The Tom Clancy series will always have a special place in the video gaming section of my heart. While the modern monoliths of GTA IV, Bioshock and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare often frequent my hard drive, there exists a small collection of games that are never removed.
Within this group can be found classic adventures, such as Grim Fandango, Age of Empires 2, and the earlier Tom Clancy games. In fact, if someone was to ask me to name my three favourite series of military games based loosely on the novels of the prolific American author Tom Clancy, I’d have no choice but to answer with Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six.
Inevitably, throughout the years each of the franchises have made missteps of varying degrees – Rainbow Six had their Lockdown, Ghost Recon had their Advanced Warfighter, and Splinter Cell had their Double Agent. However, the other games in the series aren’t tarnished by these occasional let-downs. Just as the original Indiana Jones movies remained classics after Harrison Ford’s ill-judged return, the early Tom Clancy games will still be remembered as a great collection. Now, seeing as Conviction is finally within sight, it seems like the perfect time to look back on what is arguably the finest moment in the series: Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.
As with the vast majority of Tom Clancy games, the plot in Chaos Theory was unintelligible and mostly sidelined to between missions. Before you got into the action, you’d be presented with several people talking at you as if you gave even the slightest damn about what kind of state the world was getting itself into, and how you were expected to save it (of course, I can’t speak for everyone, but this did seem to be the general consensus). However, once the talking heads had stopped and the loading bar had completed, the player was presented with some of the finest stealth action we’ve seen in video gaming.
The success of Chaos Theory is due in no small part to Ubisoft Montreal’s apparent decision to forgo any major shakeups in gameplay mechanics or gimmicks, and instead focus on polishing and streamlining the experiences of the previous two games. The game that followed after, handled by a different Ubisoft studio, showed exactly why new features could be disastrous. Double Agent felt in many places unfinished, with the lack of quality in the basic manoeuvres failing to make up for the new features on offer. Chaos Theory avoided such pitfalls and was the better game because of it. It knows exactly what game it is, and it shows throughout.
That’s not to say that Chaos Theory is nothing but a refined version of the first two games. It introduced a whole host of new elements to the stealth that both made the game more realistic and entertaining. The most prominent of these was the ‘aural’ meter, which measures the amount of noise the player is making in comparison to the amount of background noise, giving the player an idea of whether the enemies will hear them as they move past. On top of this, there were numerous improvements that weren’t so obvious – for the first time a body had to be found by a camera or passing guard for the alarm to be triggered – that didn’t take center stage, but nonetheless, it made the overall experience much more enjoyable for the player.
Even the graphics still hold up remarkably well for a game that is about half a decade old, and in places, the lighting is still remarkably impressive by today’s standards. Of course, in a game that relies on the player being concealed in the shadows for the majority of the time, one would expect the lighting to be given special consideration, but the same is true for the majority of visuals on offer. The only place where the age of the game is really betrayed is in the facial expressions of the enemies, who pull ridiculously over-the-top expressions when grabbed from behind, so that their eyes appear to be bulging out of their heads.
The game even allowed the player more options in the way they wished to play, by removing the “three strikes” mentality to the alarms that were present in the previous games (a rule that was even mocked by the game’s own developers, who had Lambert reply, “Of course not… this is no video game,” to Fisher’s comment on the rule instated by the previous games). This meant that the player could theoretically trip the alarm as much as they wanted without failing the mission. Instead, points would be deducted from the mission score at the end of each level. While for the regular Splinter Cell player, this didn’t mean much, it was a life saver for people new to the games.
On a more personal level, Chaos Theory was one of my most played games for a long, long time in the short period after it was released. Rather than trying my best to sneak past guards without being spotted however, I took it upon myself to try and knock out as many guards as I could without anyone else seeing me, or any alarms being raised. Similar to the Hitman games, I would try to kill absolutely everyone in the level without alerting anyone else; Splinter Cell became my non-lethal playground of jumping out from shadows, creeping up from behind, and luring guards into the darkness. For all these years I’ve played Chaos Theory, I still find myself loading up the game to play through one more time, and for a game half a decade old, that’s no small feat.