A while ago, when compiling our ‘Top 10 Ubisoft games piece’, I got carried away by a wave of nostalgia when I saw ‘Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory’ hit the top spot, and couldn’t help but purchase and fire up the Steam version again. I had completed this game back in its’ day and have always held it on the highest possible pedestal, but as years go by and things get lost in the shuffle, I perhaps didn’t think about it all that much on a daily basis (like I do some games), even though I’ve always acknowledged it as a masterpiece and a classic.
In this instance however, I ended up marathoning the whole game altogether at once, over the course of one night and to be crystal clear:the verdict still stands. This game is goddamn incredible. A true all-timer that has aged far better than it’s contemporaries and will age much better than most Stealth games now.
In fact ,CHAOS THEORY is right up there with the best stealth games ever made (neck and neck with THIEF 2 in my opinion), the best title in the series by a country mile and one of the best games of the last 20 years (or ever).
It’s less a Stealth game that a full on espionage simulation. With 10 levels that very subtly increase in design, sophistication and challenge, it gives the game a sense of a globetrotting scope that is unmatched by most games. When you finish the campaign, you truly feel like you’re Sam Fisher and have just deflated a global geo-political crisis. It’s a sigh of relief that comes from player achievement of having successfully navigated through a succession of increasingly challenges and having come out on top.
CHAOS THEORY is a game that needs no appraisal, it’s pretty much universally accepted as a modern classic but still, there are a lot of really smart design decisions made throughout the campaign that makes the game, shall we say feel alive, in a way that most other stealth games are not. Little details so painstakingly put together that as a whole, contribute in a major way to make it , to this day, feel absolutely cutting edge and at least 10 years ahead of its’ peers.
So with some free time on my hands, I got around to analyzing those fine details.
- An Immersive simulation :
Game director Clint Hocking has not been shy about his love for the immersive sim design and its’ all but in display in CHAOS THEORY. In fact, if you squint hard enough, it really kind of is an immersive sim. The levels you infiltrate seem to be designed and constructed very much bring back elements of THIEF and DEUS EX. These levels are large, often have alternate pathways and guards/enemies seem to exhibit in-built behavior (and specifically scripted conversations) that reveal door codes/ plot details etc.
This is great, and reminds us of the days of yore, where the focus was more on making the player absorb in the game world, as opposed to just dropping him in it. The levels genuinely feel like living, breathing worlds. And not just digital constructs. Each level is starkly different from the previous ones and successfully escalates in both scope and challenges (as you go along). The game makes a large emphasis on exploration and trying to navigate the environment as opposed to forcing Sam go through a linear hallway with same guard placements.
The enemy AI is really good and often tends to behave unpredictably. Whilst the guards are usually positioned/paroled, they tend to whiff out spontaneously, once they feel something is amiss, leading to a lot of fun where player can fool around with guards in the dark. Also, this isn’t just a sneak-a-thon , there are also multiple ways to interact with the environment like hacking and lock-picking, none of them are too complex and work well mostly. Add to that, the staggering amount of (methodical) assault options with Fisher’s extensive weaponry (silent or loud) and the addition of a hyper-responsive one-hit-kill knife stab (both front and back) , and you’re’ left with a world of options on how to go about your business.
2. Never lose control:
It’s an unspoken rule of game design that stripping the control of the player character from the player is a bad habit and leads to constant immersion breaking. This is a lesson that most devs do not seem to understand for some reason. The more you sacrifice control in favour of ‘cinematic’ events, where you have to ‘tap x’ (or whatever), the quickly the player will lose his attention.
In CHAOS THEORY, on the other hand, the moment you get control of Sam Fisher, you are Sam Fisher, and this remains so for almost 100% the game. In fact, it does not even have a tutorial mission. Even if you’ve not played any Splinter Cell game, the basics (which are not hard to grasp) can be accessed through the main menu via tutorial video, and once you’re done with them, you dropped off no-frills on the first level as you start the game. Which is a fairly simple stage, but allows the player to come to grasp with all the mechanics and learn to play the game. This is a much better way to do in-game learning, then what the modern AAA industry tries, with it’s half an hour long tutorials that seem unending.
Whilst, there are a few ‘story’ beats that require the player to relinquish control and press button and ‘converse’ with the enemy (or a few hostages), the game ensures that the player remains fully in control of fisher through the rest of the game, including the set-pieces (which are handled brilliantly and all in game). What you accomplish in the game is entirely your hard work and completing a level feels satisfying and rewarding because of the challenges you overcame along the way.
The best example of this is the famous ‘Panama Bank Heist’ level, in which you somehow through the magic of zen-like game design, start at the courtyard of a complex and end up cleaning out an underground off-shore bank vault, all by yourself. It’s one of the most beloved levels in stealth games, and there’s good reason for that.
