The year 1998 was an important one for the stealth genre, as three revolutionary games were released within a short span of one another – namely Metal Gear Solid, Thief, and Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. Each of these games contributed something important to the genre – such as the Soliton radar and sound mechanics found in the case of Metal Gear Solid. Following the success of those three games, the stealth genre suddenly exploded in popularity – and developers quickly rushed to capture a piece of this newfound pie.
One such game that came out in that era was Splinter Cellwhich wanted to create something similar to Konami’s stealth offerings; a game that could prove to be a viable competitor to the then-upcoming Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty while serving as its own distinct identity. And that’s roughly how Splinter Cell was born. Despite the game’s very clear inspirations, it’s very reductive to describe Splinter Cell as a Metal Gear Solid knockoff as it is its very own beast in so many ways.
Where Metal Gear Solid didn’t fear going into supernatural territory with characters such as Psycho Mantis, Splinter Cell took a more grounded approach. Instead of placing its focus on the future of covert warfare, the team took inspiration from the tools that were currently employed in such operations such as optic cables and temperature-altering stealth suits. Similarly for the protagonist, Sam Fisher isn’t a genetically conceived soldier like Solid Snake but is an experienced operative with a varied arsenal of tools available at his disposal.
This same theme of staying true to the inspirations and the gritty realities of war continues over in the gameplay department as well, with Sam Fisher having weighty animations that all play out at their own pace. While many dislike this slower pace of movement and animations, it’s an essential part of crafting the envisioned experience for the game. The original Splinter Cell is a game that’s really methodical in its approach, and players need to carry out each and every move with some sense of intent to have a chance at success. Failing to do so comes with a bevy of knock-on effects that will stack on top of each other to make your life difficult.
Guards are pretty vigilant, and they are plentiful in number. Taking cues from stealth games like Metal Gear Solid, Splinter Cell integrated enemy AI that included complex behavioral trees that can easily track you down and kill you in moments unnoticed. Even if you manage to hide until the alarm timer runs out, guards wouldn’t come to a halt and stop looking for you – but instead, change patrol routes to secure the exits. Hell, even your bullets wouldn’t hit their target every time you fire it as each gun has some inaccuracies built in. It’s touches like these that make the game so much more realistic and true to the spirit of Tom Clancy, and the game has rarely lost its charm in that aspect.
Of course, the most unique aspect of Splinter Cell is undoubtedly its light and sound system, and it’s the mechanic that defined the series. Sam Fisher is a covert operative who lurks in the dark like a silent predator, unmoving and analyzing every move of the opponent so as to catch them off guard at the right opportunity. A light meter shows how visible you are to your enemies against your surroundings, and you need to try to stay in the dark as much as possible. You can shoot down lights or cut down power wherever possible to create pockets of dark spaces, allowing you to freely sneak around the area. The game features a variety of dark and narrow corridors that you need to sneak through, and there are moments where you are almost touching your opponent without them being aware of your existence which makes for some really thrilling encounters.
You’ll not always be sneaking through levels, and there will be times when you will have to dispatch your enemies, and thankfully Splinter Cell provides a plethora of options on that front as well. You could go behind your enemies and extract crucial information like keycodes and secret routes from them before choking them down, or you shoot them down by using your silenced pistol, or you could even engage them at a distance by resorting to weapons like the sniper rifle. The game features both lethal and non-lethal options, with the likes of airfoil rounds or sticky bombs that can explode like gas grenades which in turn, renders your enemies unconscious. You are free to pick your poison, and you will have to resort to firearms often – since the original Splinter Cell has some sections that force you to take down enemies unlike some later entries in the franchise that have options for ghosting through levels.
And that leads us nicely over to the levels. While they may not look like much when viewed from a modern perspective, Splinter Cell featured sprawling levels that had a ton of rooms and corridors that players needed to sneak through to get to their objectives. They were so big in fact that some had to be split into separate levels for the game to run on the PS2. These levels range from CIA headquarters to an oil rig to a foreign embassy, and while the critical path through the level is pretty restricted – the levels do take into account the many play styles that are offered to the player. As such, it’s an absolute joy to sneak through these levels, and these levels are ripe for replayability though not as much as later entries.
While the original Splinter Cell still holds a lot of charm all these years later, some of its aspects have aged rather poorly. For starters, the janky animations can lead to some stuttery gameplay which doesn’t look the most inviting if you are accustomed to modern games that feature smooth blending animations. Furthermore, you can’t ghost your way through the game as some sections force you into enemy encounters which is a bit of a letdown considering how fun the same activity is in later entries in the franchise. Furthermore, guards do have a tendency to spot dead bodies that are completely hidden in the dark – which can raise alarms and alter your stealth rating in a manner that’s very frustrating.
But of course, Splinter Cell was just a foundation, albeit a solid one and one that would be built upon by future entries in the franchise. Sam Fisher is returning to this one hell of a game once again with the upcoming Splinter Cell remake, and while information on the matter is pretty limited at the moment – what we know about it sounds really promising right now. Here’s hoping that the remake ends up bringing many new fans to the series and breathes new life into this long-forgotten stealth action series.
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