Spurred on by the delicious gameplay for Splinter Cell: Conviction at E3, as well as somehow managing to contract a cold in the Californian summertime, I found myself downloading Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory from the Xbox Originals service. I expected to be underwhelmed by the graphics, as it’s often easy to let graphical fidelity get in the way of a play experience (for those unconvinced, I dare you to try and play Final Fantasy VII again!).
I am pleasantly surprised to say I am wrong: this game remains a great, thrilling experience.
The graphical non-HD smudginess is mitigated by the strong use of lighting, or lack thereof. Most of the game takes place in the pitch black darkness, forcing the use of night vision. Night vision we expect to be smudgy looking, so Chaos Theory plays itself a nice little Get Out of Jail Free card. What’s more interesting is how well the gameplay stacks up.
I did not like Splinter Cell 1. Or 2. Or Metal Gear anything. I do not enjoy stealth games. The binary punishment of spotted and dead or not spotted and alive felt arbitrary and created an awfully strong sense of tension. I felt my heart rate race to an uncomfortable degree with every action taken. It wasn’t exciting, it was torturous. I left those games behind.
Chaos Theory, on the other hand, plays a much better game of risk and reward. It is quite simple, with care, to circumvent many of the guards entirely, either by hiding from them, or placing a calm, silent bullet between the eyes. For players wishing to up the ante, they can choose to lurk in the darkness and deliver a quick judo chop to incapacitate opponents. However, my personal tactic is to turn off all the lights, scare the guards something terrible, then creep up behind them ever so slowly, before grabbing and interrogating them. This risky tactic rewards confident play with information, as well as a sense of predatory power… you might be hiding in the shadows, but you are the one with the power, not them. Should something go awry, the punishment is expertly doled out. A frantic dash around the room, stabbing all who have seen you, is all that is needed to silence the alarms. You feel stupid. You feel compromised. But you don’t feel harshly punished: you blame yourself for your failures, not the game design for the retribution. The game excites and thrills, never frustrates and upsets.
The knife edge that Chaos Theory teeters between is an unenviable one. That it does it with such confidence, flair and inspired execution is nothing short of astonishing. It’s a difficult act to repeat, even with such a blueprint to follow. Perhaps that’s why it looks like Splinter Cell: Conviction might not even try.
I’ll end with a piece of wonderful fourth-wall breaking conversation from early in the game. It sums it up rather nicely.
About the author: Chris Lewis is a British PhD student researching the intersection of software engineering and video game development.