Though founded on the individual lethality of team Rainbow’s bullets, Tom Clancy’s videogame brand is latterly better known for spectacle – the name indicating a certain competence of bombastic action that mixes meaty gunplay with a smattering of credible tactics and near-future gadgetry. But developers have done little with the fiction. It’s hard to be inspired by it. More often than not, Clancyworld is a towering carbuncle of forgettable acronyms, geopolitical name-dropping and technobabble, slotted together with the same nihilistic abandon as Star Trek’s quantum torpedoes and subspace conduits. There are precious few memorable characters. Ghost Recon’s Scott Mitchell is a spectral personality, while HAWX’s David Crenshaw would struggle to claim greater charm than an unmanned aerial drone. Splinter Cell’s NSA operative Sam Fisher is the exception. Hidden beneath the stark iconography of those three green lights is a miserablist wit – a man whose weary cynicism makes assassination and sabotage a personable job, even when the player’s behaviour strays from moral to merciless.
In Chaos Theory, perhaps for the first and only time in the Splinter Cell series, the mixture of intimidation and levity in impromptu dialogue manages to make a human character out of three green lights and five feet 11 inches of bestubbled meat – it is a little lost in grim’n’gritty successor Double Agent. Quietly locking rubber-clad biceps around the neck of a guard, Fisher mutters threats with playful menace. “I’m an ill-tempered, heavily armed heating engineer asking about your ventilation system,” he growls, tickling the throat of an enemy with his blade. In the engine room of a boat he chides a captive on the flaunting of fire safety regulations before squeezing consciousness out of him. Or when debating who the good guy is: “No, you’re the side with the super-secret underground base and I’m the guy who’s trying to break in to the base – which makes me the good guy.”
Each moment of fourth-wall-tickling levity, every wry quip has a sinister flipside when you consider that Fisher could easily slit the neck of his prey, rather than simply put them to sleep. It’s an ambiguity enabled by actor Michael Ironside’s bassy, charcoal vocals, which swing between loveable grouch and cold assassin with disturbing ease. Chaos Theory’s entanglement of Peruvian separatists, private military contractors and electronic terrorism may build to a picture of world politics that is no more coherent or engaging than any other Clancyverse plot, but each moment of play is enlivened by the delight of slipping into Fisher’s sinewy form.
Although Chaos Theory is remarkable among Clancy-branded games for having some semblance of narrative integrity, it’s not simply Fisher’s character that makes him an enticing protagonist. Nor is it his kitbag or fancy goggles – Fisher’s gadgetry is showy, and occasionally smart, but it obscures his true arsenal of nimble manoeuvres and split-second takedowns which forms the game’s kernel of action. The mixture of context sensitivity and dynamism makes deadly playgrounds out of each environment, letting Fisher slip cat-like from shadow to shadow, leaping up to stem a corridor with split legs as an enemy enters beneath, before plunging onto his dopey head. Chaos Theory demonstrates the series’ light and dark system at its iterative high point, Fisher’s control at his most versatile – a plateau that Double Agent equalled but never surpassed.
So awesome can Fisher’s abilities feel that they compel reloads to perfect – neutralise a guard in messy fashion and it’s hard not to feel a little tug, a tiny obsessive voice whining that better timing will let you slip out from that vent and clock the enemy in the head without ever compromising your position. It might be easy to put a bullet in an enemy’s face from the safety of shadow – but wouldn’t it be so much classier to leap over the edge of a gantry, shimmy along until you reach his position, then dart up and pull him into space? Avoiding alarms and hiding inert bodies with scrupulous care is not all about getting that 100 per cent mission rating – Chaos Theory’s inescapable hook is feeling like a superspy. Much of the thrill of using Fisher is predicated on the work of Ubisoft Montreal’s animators. Move up towards a bad guy and as the hero gets in close, he hunkers down to a yet more predatory pose, creeping with a crouched lumber that suggests immense tension likely to disperse through sudden violent movement. His every motion does a striking job of communicating Fisher’s heft and power alongside his agility and, of course, stealth. He looks exactly like a man who could knock someone out with a single closed fist. He also looks like a man who could drop ten feet and roll without making a sound. These things are rarely credibly combined.
