One of my first impressions of Chaos Theory is how well it has aged, for the most part. The introductory cutscene sets up context of the story: the year is 2007 and the North Koreans and Chinese are performing manoeuvres and holding the contested Yellow Sea area in east Asia. Tensions are flaring with Japan over their re-armament that flaunts the post war constitution. This struck me immediately as something that feels like it is ripped from the headlines of the last few year, as if the writers of the game had some powers of clairvoyance and slammed all the geopolitical tensions of the region into one spy thriller.
As for the game itself, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is widely regarded as a classic in the stealth-action genre, with very much emphasis on stealth. In moment to moment play, you will be sneaking slowly through ships, banks, warzones, apartments, military bases and various other mostly urban looking locations during the game’s ten or so missions. The stealth mechanics of the game have a decent amount of depth to them, where your chances of being detected are determined by how illuminated you are, which is a sliding scale, as well as line of sight and sound, the latter being determined by movement speed. This system works well most of the time, although there was one instance where it didn’t. I was under a walkway in the third last mission and I was crouched,completely still and completely shrouded in darkness. I was also out of sight, then the guard suddenly turns on a dime and shoots me with pinpoint accuracy. The shooting occassionally has inconsistencies like this as well. At one point, I was similarly stationary, aiming with the silenced pistol and I had my crosshair perfectly on the head of a guard who was sitting down. I shot and missed. Admittedly, things like this weren’t too common for the 5-8 play time of the single player campaign, but when they did happen, they were frustrating.
Stealth is also undoubtedly the best way to play this game, despite the load out screening offering an assault kit. Even though I did use the recommended or stealth loadouts through all of the campaign, any time I got into a high action situation, usually because of a fuck up or two, and the slow movement speed, combined with the controls and tight spaces in the level design make a run and gun approach insanely difficult. And this is not to say the controls are bad; they’re not. In fact, they are very easy to get used to and using the mouse wheel to control movement speed is excellent. It is just that the controls are best suited to stealth play. Additionally, slightly more customisation for mission loadouts would have been welcome. You also have takedown moves that knock or kill enemies in a single hit, which is incredibly useful in tight moments as a kind of panic button when you’re right by an enemy and you’re suddenly spotted. I also found it useful using it sometimes after luring one or two enemies with some noise, running around the corner, throwing a flashbang and then sprinting up to them to knock them out (or cut their throat).Sam’s goggles also have multiple modes, from binoculars, to night vision and thermal vision, as well as a fourth mode which I never used because I never understood what it was for. You can get by mainly just using the night vision mode, since with thermal vision I only really needed to use it in the Hokkaido level.
In fact, most of the shooting you do here will likely be less shooting of enemies and more shooting out of light sources to give yourself more darkness. Or you can just turn off the lights at the switch. It’s up to you. However, this has the drawback of making guards suspicious, so use with caution. Sometimes it is best just to use the regular light levels of a room when figuring out your plan of action for a particular room. This game rewards patience, a degree of planning and quick thinking when the situation calls for it.
The visuals here have also mostly held up quite well, at least the environments have. The use of light and shadow here are fantastic and make the environments look quite great. The environments are a texture pack away from passing as a more modern game, but even in their current state they aren’t too bad for something released in 2005. Character models, however, are generally not so good, except for Sam, mainly because the faces look quite bad. There’s a good reason the Metal Gear Solid series used face masks on most of its grunts. Cutscenes, owing to them being pre rendered, also have serious compression artefacts and don’t scale well to higher resolutions, but they’re usually not that long and are minimally watchable as far as technical quality goes. The game also doesn’t support widescreen from the menu settings so you have to either do a .ini edit or use a fan made patch, but it is not too much hassle to do so.
The soundtrack is also quite good and has quite a bit of variety from fast paced almost jazzy sounds to sounds that reminded me a little of Harry Gregson Williams’ score in Metal Gear Solid 3. However, the music tends to play only when guards suspect you or you’re fully detected so if you’re especially good, you might not even hear the music.
In terms of the writing, the story that I summarised earlier is pretty serviceable spy thriller kind of stuff. The best writing in the game are Sam’s interrogation dialogue with guards and the radio banter with Grimsdottir, which Michael Ironside delivers perfectly. While the main plot is serious, there is still plenty of humour in the game, which mostly works, except for that time guards talked about the new Prince of Persia game, which was a cringeworthy moment.
Speaking of Prince of Persia, there is also other product placement in the game from gum to deodorant, which is really distracting whenever it appears.
As for the multiplayer modes, I don’t think you can even play them these days without using game ranger or similar programs, so I do not know how the multiplayer holds up. It’s best to treat it as a single player experience these days.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is a game that in spite of its age manages to hold up quite well, for the most part. It has some annoyances and rigidity to the movement and lacks some of the mechanical improvements that occurred in the genre over the last decade. But it still remains a mostly very well designed game that is a lot of fun and a good challenge even on the lower difficulty settings. I would definitely recommend it for people to replay or even check out for the first time.