Chaos Theory is the absolute pinnacle of stealth-action gaming
By now, Tom Clancy has got quite a few franchises running in the gaming industry, and most of them are really popular. However, Splinter Cell has always stuck out even among these great franchises, because it does not make you play a random soldier in a greater conflict. In Splinter Cell, you play as Sam Fisher, America's best spy that's sent out to discreetly solve delicate situations that the government has gotten itself into. Chaos Theory is the third entry into the franchise, and the stealth engine that Ubisoft started building in the first game has been perfected here, so if you're looking for the best tactical-espionage game out there, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is arguably your best bet.
It's an eternal paradox in Clancy games: the man whose name they share is a writer that supposedly makes pretty exciting books, but the storytelling in those games always comes off as flat and uninspired. This holds true in Chaos Theory as well. The plot revolves around a critical computer algorithm that, should it fall into terrorist hands, would allow them to unleash a nuclear strike anywhere on the planet. Obviously, the US does not approve of this, so Sam gets sent in to remove the threat. There are a number of sidetracks over the course of the game, and some twists, but honestly, the game's plot drew so little of my attention that when one of these plottwists occurred, I simply shrugged and kept playing. Major plotpoints get told through CG cutscenes that might've looked good back when the game came out, but look decidedly archaic and low-res these days. At the start of each level, still images of your homeboys along with some text that scrolls along is the best you can get in terms of filling in the backstory. It's lame. Your operators do tell you some important stuff over the course of the game's 10 stages, but I found myself not paying attention at all. The story is really forgettable.
One redeeming factor to the execution of the story is the fact that Michael Ironside is back to reprise his role as Sam Fisher. His dry, gravely voice will never, ever get old, and is the dialogue's saving grace here, because it's pretty flat otherwise. Fisher even cracks the occasional joke, although those bad attempts at being self-referential tend not to work out as intended. Still, Ironside's codec conversations with his back-up crew are the best parts of Chaos Theory's plot.
Thankfully, the storyline, that's average at best, gets easily redeemed by the excellent gameplay. The gameplay has been honed to a perfect point in Chaos Theory, making it probably the best stealth game out right now. The earlier Splinter Cell iterations have always been quite strict, bordering on being trial-and-error tribulations, but the third game loosens the gameplay up quite a bit. Sam remains pretty feeble, so going in absolutely guns blazin' won't work, but his arsenal has been expanded with a pretty powerful shotgun and sniper attachment. You'll definitely find yourself in sticky situations when you're seen, and those additions do allow you to take a more forceful approach and simply shoot your way out of there. There's no cap on the amount of alarms you can trigger this time around either, a fact that the game happily addresses with a bad attempt at being tongue-in-cheek. But still, despite Sam being slightly more resilient, you want to avoid being seen as much as possible. And doing so gets easier with each new release, because Sam gets keeps getting more options to dispatch his foes with. The biggest factor here is Sam's commando knife, “the ultimate stealth weapon!” Simply run up to an unsuspecting enemy, hit the right trigger and Sam will off him silently and quickly. You can also press the left trigger to simply knock out said enemy.
All these changes combine to make a game that's significantly easier than its predecessors. At least, it's easier to beat. If you're the type that wants to perfect every level by not being seen or killing enemies, or better yet, avoiding all enemy interaction entirely, you're still up for quite a challenge. The ridiculous lights Sam has all over him aside, Splinter Cell has always had a pretty realistic aura surrounding it. There are plenty of cool gadgets to work with, and they all feel believable, and could easily be real. This is a trait that Clancy games have always had, and the games are always better for it. I feel that I cannot write a Splinter Cell review without making a single mention of Metal Gear Solid, because that's the equation that people tend to be looking for with these games, so I'll say this: Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory has the better stealth engine, while Metal Gear Solid wins in every other department. What does that mean? If you are looking for the ultimate stealth game, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is the way to go, beating out the competition, and easily surpassing its own brethren in the series, even being quite a bit better than its successor, Double Agent.
Besides the singleplayer, which took me about 12 hours to complete on Normal, there's an excellent multiplayer mode here. If you've played this mode in Pandora Tomorrow, you know exactly what to expect. You can play as a member of Third Echelon, which translates to being a spy with slightly less abilities than Fisher does. Or you can be a merc, and attempt to track down the spies. The spies have to hack some terminals, while the mercenaries have to prevent them from doing so. The game requires you to know the maps inside and out, and be able to work together with your teammates. Working out a good tactic is key here, and thus the mode can be really daunting for newcomers. You can't just pop in the disc and play some Spy vs. Mercs, because you'll be a complete liability to your team. If you commit yourself to it though, the multiplayer can be completely awesome.
There's also a new co-op mode that's really fun. The stages tie into the singleplayer, and you get access to some pretty cool co-op actions. It's a really nice addition that can give you some real quality entertainment with a friend.
Chaos Theory is no slouch when it comes to production values either. The game, even by today's standards, looks fantastic. Great lightning combines with character models that would not have looked out of place in an Xbox 360 game. Both of these elements are extremely important in a stealth game, and you might stop at times to fawn over the environments and the subtle rays of light that colour them.
Some really good sound further helps to immerse you into the experience. The guards always have something interesting to say if you stick around in the shadows to listen to them or simply grab them by the skin of their necks and interrogate them. As mentioned, Michael Ironside turns in another solid performance, and the music also works. It shows up at just the right times to highten the mood, and can really get your heart pumping when you've been seen and it kicks in full force. The sounds of the guns are appropriately aggressive, and the subtle sound of Fisher's footsteps along different surfaces really fits and makes the way you walk very important. Sound-effects are really important in a game like this, so it's good that Ubisoft pulled it off so well here.
What's left to say is that you should play Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. It was the defining stealth game back when it came out, and with the way its successor has not been able to surpass it, it might stay that way for quite a while. You can pick up a cheap used copy, or you can simply download it through Microsoft's Games on Demand service. Just get it. You won't regret it.