The settings, from the rain-slick lighthouse that opens the game to a war-torn Seoul and a villa complex in Hokkaido, strike a delicate balance, subtly funnelling the player between more openly navigable sections that invite experimentation. They look and sound the part, too. Fisher’s covert status always isolates him from the world of his quarry – a silent observer, banished to the shadows – and even against the backdrop of New York, Chaos Theory’s level design manages to feel expansive and somewhat lonely: darkened rooftops with gasping vents; distant sirens in the night air. Even four years down the line, the realisation of these environments conjures a forlorn beauty – the beam of the lighthouse scything out through the rain, catching beads of water on the shattered glass of the bulb’s housing; the grim concrete and smoked panes of a private military contractor’s office complex – the hi-tech world at its most desolate. Though the globe-trotting of Double Agent is drawn with considerable fidelity, the series has yet to recapture Chaos Theory’s sense of foreboding modernity. The sense that Fisher occupies a hidden world, running parallel to our own, is dispelled entirely in the sequel’s gung-ho levels where direct confrontation is more or less enforced.
Contributing to the aesthetic in no small way is Amon Tobin’s soundtrack – layered samples floating in and out as the action demands. Although dynamic scores are no longer quite the novelty they were in 2005, the elegance with which Tobin’s music spirals up or down tempo has rarely been matched: rather than hurriedly fading in some racing beats as gunshots are exchanged, the composition lurches from one movement to another, never losing cohesion, before settling back into an uneasy lull as relative peace is restored. Informed by the smoky sounds of noir thrillers, the paranoia and tension of spy drama and more than a little future-industrial bleakness, Chaos Theory’s soundtrack is almost half the game – a fact which didn’t necessarily sit easily with the creators of the other half. When we dropped by Ubisoft Montreal to see the since-delayed Splinter Cell: Conviction, Chaos Theory’s technical director Dany Lepage wondered if Tobin’s soundtrack was too intrusive, smothering the action. And it might be – but considered as a synaesthetic expression of your behaviour onscreen in the vein of more clearly musical games like Rez, it is a triumph which few thirdperson shooters can claim, certainly setting it apart from the other games in the series.
But Chaos Theory wasn’t content with being half game, half album – it wanted to be a social experience too, back when co-op was a near-alien concept. A seven-mission campaign follows two Splinter Cells-in-training as they pursue some of Fisher’s loose ends. These levels, taking players to entirely new locations, are even a shade less linear than those of the singleplayer game: espionage sandboxes which alternately invite the players to split up to cover separate objectives more quickly, or demand co-operation: ledges that require leg-ups; laser grids that one spy can be tossed over; cameras that need to be electronically suppressed while partners scamper past. In singleplayer, outsmarting the AI was a matter of combining Fisher with the environment to deadly effect – in co-op, the addition of a third element makes mastery all the more challenging, not least because enemies hear you talking into your headset if they get too close or your mouth gets too loud. Although optional, this was a brilliantly conceived tension-building device. Lure a guard down a dark hallway with a loud yelp, and the second operative can stalk him from behind. Communications become whispered, tense affairs, punctuated by ominous silence as enemies force you to cut radio chatter, culminating in hissed, frantic instructions: “Now! Get him now!” Co-op may have since become de rigeur (albeit not in the 360- generation version of Double Agent, with its claims of co-op transpiring to be a deceptively named bot-match) but few games have stipulated that good co-operation is dictated by the manner of communication as well as an abundance of it. Nor are they usually such rewardingly malleable experiences.
Thanks to the dovetailing efforts of Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and EndWar, the Tom Clancy name now suggests elaborate HUDs spattered with coloured chevrons, tactical maps and gruff, kevlar-suited men rotating one finger through the air while saying: “Back on me.” Fist-pump! Hoo-rah! Take that, disintegrating world order! Maybe it’s not such a surprise that a man tasked with silently squeezing the air from people’s throats in the dark should actually be the more appealing, congenial face of the brand.