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My Boner for Sam Fisher
I explain why Chaos Theory holds a special place in my heart... and why you should play it
Sam Fisher...

The mere mention of the name brings up fond memories of youth... the kind that become engrained in your brain if you possess one as impressionable as mine.

In regard to suspension of disbelief in the name of intelligent cat-and-mouse pandering... for someone who grew up playing real-life Manhunt, that is, going into the woods with friends after dark to stalk and capture them as a friendly game... the sort of scenarios and themes presented in the Splinter Cell series are a virtual dream come true in this regard.

On that note, having recently purchased Blacklist, the most recent installment, I felt the need to reflect on what the series has provided the gaming world with, and how big my boner is for the third installment, Chaos Theory.

Yes, it is going to be one of THOSE articles...

I enjoyed the original trilogy on XBOX, and Double Agent was a welcome revision of the tried-and-true formula, but I fell off the bandwagon at Conviction. Gone was the tension and open-ended nature of the first four games, replaced with a more action-oriented game engine, with increasingly linear design.

The original game, and the sequel Pandora Tomorrow, were fantastic games for their time. In fact, one of the reasons why I took the XBOX route in the 6th generation, was because Sam was coming to XBOX first, and would only be rivalled on a technical level by PCs I could not afford at the time.

I played the first game, and was honestly not overly impressed. Sure, the lighting system blew minds at the time, but underneath the graphical sheen, it felt a bit shallow. Interaction with your environment was fairly limited, and the only dynamic indicator for Sam was a light-meter, indicating how well-bathed in shadow you are at any given moment... a trend that continued with the sequel. NPCs felt fairly static on their patrols, and by the end of the game, it all felt a bit cookie-cut. It is supposed to be a stealth action game set in a realistic world... while the first title reached for it, it was barely scratching the surface of what was to come in terms of possibilities.

Based on that experience, I didnt even bother to play Pandora Tomorrow.

Seriously.

I could care less at the time. I saw the screenshots and the video reviews, and decided not to partake in his second outing, initially.

Time went by, and eventually word began to slip out that a third game was in the works. Alright, great. Unless it introduced a newer engine with some reasonable object physics, missions with branching paths, improved AI, more indications of Sams environmental interaction, and a greater degree of control accuracy, I could really give two shits about the series at this point. After those first two games, this series really needs to feel more organic; that was really the crux of my personal dislike for the series. It felt too much like Metal Gear or even Syphon Filter... not that theres anything wrong with those franchises, I hold them in high regard, as do many others. But the way enemies are presented to you in all of those games feels like a cut-and-paste operation... enemies following set patrol paths, being alerted to your presence in a similar manner in each game. Where is the realism?

Little did I know, with the first two titles, the groundwork was laid for something extraordinary.

February, 2005. I see the March copy of OXM at the newsstand. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is the featured demo of the month. I had seen a few screens and heard rumblings of Havok physics, and at that point my interest was piqued enough to pick it up, just to see. If it sucks, at least my money wasnt COMPLETELY wasted.

After getting home and firing it up, something became very apparent to me within the first 5 minutes of gameplay...

This looks like it could be the ultimate stealth-action title. Seriously. There are games that come along and change everything... Super Mario Brothers... Half-Life... GTA 3... this game is in the same league as those titans. It may very well NEVER be surpassed in terms of completeness, quality and polish.

Why? Lets think about it...

Super Mario Brothers... not the first platformer, but the first to get everything RIGHT. Within the conventions and confines of the programming, the hardware, and the overall design, it nailed everything right on. Half-Life... not the first 3D FPS, but the first to introduce many concepts that are cornerstones of the modern FPS genre. GTA 3... a modern masterpiece, which brought concepts already established in 2D titles, to a refined and polished 3D environment, breathing with life.

And then there is Chaos Theory...

Realistic physics engine. Improved, dynamic and interactive AI. Multiple branching level paths. Enhanced environmental feedback and precise character model control. Near-endless replayability. This game is phenomenal.

Back to the demo. The first thing I notice is two separate bars relative to Sam within his environment; one for light, and one for sound. Finally. Complete control over Sams primary environmental variables. And the control response is amazing... if the control were not as good as it is, the sound bar would mean little.

