Snake Cam on the PS

A glance at our reviews of the original XBox game and PC port will show they were both blockbusting successes. So how has Tom Clancy’s stealth monkey fared in the Third Place, a platform ruled by Metal Gear Solid? Not too shabbily, we think.

It’s the same old story of post-Soviet instability getting the Americans worried (I get the impression that Clancy et al would really love the Cold War to be back on. Then we could have more books/games with ‘Red’ in the title). So our hero – Sam Fisher – is torn away from a deep-sea diving expedition to dress up, go out and save the free world (i.e. the USA).

Along the way there are various goons to kill, pipes to climb, zip-lines to slide down and shadows to skulk in, all of which show off Sam’s agility, gadgetry and ability to glow in the dark while remaining invisible (more on this later).
As the story unfolds Sam gets more clued up about coming dangers and more geared up to tackle them. The basic silenced pistol can soon be replaced with a generic launcher, which can fire out sticky cams and noise decoys as well as the more orthodox bullets. These last are normally reserved for taking out wall-mounted cameras before an alarm is set off.

A neat new feature on the PS2 is the “alarms remaining” symbol. Once this hits the limit Sam’s boss will yell in his ear and the mission is called off. In some missions no alarms can be triggered at all, so it’s game over on the first one, and in others the killing of innocents can trigger mission failure.

On the subject of making life easier for PS2 gamers: Once you read a passcode in a data stick, approaching the right door will automatically bring up the right passcode for you to type into the keypad. On the XBox you have to go back to the control panel, find the right data stick, look up the key and remember it. Which is no fun.

Whereas some missions forbid murder, others may change parameters half-way once an early objective has been reached. “5th freedom territory” means the freedom to protect the other 4 freedoms (life, liberty, fruit of the loom and spitting) by any means. Ergo, time to kill.

Nevertheless, it’s considered vulgar to murder someone when you can pistol-whip them unconscious or, even better, sneak past them.

How to avoid an encounter # 243: Splinter Cell offers a fibre optic cable (the ‘snake cam’) to push under doors. This lets you see things in fish-eye vision to make sure the coast is clear. The option appears as soon as you’re near a door (unlike on the XBox). So, with the endoscope duly applied we can watch as events unfold on the other side…

Unfortunately, said events are scripted such that every time you reach a particular section you can be sure the same things will happen: Guard will appear…now; wait 10 seconds, cue conversation and the cook will spit into the food. Guard exits. This is less a test of living by your wits and more rat-in-a-maze learning. Having said that, the snake cam does allow you to plan ahead and a careful approach can be rewarded with a clean run through a section. Rarely.

Sam’s standard stealth meter is fed by photo-sensitive cells all over his suit, we are told. His hiding is hindered by a glowing green thing on his back (is this a PDA?) and even worse, 3 bright emerald eyes on his forehead. Who can fail to spot 3-4 luminous orbs bobbing in the darkness? Everyone in this game, apparently. Perversely, there are other times when a guard will spot Sam even in total darkness, but he needs to be really close.

The “as seen on TV” fluorescent green bits come from Sam’s optical enhancements. Apart from the snake cam, Sam can filter the real world via a head-mounted zoom. There is also the light-augmentation view, which gives a bright, grainy image, and the false-colour infrared filter. The view from these thermal goggles is so much better than the golden blobs of Project IGI 2. This is what it feels like to be the Predator. In fact, Sam’s ability to switch between visual spectrum bands and light levels is very similar to AVP in feel.

Shadows and lighting are used well and are as lush as a Hong Kong cop movie; nearly Blade Runner good in parts. Picture shafts of dusty streetlight broken against boarded-up windows, dappling Sam’s strong shoulders as he squats over a dead man. Floors are reflective where they should be, shadows stretch and wrap around surfaces, and Sam’s hair, stuck down with plenty of grease, gleams in the light.

The PS2’s colours are more muted than on the XBox. The fuzzier rendering can be contrasted with the DirectX-brand harshness on XBox/PC. I prefer this muddiness. It looks more natural.

The glowing PDA-radio on Sam’s back may be related to his in-mission menu system, above which proudly stands the Palm logo. This looks like a counter to HP’s giving James Bond a Pocket PC a few years back. In any case it is a strong piece of product placement; such blatant advertising is normally seen in sports titles, but I’ll bet there will be a lot more of it in high-profile games to come.

The control panel is laid out slightly differently from the XBox version. It’s still a clean and easy-to-use design, however, and offers access to maps, data sticks, inventory and loading/saving. Strangely enough the load screen does not match the save screen (as far as I could see).

Missions on this PS2 port are more broken up, which means a shorter distance to the last save point when things go belly-up (good) but more frequent loading screens (bad). Also, a few layouts have been tinkered with and made easier. E.g. a pipe is laid across a gap that XBox-Sam previously had to take a running jump across.

Jumping Sam, Climbing Sam, Abseiling Sam are all smoothly animated; he looks nimble and natural. Walking Sam is a bit more of a robot, stiff around the shoulders especially when pivoting. These are not new faults; animation as a whole has not suffered in the journey across platforms.

In fact, all the good bits have survived. The general mood, the tense moments, the fun in using Sam’s toys and agility are all still here. Likewise, some of the same XBox problems are here: the overly floaty gun-control system, the occasionally erratic guard AI, especially in combat. These are minor niggles which stem from game design rather than porting issues; Splinter Cell on the PS2 is still a fine piece of work. Can we look forward to a Solid Snake vs Sam Fisher wrestling game any time soon?

Article by Matthew Calamatta