Good things don’t always come in small packages. by Cole Smith
March 29, 2006 – Case in point, Splinter Cell: Essentials. The small PSP control system just isn’t flexible enough for Sam Fisher. He’s reduced to the prowess of a fat, drunken trucker – relatively speaking.
After the death of his daughter, Sam Fisher is located in New Orleans in the company of a female terrorist. He is subsequently charged and brought to NSA headquarters where he is interrogated and given a chance to explain his involvement with this terrorist organization. His tales take us back to episodes and missions from past games, but these aren’t just repeat missions, they are new missions that feature new situations and locations. Thank God this isn’t a “Best of” package. We even get to go back to the days before Splinter Cell when Sam was a Staff Sargent in the Navy Seals.
Splinter Cell is known for its blend of action and stealth. In past games you would alternate between weapons and gadgets, non-lethal and lethal force. Things have changed in this version. The control system does not allow for a lot of finesse and instead seems to favor killing over non-lethal knockouts. Why bother spending all that time trying to sneak up on someone when you can just shoot them? It doesn’t help that you can only move slowly or quickly. You can’t vary the in-between speeds. Perhaps the guard is just about to turn around and you’re not close enough to grab him. You will either have to lunge at him or shoot him from a distane. Often when you attempt a non-lethal takedown the subject will shoot you while he is falling. It sucks to get shot like that when you’re low on health or ammo and it doesn’t do much to promote non-lethal kills.
Sam’s movement is controlled with the left stick, and it’s not bad but the right analog stick is missing and therefore you can’t look around unless you stop and press the circle button. Tapping the circle button will reset the camera to the center. Since you can’t move and look around at the same time, it’s very difficult to sneak up on guards if you can’t see where they are.
On paper, Sam may appear to have a good selection of moves but some of them can be very awkward to access. He can crouch, jump, fire his weapons and interact with object easily enough but that’s because these commands only require one button. Some of the controls do double duty such as the stick that is normally used to move Sam around suddenly controls the aiming reticle of the weapons when you are in shooting mode. At this time the face buttons control Sam’s movements (forward, backward, left and right.) These face button commands are very slow and if you detect someone behind you and you have to turn around, good luck.
More awkwardness comes from the D-pad. It will issue different commands for each of the four positions that it can be moved to (up, down, left and right) but it will issue a total of eight commands depending on whether you hold the pad in the intended direction or just tap it. If you hold the pad in the right position you will draw your weapon and reload it if necessary. However, if you tap the pad to the right, you will holster your weapon. In the middle of a gunfight it can be very easy to accidentally tap the pad to the right while attempting to reload. This will cause you to get rid of your weapon and unable to defend yourself.
Tapping the D-pad in either the up or down direction will zoom your scope in and out. Holding the D-pad in the up position will access your inventory and holding it down will allow you to whistle, which is one of the ways to get a guard’s attention. Holding the pad in the left direction lets you hug a wall so as to avoid detection from the guards, and tapping in that direction accesses your night vision goggles. I can’t tell you how many times I ended up wearing my goggles instead of hugging a wall. It’s obvious that these controls are not intuitive but the more you play the game the more comfortable you get with them. But it’s still too easy to make a mistake, and even though I am totally aware of the difference between holding and tapping, I’m not convinced that the CPU does.
Stealth is best performed in the dark but the game itself is exceptionally dark. I experienced a lot of glare from alternate, ambient light sources and in some missions it’s just about impossible to see no matter what I did. I ended up using the night vision goggles for way too many missions. When you use them it’s difficult to see the natural shadows in the environment where you can hide. There is a gauge that allows you to see your level of visibility to the guards. It’s very helpful in situations such as this. You also want to remain quiet when sneaking around. Make a sudden move or a loud noise and you’ll alert the guards to your presence. It makes for some very tense situations which are further exacerbated by the messy and touchy control system.
The incredible SC-20K assault rifle is back along with all of its attachments such as the grenade launchers which make it a very flexible and valuable weapon. Virtually all of the gadgets from past games are available including the lock pick, sticky camera, ring foil and gas grenades. When you can’t use weapons or gadgets, Sam’s got some moves of his own that can be downright deadly. He can break an enemy’s neck with his bear hands or slice his throat from ear to ear with his knife. He can climb just about anything, shimmy on ledges and even use zip lines. When all else fails he can throw some punches.
Graphically, this game can’t compare to the PS2 version. The quality is degraded to the level of the PSX. The animation is good and overall the environments are nicely rendered in 3D – when you can see them. But there are some annoyingly long load times. Everything about the audio rocks. From Michael Ironside’s laconic voiceover to the soundtrack, you’ll want to experience all of this ear candy. Get your headphone on.
Multi-player is limited to the ad hock wireless system. You can play Spy vs. Spy or standard Deathmatch. These modes suffer from all of the same problems that the single-player mode does. Only those with incredible patience will be able to tame the control system and make this game work for them. Overall I found it to be a total disappointment and while you can say that it’s better than the DS version, that’s not saying much at all.
Splinter Cell is a game that has pushed the envelope of the next-gen consoles. To release this game on a handheld is to have that envelope pushed back with “Return to Sender” marked on it.
- PSP system debut: The highest-rated and top-selling spy franchise hits the PSP system for the first time, pushing the boundaries of yet another platform.
- Developed specifically for the PSP system: Unique gameplay sequences designed specifically for the on-the-go nature of handheld gaming with a new adapted interface.
- Exclusive content: Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Essentials starts where Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Double Agent ends, and takes players to the years before Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell when Sam was still a Navy Seal.
- A game of gadgets for your gadget: Features all the weapons and gadgets from the Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell franchise, in addition to some new ones exclusive to the PSP system version.
- Accessible wi-fi multiplayer: Challenge your friends in Spy vs. Spy Deathmatch multiplayer mode.
By Cole Smith
CCC Senior Writer