Every now and then a game comes along which sets completely new standards of visual excellence. Let's not pussy foot around in a stealthy-beating-around-the-bush kind of way - Splinter Cell is the best looking game we've had the pleasure of playing.
Yes, we have seen Doom III running in real-time, but that's months away and requires expensive upgrades to most people's PCs to run acceptably. For now, Splinter Cell will scorch your eyeballs with its visual loveliness, and in no particular order features the best lighting effects, the best use of shadows, and excellent animation with a versatile range of moves, superbly detailed character models and a subtle use of colour.
For now, the game is only available on Xbox, and as such is the single most compelling reason to own the machine if you don't have one already. If you do own one, then Splinter Cell is the most accomplished, well realised piece of software to emerge on the system since Halo.
Other versions are on their way, of course (PC scheduled for Jan 31st 2003, other versions TBC), but it's hard to imagine how any other console would do the game justice, in all honesty. We cannot recall a game so completely drenched in detail and incidental touches; the texturing is out of this world, and basically looks like all those pre-rendered survival horror games running in real time, with a depth and clarity never before attempted.
We got to grips with an "almost finished" version, and blitzed through the lengthy tutorial level and the first three levels proper to give you a taste of what to expect in the build up to the game's November 29th release.
A fishy tale
As you'll be no doubt be aware by now, the game places you in the role of elite field operative Sam Fisher, a member of the hush hush 'black ops' NSA sub agency Third Echelon. Kind of like Solid Snake without the mullet, and a slightly unnecessary triple beam torch mounted on his bonce.
Apparently you're the last resort of your government, yadda yadda, and naturally come armed with top notch gadgets and weapons, and the ability to sneak around like Sam Stoat Super sleuth (and if you get that reference you're obviously far too old!). So, it's essentially an even prettier MGS2, but with a more versatile set of manoeuvres and a George Clooney-lite lead character.
The game also shares a certain amount of similarity to the forthcoming Tomb Raider (albeit looking vastly superior) and other action adventures such as Max Payne, sharing a broadly similar control mechanic to the latter.
Backs to the wall, chaps
As you'd expect from a stealth based action game, you get a good range of moves, such as the usual 'backs to the wall' approach, peek around corners, hang from ledges/pipes, the ability to carry and hide bodies, use bodies as human shields and pipe climbing, among others. In this respect, its just as well that the tutorial is pretty thorough, as there's quite a lot of ground to cover, covering not only the many moves, but revealing the importance of light and sound in achieving your objectives.
Once you've endured the (actually quite enjoyable) tutorial, the game really does start like a house on fire. Your first objective is to enter a flaming building to uncover the whereabouts of a crucial contact, and although it's incredibly straightforward to complete the mission, it succeeds in drawing you into what is an immensely atmospheric and cinematic game.
Come out, you're surrounded
The use of surround sound in enhancing the atmosphere is something that is immediately apparent, with crackling timber creating a sense of imminent disaster. And throughout the early levels we've played, the game never fails to take full advantage of the Xbox's 5.1 capabilities.
However, one bewildering omission is the game's lack of widescreen support, which means the game looks somewhat odd if you stretch the 4:3 image out.
Once out of the flaming house, it's off to an outdoor locale, which gives you a chance to take out a few fairly unchallenging baddies, and generally creep around taking in the sights, with the aim of entering a Police Station. Once inside, the ante is raised, with progressively more enemies to take out and/or avoid. Use of light and shadow is tremendous in these sections, and intelligent observation of your surroundings is paramount to avoid detection and getting into unnecessary combat.
Observe, sneak, strike
The next section involves an even greater degree of observation and sneakery, as you wait patiently for guards to patrol to the right section before you can take them out and drag their limp bodies into the darkness.
All round, Splinter Cell has impressed us immensely. The controls work well (albeit with some camera fiddliness to begin with), and the learning curve seems to be ramping up at the required level. The story hasn't grabbed us yet, but at least isn't overlong (a la MGS2), and certainly looks the part. We look forward to getting deep down with Splinter Cell over the coming days, and a full review will be ready just before its November 29th release.