I have an on-and-off relationship with the Tom Clancy oeuvre. I think The Hunt for Red October is a legitimately great novel. Patriot Games is entertaining but annoying and disposable. The films are all excellent except for The Sum of All Fears (and possibly Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which I haven’t had a chance to see yet). There have been a number of successful video game adaptations, including the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series—basically less fun versions of Counter-Strike and SOCOM respectively.
Clancy gave up any literary aspirations early on and started writing hacky mass-produced novels while licensing his name like a fiend. Eventually he retired from writing and actually sold his name to Ubisoft. Most of the “Tom Clancy”-labelled stuff you’ve seen in recent years has nothing to do with him.
Sadly, he died last year. Looking back at his career it’s hard not to feel a sense of wasted potential—even considering everything he did accomplish, he had the talent to be more than just a brand name. And since the Jack Ryan movie was not a mega-hit and no one under a hundred went to see it, the future outlook for Tom Clancy-related stuff aimed at the general reader (as opposed to the multiple rifle owner from South Carolina with a front yard big enough to be called a “compound”) is not good.
Amid all this noise, there was one little chunk of Clanciana that developed and, for a while, maintained a unique, colourful personality all its own. This is Splinter Cell.
Splinter Cell began as a series of video games. There are novelizations, but they’re not by Clancy and I wouldn’t ask my worst enemy to read them. Supposedly a film is in development. The games are based around stealth. Not actual real-world stealth, the kind used in the SOCOM games—in Splinter Cell, you’re basically Batman. The idea is to infiltrate a building, find what needs finding, kill who needs killing, and leave the guards with nothing more than goosebumps.
The first game was fun but a little too clunky. The controls were in all the wrong places, it was practically impossible to predict whether the enemies would be able to see or hear you, it stuck you in awkward situations with only inelegant ways out, and the environments were too stylized and unrealistic for the technothriller narrative style. The second game, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, was better, but it kept some of the first game’s flaws and was pretty forgettable—aside from the playthrough I’ll be recounting below, it’s the one I’ve played most recently, but I couldn’t name a single thing that happens in it.
The fourth game was plagued by cross-platform problems and wildly varying tone, and the newer games have lost a lot of what made them unique. But for a brief moment in 2005, the series came very close to perfection. I speak of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.
Chaos Theory begins with an ominous news report about a standoff between China and Japan, and moves with weird abruptness into a totally unrelated mission: a raid on an old Peruvian colonial fort filled with communist revolutionaries. Within a moment of first gaining control of your character, it becomes obvious that the controls are much smoother than they have been in the past. Fisher moves more delicately and quietly, and it’s easier to stop, start, and modulate the speed of movement using the control stick. Many of the controls are the same but a few of them have changed—those changes are all for the better. The only complaint is that the inventory menu is now a little awkward to access, requiring a Z+D-pad combo, but it’s a small price to pay for vastly improved access to the game’s functionality.
The other thing that you notice early on is that it’s much more fun to interact with the environment. Splinter Cell was probably groundbreaking in this regard when it came out (I didn’t play it till years later), but from today’s perspective it feels quite clunky and unpleasant. But Chaos Theory offers many different ways to get around, whether by crawling, climbing, sneaking, or simply running and gunning. You can cut through fabric, blow out candles, dangle from overhanging pipes, and interact in countless other ways.
There are a few welcome new additions. There is a sound meter to indicate the ambient noise and the amount of noise you are making. This was lacking in the first Splinter Cell, which was a pain: enemies could be tipped off by the sounds you made, but you had no reference point for what the game considered to be too loud. There is a new gadget called the OCP, which uses the alternate fire function on the pistol to temporarily jam or disable electronics. It’s not even remotely realistic, but it gives you an elegant middle ground between shooting out lights and cameras (which is too easy) and simply avoiding them (which is often too hard).
The story is typical technothriller fare: there is a series of episodes barely strung together by sequential clues as an excuse to keep the main character moving from one interesting location to another. In this case, Sam Fisher is on a routine Splinter Cell mission to rescue Bruce Morgenholt, an American computer scientist, from communist revolutionaries. Fisher finds Morgenholt’s body, electrocuted by the torturers who were interrogating him, and it comes to light that the revolutionaries were not looking for “weaponized algorithms” for their own use, but had been hired to kidnap Morgenholt and interrogate him on behalf of a third party.