Engaging hostiles is fantastic, as you are now presented with every option you could possibly want... close-range lethal knife kills and non-lethal knockouts, good old-fashioned interrogation grabs from behind, and lethal/non-lethal long-range engagement via projectile. Loadout selections give a more distinct feeling of confidence to the player, providing just the right level of balance to any given play-style. You feel more like a living weapon in this game.

NPC interaction is heightened as well. You can call NPCs to your position, or lead them away with a clicking sticky-cam from another room. You can lead them in circles all day long, but it is in a way that retains a high level of tension, especially on higher difficulty settings.

The dialogue is what you would come to expect at this point in the series; NPC accents are a mix of hokey and believable regional undertones, which creates some of the games best unintentional humour.

The physics system is routinely the best source for humour, though. It is the best of the series, and adds to the players immersion tenfold. This is one of the main reasons why I keep coming back to it as well.

When someone is killed, they drop. When you need to move a body, you need to take into account whether or not their limp corpse will stay in an ideal position when you release them. The NPCs in this game will communicate with each other and investigate disturbances as a unit as well, which adds more depth and tension, unseen in the first two games. When alerted, they respond appropriately. Almost realistically. When an alarm is raised, the mission does not end; it punishes you. If you play in an assault-like style, consequentially the game makes itself more difficult by raising the alertness of the NPCs and providing them armor buffs, to meet your heightened level of aggression.

Dependent upon how quickly you move through a mission, scripted NPC events such as two patrolling watchmen meeting for a conversation can be interacted with in an endless variety of ways. Move too slowly, and you will need to hide until they split up or pass... get there as quickly as possible though, and you can potentially creep next to them, mere inches away, while they wax on the subject du jour. The level-paths you decide to take to move toward an objective have different consequences and levels of difficulty to them. And they are always dynamic, dependent upon your interaction.

A great deal of my initial disappointment with the series, stemmed from how stiff the games felt. Chaos Theory took the formula out of its shell and injected palpable LIFE into it. NPCs felt like ordinary people, genuinely just walking around, carrying out whatever duties they were assigned... In a literal sense though, not a cut-and-paste one. Instead of walking from point A to B and back endlessly, now they are aware of other NPCs in their environment, and will deviate from their paths to chat with other NPCs, investigate disturbances, or just marvel at their surroundings... just as you would expect a normal person to do.

In short, in a series steeped in realism, this was where the franchise truly needed to be. It was a revelation, and is a goddamn phenomenal experience.

I played the hell out of this game... it is my absolute favourite, hands-down. I own 2 copies; one Limited Edition (from release day), and another standard copy several months later, to play System Link multiplayer.

I could easily continue to go on... and on... and on about this game, but I think I have made my point. It is one of the greatest games ever made, in my opinion, and stands amongst giants throughout the history of interactive entertainment.

I played Double Agent on 360 and was impressed by the visual fidelity, but it failed to have as large an impact on me. And when I saw the direction they were taking the series with Conviction, it made sense... you cant build upon something you already perfected. Yet it disappointed me, as I feared that with the shift in play style and mechanics would come a lack of immersion like the one I felt in Chaos Theory. I played the Conviction demo, and did not like it. It is the one game that I havent played in the series so far (aside from the original XBOX version of Double Agent). I played Pandora Tomorrow several years after revelling in the glory of CT, and finished it for sake of completion. If the series was moving away from the CT formula, it was dead to me.

Then along came Blacklist.

Seemingly, the next logical step in evolving the series.

This years E3 stage demo had me hooked... and then I promptly forgot again, until it had released.

After reading and watching the reviews from several noteworthy publications, one common thread could be found... this was a return to proper form. The kind that Chaos Theory brought us.

And so, as I write this, having delved into the small portion of the game that I have had time for so far, I have a good feeling about it. I am not quite filled with the stunning admiration that I immediately experienced with Chaos Theory, mind you, but it has thus far been quite serviceable, and extremely enjoyable.

I will return to this topic after completing Blacklist, and offer my opinion on the merit of it, not only as a Splinter Cell entry, but as a potential juggernaut in the stealth-action genre itself.

Thanks for reading, and if you made it this far... and you HAVE NOT played Chaos Theory... please, do yourself a favor and get on it. You will either really love it, or vehemently hate the deliberately-paced nature of it... either way, it is a win-win.

Do it anyway.
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