When Ubi Soft secured the rights to the products of Tom Clancy's vivid imagination, they went into overdrive with game announcements. After releasing a few screenshots of games in development, it became clear that the multi-platform Splinter Cell was going to be the one to watch.
With E3 just past, extensive information on the game has been released along with a couple of videos showcasing the action, and at this point we're excited beyond the capacity for rational thought. It's like Metal Gear Solid, set to one of those Clancy novels and you're a young Harrison Ford or Sean Connery, and furthermore you're not fighting some generic Eastern terrorists, you're saving the entire country from destruction on a daily basis.
Sam Fischer, the game's main protagonist, occupies a position so secret that it doesn't even seem to have an official name. As an operative in a splinter cell of the CIA, he has supreme security clearance to do whatever the hell he likes in the interests of upholding the safety and well being of the United States. The mission seen at E3 had Sam seizing control of Russian nuclear weapons aimed at his homeland. In the process Sam had to feel his way about the confines of a missile complex without being spotted, subduing any impassable guards along the way, and then break his way through coded doors by analysing heat signatures on the keypad, before alleviating the Russian missile control goon of the vital firing codes.
What we have here is a simulation of the Tom Clancy universe, and the depth of this simulation is exciting. Apart from getting up close and personal with the guards and holding guns to their heads, electrocuting people standing in water, clambering up walls, poking your head and gun round corners and so on, you can take part in neat 'spy' activities, like poking a fibre-optic camera under a door to see whether or not the coast is clear.
Early video footage does a great job of emphasizing the extent and subtly of the animation which helps to define the game world. The main character is subtly animated, moving swiftly and silently and adopting all sorts of poses; flat up against a wall, pulling himself up over a railing, leaning down against a low wall as he walks past a guard station, hauling bodies over his shoulders and dumping them in shadow storage, and more, and he seems to make entrances and exits out of every aspect of a room.
We've already seen him leap down from a skylight and make short work of fencing, and at one point he suspended himself in the shadows near the ceiling of a corridor, leaping down to deliver a lethal blow when the patrolling guard walked underneath.
Lighting and shadows are very important in Splinter Cell. Deep areas of shadow mask our hero from long-distance detection, and because the world is relatively spartan and the character models surprisingly simple, the shadows can afford to be in real time, and are. With the game shot from what seems to be MGS style camera points the effect of having a player walk into a room shadow first has been put to good use, and in other areas such as the aforementioned lethal leap from above, and Sam walking hunched beneath sunbeam-split piping, light and shadow are both used to dramatic effect.
Speaking of which, whether accidental or deliberate film influences could be abundant, and already the entrance room to a complex of buildings shown in the video had us thinking of the lobby scene from The Matrix. And the game's own CG movies look very serious, with news broadcasts and live action helping to flesh out the storyline. Although the news broadcasters look eerily similar to those in Headhunter, we fancy that they will have some proper points to make rather than the irreverent Robocop-style antics of their predecessors.
The game is due out on Xbox and PC before the end of the year, although Ubi Soft maintains that the critical festive period will be Xclusively Xbox territory (Bill, I'm willing to sell that term, get in touch). PS2 and Cube versions are expected in 2003.
Touted by some as a cross between Metal Gear Solid and Rogue Spear, Splinter Cell looks great and early signs show encouraging depth. If the development team can shape the impressive design brief into a decent game, come December we'll be laughing.