This takes you to the boat on which the revolutionary leader has fled. This is a sudden move from a fairly expansive, poorly lit, semi-outdoor location to extreme close quarters with lots of lighting and nowhere to hide. The OCP can only disable certain kinds of lights, and the ship abounds with the kind that cannot be turned off. This calls for creativity and timing—the kind you need most of the time anyway, but which is absolutely indispensable here. The stealth game is in this sense a sort of puzzle. You do have a gun, but you are penalized for using it. And anyway, any time you are seen you are likely to be put in a position you cannot escape from alive. So given this pattern of lighting, this movement speed, and guards patrolling on these paths, what is the simplest and most elegant way to do whatever you need to do without being seen?
Needless to say, this is a lot of fun for those of us who prefer slow-burn intellectual challenges to fast-paced multiplayer shooters. Chaos Theory takes on the character of a high-tech game of hide and seek—a game I used to excel at, not so much for my ability to fit into small spaces as for my ability to stay in one place for long periods of time without moving or making noise.
You kill the revolutionary leader—if you do it right, it happens under the nose of his highly trained mercenary guards—and escape from the ship without otherwise leaving a trace. Now you are headed to the Panamanian bank that brokered the transaction between the revolutionaries and their paymasters. You need to get a look at their records, but there is a problem: the records are stored in hard drives in the main vault, and you can’t let them know that you’re onto them. Which means you have to break into the bank, bust open the vault, get a look at the records, make off with $50 million in French bearer bonds, and frame the bank’s corrupt administrators for the operation.
This is by far the best level in any of the Splinter Cell games. It has a self-contained design that spirals in on itself and offers many different ways to get around and complete objectives. The mission is so cleanly planned that it’s possible to do the entire thing without interacting with the guards in any way or leaving any trace of your presence—it’s the perfect crime. And you’re robbing a goddamn bank—how often do you get to do that in video games? Even GTA 5 had only a handful of heist missions, and they weren’t nearly as much fun as they could have been. There’s lasers and dangling from domed windows and blowing up vault doors. It’s perfect.
During the course of the mission you discover that the person on the other end of the bank’s shady dealings is Abrahim Zherkhezi, another computational theorist with valuable knowledge about information warfare. The next mission takes you to his Manhattan penthouse—with the twist that someone has engineered a blackout in New York City and the National Guard has been called in to keep the peace (good luck with that).
An amusingly telling incident occurs at the beginning of the mission. Lambert, your handler, tells you that the National Guard is on the street, and if you kill any of them the mission will be scrubbed. It is a sudden reminder that Fisher operates out of the castle of delusion that is the American intelligence community, where amorality is so rife that it would not be obvious to an operative that the National Guard is on his side—or even that killing allies is wrong.
The last time I played these games was a number of years ago. At the time any intelligent person assumed the US intelligence community was spying on the Internet but nobody thought about it much. It was just last summer that we learned all the dirty details of the NSA’s campaign against the people of Earth and the very concept of law, so it is a little jarring to be placed in a situation where I am playing as a heroic NSA operative performing dubious missions off the books.
It is only Fisher’s character that is able to hold this fantasy together. He has a sense of humour about what he does, only rarely descending to vulgar displays of self-righteousness. If you interrogate guards, he plays amusing games with them (though you almost never need to interrogate guards, and you shouldn’t if you’re trying for 100% completion). He does his job efficiently but is under no illusions that it is a virtuous thing to do. He is convinced of the mechanical but not the moral necessity of killing his friend Shetland later in the game because he knows the excesses of the military-industrial complex better than anyone.
Indeed the fantasy does not hold together for long. After this game comes Splinter Cell: Double Agent, in which the epistemic strain of keeping two books starts to wear on Fisher, and it becomes clear that living in a world where no law binds him except what he can get away with is not good for his soul. This is also where the series becomes less interesting. This is well trodden ground, and once the contradictions within Fisher are made explicit they are no longer enough to keep the series afloat. Even the slightly improved gameplay of Double Agent couldn’t make up for this difficulty of character.
Anyway, the Penthouse mission is well-designed but quite short. The chief innovation is that the cameras can see you in the dark, which is only a minor obstacle since there is so little darkness to be had anyway. During the course of the mission you learn that Displace International, a private security company run by a friend of Fisher’s, is mixed up in the conspiracy. This, of course, means raiding their offices.