Recently, I played a game that truly was enjoyable. Splinter Cell, from the Tom Clancy product line of games, is one of the best first-person shooters I've played in a long while. The story was engaging, the graphics were right on target, and the tension was very real. Allow me to give a little history (as I know it). There have been many, many first-person shooters, but most in the genre require little more than clicking the fire button repeatedly and kill everything in sight. Then, in the late 1998 came a lowly game called Thief (and it's successor, Thief II), which helped redefine what a first-person shooter does. Unlike Unreal Tournament (which I loved, by the way) and Quake III (eh, whatever), you have to stop and think, "Do I really want to kill this person and get the attention of everyone else?" Usually, then answer is no, and you slink away to steal more stuff. That's the whole point, stealing and sneaking, not killing. Amazing! Other games have come along that refined the sneaking half of this idea, like Deus Ex (the original, I haven't played the new one yet) and Ghost Recon (both great games, by the way), but Looking Glass Studios folded and no more Thief games were made. Well, it seems that now, finally, in 2004, a new 3rd Thief game will finally be released by Eidos. That is great news for those who love the sneak games. In the meantime, there is Splinter Cell, set in the near future with all sorts of gadgets and weaponry.
You play Sam Fisher, an elite operative who is enlisted to take care of several special missions behind enemy lines. Sometimes, you are allowed to go in and slaughter at will, as long as you can stay alive, of course. Sometimes, because of political reasons, you are not authorized to kill, leaving you to resort to knocking out the baddies. However, even when you are allowed to kill, it is not always advisable. Doing so sometimes brings out all the other bad guys in the area to look for you, and they are efficient killers. Much of the time, it is much better to stay in the shadows, or even knock out a few lights to create shadows. Never let them know you are there.
I won't go over every little detail of the game. This is not that kind of review. I'll hit the highlights. Gameplay is great. I played it on the PC, not the Xbox, so I could map the keys the way I want, easily (not easy to do in Ghost Recon). I love being able to brace myself between two walls with my legs and drop on unsuspecting losers underneath, but didn't get to do it as often as I would have liked. The music fits the scenes and helps set the intense tone. It is also functional, as it will let you know heightened awareness of your presence by others. Dialogue does not stand out, except your boss (whose name I forget), who happens to be in constant communication with you, letting you know when you screw up. Difficulty is just about right. It is a challenge, and there are the occasional puzzles that make you work. Getting through a level usually takes a few tries, but is worth the satisfied feeling you get at the end.
One small gripe. I have looked a few times on the internet and haven't seen any mods for Splinter Cell. Mods are downloadable modifications made by other game players (as opposed to being made by the game creators) that add levels or weapons and greatly extend the replay value of the game. I can only play this once. After that, I know all the secrets. Thief had user missions, even Ghost Recon has user missions you can download. Why not Splinter Cell? Oh, well. The sequel one is coming out soon (this year, I think), and I can't wait. Maybe they will give it some flexibility. Even Return to Castle Wolfenstein (a strictly straightforward progression with very little choice on the part of the gamer) had more replay value than this. I loved Wolfenstein and replayed it on a harder level, because it was great fun and doesn't require a lot of thought. Once you have puzzled things out with Splinter Cell, going through again is just frustration. Oh, well. It is still a well done game and I was engaged for many hours (much to my wife's chagrin). The game offered what I wanted, a lot of fun and immersive scenarios. I give it 8.5 stars ( a little less than I otherwise would have because of the replay issue). Oh, and it helped me forget the pain of applying to graduate schools.