanics (Mark-and-Execute). Of course it’s still a Splinter Cell game and so stealth is a core mechanic, but widely reduced to that of its predecessors. With these changes came a new art direction and style, one which I think looks the best. Stepping into shadows turns the surrounding area black and white while leaving muted colours further afield. As with all the others, being in complete darkness makes you comically invisible to the AI but that’s kind of the whole point. The changes to mechanics weren’t to everyone’s tastes but it complimented the tone of the game brilliantly.
Conviction‘s story is definitely the best aspect of this addition to the series, but that’s not to say it isn’t a great game all around, ’cause it is but the story is its crowning achievement. Originally Michael Ironside said he wasn’t going to return as he had nothing further to add to Sam Fisher’s character, that was until he read the script.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist (2013)
To date, this is the most recent entry into the Splinter Cell franchise. Blacklist, despite being one of the most fun to play, didn’t perform as well as expected. Building on the foundations left by Conviction, Blacklist used much the same mechanics and aesthetics. Despite claims that it appeared graphically dated it still provides some stunning visuals, the backdrops and scenery especially.
Blacklist was praised for its story, among other things, and for damned good reason. You know that movie that starred Bruce Willis and he kills a helicopter with a car while Timothy Olyphant disassembled the United States with a laptop and a camper van? Blacklist is practically that but way better executed. Fisher and the Gang are the only ones resisting The Engineers and their plans to cripple the US and reduce it to a smoking ruin. Their threats to expose every single undercover operative the US has seems a little small in comparison to them releasing a biological weapon, destroying the US fuel distribution pipelines and generally causing mayhem.
It sounds like Blacklist has so many balls in the air that there’s no way it could work as a cohesive whole but it does, it strings together all of these different ploys, plots and plans as if they were…engineered that way (No? I’ll see myself out). It brings together the highlights of all the other Splinter Cell games and then gives them a fresh look, creating a story that Jack Bower would struggle to contend with, luckily we have Sam Fisher.
Blacklist also had one of the most daring and controversial video game experiences since “No Russian” from Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. Of course refer to the level where Fisher infiltrates Guantanamo Bay, interrogates a prisoner who you are given the choice to murder or save (literally no-one lets him live) and then escape without detection. There’s also a level later on where you have to break into the President’s super-secret fallout bunker to stop our boy Sadiq from capping the President, so clearly we’re okay pushing boundaries. The Guantanamo Bay level is particularly harrowing as Sam is walked into the complex past people kneeling outside in the rain with vicious dogs barking at them. The area has been subject to much controversy so seeing it in a game like it is was a bold move by all accounts.
So there it is, a brief look back to the Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell main game series. With a “leak” apparently listing Splinter Cell 2018 online before being swiftly taken down it seemed fitting to recap the story so far and revisit the franchise, reminding every one of what we can hope to expect if/when (lets face it it’s a when) Splinter Cell 2018 gets a full reveal and everyone collectively loses their shit.
Last year we talked about how Splinter Cell deserves a full remaster, after all Skyrim got one and that barely needed it, words that are truer now more than ever. With the increase in buzz around Sam Fisher, his appearance in the Bolivian Wildlands and the movie in production (we’re coming to that in another article, stay tuned!), the chances are greater now than ever that we may just see one ahead of whatever Splinter Cell 2018 actually turns out to be.