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Also in this issue:

More Machine Than Flesh
by J. Johnson
a review essay of Rodney Brooks' Flesh and Machines

Vonage Digital Voice Phone Service
reviewed by
Raffi Krikorian


Buy Splinter Cell for Xbox at

Splinter Cell
for Xbox
developer: Red Storm Entertainment
publisher: Ubi Soft

reviewed by Jane Pinckard and Justin Hall

March 10 , 2003 | games

The Freedom to Take Away Others’

There is something creepily naïve about a game which unproblematically posits you, protagonist Sam Fisher, as a willing and deathly efficient tool of an ultra-secret U.S. government organization in a setting rife with contemporary geo-political machinations. In this game, which touts “stealth redesigned”, your character has the “fifth freedom”: the freedom to kill, or at least, to go where he pleases and steal what he needs in order to protect good Americans at home. It’s a Tom Clancy game, unmistakably – boilerplate Eastern European spy thriller, where gravel-voiced men are heroes in defiance of dull bureaucrats. (Interestingly, there’s a trace of a Canadian accent in Sam’s Clint Eastwood-inflected voice.) In practice, the missions must be explicitly stealthy, since officially, your character doesn’t even have the clearance to be there. You are a ghost, a shadow slipping in behind half-open curtains to strategically remove key figures of opposition regimes.

Alas, if politics were only so simple!

The Freedom to be Invisible

As it turns out, even super-agents like the slippery Sam Fisher have problems infiltrating heavily guarded government sanctums. But that is where the politics end and the play begins. As a CIA-endorsed thief, Sam’s got the moves to run, jump, sneak, climb, shimmy, glide, and crawl his way past guards and security cameras. They’ve obviously spent an enormous amount of their attention making Sam Fisher move and gesture appropriately. The controls respond beautifully - they don’t feel sticky or awkward. He’s also got the goods – the requisite silenced gun, a periscope for looking under doors, lock picks, and goggles that render the screen in thermal colors.

That said, the game is lovely to behold. It’s hard not to react to the bold lighting effects with something like a swelling sense of wonder and excitement. In one level where Sam is lit from the side by a harsh, bright light, he casts a deep shadow on the wall behind him, and it’s tempting to just pause in the mission and try to make patterns of light and shadow on the wall. The sound design is also well done. If you can play this game in surround sound, you will hear voices and footsteps ahead, behind, or to either side of you. The soundtrack changes to meet your risk level – when you’re noticed, the beat speeds up, probably with your heart rate.

The Freedom to Kick Ass

So there they are: two guys stationed by that door. Eavesdropping on their conversation, you learn that they work for the crooked colonel you’re hunting. What do you do? You can sneak past them, take them out with your silenced pistol, or grab one and use him as a human shield. You may have to keep at least one of them alive, so you can use his eyes to open the door locked by a retinal scanner. You may also wish to interrogate them to learn the whereabouts of the colonel. Splinter Cell is a slick refinement of game concepts established by Thief and Metal Gear Solid.

The AI reactions are predictably programmed. Guards generally pace in small loops. When you make too much noise, a guard will shout, “Who’s there?” If you can’t shut up, the guard will escalate to “Come out!” and might fire a shot or two. If they spot you, it’s a full-on fire fight. But if you stay silent and still after the initial “Who’s there?”, the guard will pace around for a while and finally mutter, “coffee is making me jittery” or some other assurance that your hiding spot is undiscovered. You can also distract guards by tossing empty bottles or cans down alleys - while they go investigate, you can shimmy up the side of that building.

The Freedom to Go Where They Tell You to Go

But for all the rich lighting effects, detailed textures, and immersive sound design, the game is disappointingly linear. Though you may be crawling around inside a Russian town, alleys and doorways are blocked off if you are not supposed to enter them. You may be able to crawl along pipes and ride down zip-wires, but those things will only appear at certain junctions, when it’s appropriate that you should climb or zip. You may be an incredible gymnastic badass, but you can’t scale a wall if they didn’t mean for you to.

Actions are somewhat prescribed as well. If you see a retinal scanner by the door, you know you’re going to have to grab a guy and get him to open it for you. The level of hand-holding at times reaches absurd levels: when you knock out a guard on one level, he happens to drop a note which reads “Dear Security – the wisteria has become thick enough that I’m afraid it could support the weight of a human being.” Gee, I wonder how Sam’s going to get inside this building?

To give one agent all of these tools and physical abilities, and then take away his ability to make his own solutions is frustrating. Games like Deus Ex make you into a stealth super-agent and then allow you to play your own game, letting you create your own solutions to problems. Considering Deus Ex’s conspiracy plot involving legions of diseased urban people, the middle-aged spy culture of Splinter Cell seems content to be pleasurable without being provocative.


Jane Pinckard runs Game Girl Advance and is a member of every blogger's favorite band, Dealership. You can keep up with her at

Justin Hall plays too many games but manages to write sometimes. His subjects include diversion, participation, romance, failure, Asia and California. Nearly everything he thinks publicly emanates from

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