Splinter Cell Chaos Theory Nintendo DS Review

The success of the Splinter Cell franchise is really quite a remarkable achievement. The first game was absolutely amazing and frankly in a class all its own (Metal Gear Solid, though brilliant, is nothing like it). The graphics were mind-blowing, and the use of light, of sound, of patience and precise planning, was something that was both smart and entirely refreshing.

Since then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, the series began to grow. A sequel was announced and hit shelves in a year, with improved single-player gameplay and an online mode that in addition to being almost its own game, was just one of the best damn online experiences of all time.

And now, in 2005, the third, and on the consoles, easily the best, Splinter Cell title, Chaos Theory, is on shelves. But we’re here to talk about the DS version, which quietly hit store shelves this summer.

The surprising thing about the DS entry in the series is that it’s fairly true to its source material. It’s 3D and has the same gameplay mechanics as its console brethren. What’s more surprising is that, for the most part, this ambitious handheld title works pretty well.

The gameplay is mostly what you’ll find on the consoles. It’s slow-paced and methodical. You will still hide in the shadows, walk slowly, distract enemies, hug walls, try not to set off alarms, etc. It captures, very well, what works on the consoles. The design has been changed somewhat to work on the handheld, however. The levels are smaller, simplified, and they play faster, albeit still pretty slow. The touchscreen is also put to use as a camera control, to aim while firing weapons, and for item management (and since the camera isn’t computer controlled, you will be using the stylus quite a bit.)

The graphics are very strong. The textures are sharp and the environments good looking; this has a very gritty, realistic style and pulls it off well. This is one of the best looking 3D games on the DS. That is, when you can see the screen—the graphics are very dark most of the time. The sound design is also very strong, informing you of when enemies are nearby, informing enemies of your presence, etc. You have to be careful about how much noise you make and how you do it. The music is terrific too.

Props have to be given to Gameloft (the same guys behind: Urban GT) for packing so much content into a handheld title and for not taking the easy way out by making Chaos Theory another side-scroller, as previous handheld entries in the series have been. There is a ton of game here and it’s all very solid. If you want to play Splinter Cell on the go, you will find a lot to like.

But therein lies the problem, which is that Splinter Cell is not a handheld design to begin with. The console games were designed to be played at your home, for when you could dedicate substantial amounts of time to playing. The DS doesn’t work that way—handhelds are meant for a quick gaming fix, something you can play for 5 minutes or an hour if you want to. They have to be extremely accessible.

So yeah, Chaos Theory is Splinter Cell on the go, but do we want that? It’s slow. You have to play it for a long time to make true progress. You have to read a fair amount of text and put up with some load times. You can’t even save it whenever you want. There are mid-mission save points instead and the distance between them can be fairly substantial. If there’s a definition of how successful handheld games play, Splinter Cell Chaos Theory defies it. I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing; just don’t plan to play it between classes or on the bus.

Plus, the design is very complex. The control scheme requires the active use of every button on the DS and the touchscreen. This makes shooting a slow process because you have to readjust your hands to take them off the buttons and then use the stylus. It’s clumsy and signals instant death in true action situations (this isn’t that big of a deal, however, because there aren’t many of those).

Presentation is also weak. The story, though compelling, is told in text boxes. There is no voice acting and very little by way of flash. More FMV sequences or some catchphrases from Sam Fisher would have gone a long way. How hard could it be to include voice samples from the console games, a simple “Hi there,” or “I’m going to kill you,” etc.? Come on. The DS is capable of more than tiny text boxes and still frames to carry the plot along.

It should also be mentioned that the framerate is no one’s definition of good or up to standards. Super Mario 64 DS this ain’t. The engine really starts to chug during action sequences. Again, though, this is not a very significant issue because the action rarely does heat up. But it’s something that should have been addressed.

But for its problems—most of which stem from the fact that this just wasn’t designed as a handheld game—it’s very fun. On some level, it works. The gameplay is deep and rewarding if you want to invest. And there’s a bunch of it. The sound and music is fantastic and the graphics are great. You will find yourself highly impressed by how well the console design has been transferred to the DS.

Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, if nothing else, is testament to how far handhelds have come since the days of the Game Boy. None of us could even begin to imagine a game like this on a portable system 5 years ago, or indeed when the original Splinter Cell was released. This is not the best game out there. It’s flawed. The controls are imprecise, the framerate isn’t that great, the presentation is weak and it’s just not that flashy as a whole. But despite all that, I found myself having a blast with this game.

This design works. It’s smart and involving and plays a lot like the console games, and that is ultimately more important than any technical issues. It’s a very meaty experience. If you like Splinter Cell, you will like this game. Given the remarkable complexity and technologically taxing design the series is known for, that’s really saying something. It effectively uses the unique features of the DS. And most importantly, it’s fun. This is one of the best games on the DS despite all its problems and I highly recommend it, but with the caveat that you know what you’re getting into.