3. Careful pacing :
The best games are paced with an unmatched sense of precision. SPLINTER CELL :CHAOS THEORY has 10 levels, but they’re not randomly slapped together. There seems to be a sense of care and precision in which order their put. In terms of design, challenge and how they ramp up the tension. Things you pick up for the first time on one level ,tend to have a direct bearing on the next. And the levels, slowly ramp up in escalation in terms of both complexity
There’s also a staggering amount of variety in the gameplay. The designers take great pains to ensure that both level design and objectives remain varied and well crafted (pushing players to get that 100% at the end of each level). Each level is completely different from the last and you’re never doing the same thing twice. One minute you’re distance hacking a briefcase carried by two walking henchmen to the next, where you’re infiltrating an amazing looking Japanese courtyard looking for surveillance devices. The game ensures that players go through every nook and cranny of every level and there are plenty of hidden nuggets (listenable conversations, codes, e-mails) to reward diligent explorers.
4. Directing the experience :
The ‘invisible hand’ of the developer is all there. You just won’t catch it the first time. Whilst most of the stuff you do in game is all you, there are things that are done to accelerate a sort of cinematic flair to the proceedings. This is accentuated in both how the areas are lit, as well as how and when Amon Tobin’s superb score (more on this later) decides to find ways to amp up (and tempo down). Whist you are mostly an even keel with most enemies (you can put them down in one action, they can kill you in 2-3 shots), the game makes each and every encounter suspenseful. Somehow you’re always on the edge of being caught, yet have a lot of options to get out in case you get caught.
The way the game handles it’s set-piece moments is also amazing. Instead of just being in-your-face/ jarring transitions, they’re very smoothly (and seamlessly) built into progression. I can’t risk describing them (because it ventures into spoiler territory) but you’ll be surprised how varied they are and how the game makes you play through them in full control from start to finish, without making a large fuss or pointing exclamation marks around them. (Watch from around the 10 minute mark for a bit, it’s not too spoiler-y).
5. Audiovisual Tour De Force:
This was during a time, when Ubisoft was known to be a constant innovator. And in my opinion, CHAOS THEORY is the best light-and-sound show they ever put out. Sure, the visual fidelity has been matched as technology has improved, but it has never looked this far ahead of its’ time, let alone having that same sense of impact it has on the viewer.
The series was always famous for it’s visuals and groundbreaking lighting engine, but Chaos Theory took it a notch further by having hyper-realistic environments and carefully calibrated colour palettes that gave each and every exotic location a real sense of time and place. When you finally reach outside to dismantle a nuclear warhead/ grab some air after tensely infiltrating a Nuclear silo, it feels like…..well, this.
And the way the games gets you up and close with an active warzone in South Korea, would put Hollywood to shame.
It’s both a technical and artistic masterpiece that begs to be played on the highest settings, on which incidentally it sometimes looks better than most games today (I’m not even kidding).
Aiding the whole presentation is an eclectic, amazingly atmospheric score by Amon Tobin himself, which is so incredible, that it’s better off sampled than described.
- Superb Writing:
Great stealth games need to have great writing, it’s a given. If the developer is intent on making the player hide in dark corners and wait for openings for the majority of the game, it’s best to throw him a bone or two. This is something that the THIEF games mastered, and CHAOS THEORY also succeeds in big ways.
Put it simply, the game is just well written. From the sarcastic, world weary, dry/dark humour Fisher uses throughout (almost every ‘guard interrogation’ is hilarious) to the incredibly fun-to-listen-to guard conversations that often give away door codes and secrets, it’s just simply fun to stay leaned up against walls and just listen. Very few games have ever managed this, and CHAOS THEORY pulls it off perfectly.
The writing also ensures that the script is never too-jokey and is successful in making a dramatic impact. Whilst the plot is a fairly straightforward, Tom Clancy/ action movie romp, the way it’s pulled off is a lot of fun. It somewhat follows the unwritten rule of great cinema, as in : It’s not what it’s about, It’s how it’s about it. During the games’ more intense, serious moments, you will feel the heat. Just like Sam Fisher. And that’s a good thing. It’s just a pitch-perfect script that puts you in the shoes of a badass, grumpy spy who’s hell-bent on a mission to stop a global nuclear crisis.
CHAOS THEORY is to this day, the pinnacle of the Splinter Cell series, and if i’m being frank, pretty much third person stealth genre in general. It took the already great foundations of the original game and ‘Pandora Tommorow’ and cranked it up a notch to a nigh perfect level, that in my opinion, still hasn’t been topped. Even though I couldn’t play the also incredible multiplayer and co-op campaign (due to Ubi shutting down the servers), the single player alone is worth the price of admission and offers much more than most games nowadays can ever dream of.
It’s worth checking out again for old series fans as well as newcomers and stands as a shining example of how incredible stealth games can be in their prime, and here’s hoping they will again soon.