Review: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell 3D (3DS)

Tripping over in the dark

Splinter Cell 3D is one of quite a few 3DS launch titles from Ubisoft, a publisher that is showing plenty of enthusiasm for Nintendo’s little device of tricks. The number of gizmos and clever features in the console make it seem like the perfect home for deadly agent Sam Fisher. The question is whether this title is able to stand up to interrogation, or does it panic under pressure?

The first thing to establish is that Splinter Cell 3D is a direct port of the highly regarded series entry Chaos Theory. Ubisoft seem to like porting this title to Nintendo handhelds with the same game, admittedly with tweaked levels, appearing on the DS in 2005. Still, not everyone has played one of the original versions, so Splinter Cell 3D brings its third-person stealth game into the third dimension. Considering the critical acclaim that greeted the original home console and PC versions of the title, it is an experience approached with optimism.

The storyline of Splinter Cell 3D is classic espionage, save-the-world fare. In the early part of the game there are two parallel storylines: intelligence and military tensions in Asia, with China, North Korea and Japan in the frame; and your early missions revolving around a seemingly unrelated chase to prevent sensitive weaponised algorithms from falling into the wrong hands. The storyline is fleshed out mostly in pre-mission cut scenes, some of which have nice production values. The story will also have the occasional twist or progression mid-level, and on the whole it is a decent yarn.

Walking through the game modes on the title screen is easy: there is a single player campaign mode. That’s it. Veterans with fond memories of the originals will need to live without the co-operative missions and the competitive multiplayer, popular modes that new players won't get a chance to experience. Considering the online functionality and capabilities of the 3DS — something Nintendo clearly put plenty of effort into — it is a major disappointment and oversight that none of these modes are included.

The campaign itself is a fairly meaty affair. Each mission will take around an hour to play through for skilled players, and those new to the series may take longer. The levels offer plenty of variety both in terms of locations and objectives. Sam Fisher’s missions send him all over the world, to places such as New York penthouses, freight ships at sea, the streets of Seoul and a Japanese bath house. Stealth is the priority in this game, so each location offers its own challenges as you try to avoid detection.

Staying in the shadows is important to your survival — Sam Fisher doesn’t have an invisible bullet proof vest in the manner of James Bond. If you get into a fire-fight you will either win or lose very quickly. This sense of spy realism is a major part of the Chaos Theory era of Splinter Cell, and it is recreated well. Enemy AI is sharp, and if you clumsily stumble into their viewpoint or make yourself known they will quickly set off alarms or try to gun you down. You do have a number of gadgets and weapons at your disposal to assist your efforts: you can disrupt computers and lights electronically, peek through doors with optic cables, or use non-lethal bullets to knock out enemies. There are a lot of items at your disposal as you progress and utilising each one can be fun.

Unfortunately, all of this "cool as ice" stealth gameplay is significantly undermined by the controls, with the most significant problem being camera control. Due to the lack of a second analogue stick, you move the camera with the A, B, X and Y buttons. Moving Sam with the Circle Pad works fine, but adjusting the camera with these buttons is awkward. You also aim your gun with the camera controls, which is horrendous. Actions such as jumping, ducking and reloading are set to directions on the D-Pad, while the shoulder buttons are used for firing weapons or close proximity take-downs. Arming weapons, alternative visors and context sensitive actions — such as opening doors — are all assigned to the touchscreen. As you may have gathered, this game utilises every control output on the device, in some cases for multiple uses, which makes the controls difficult to master.

The range of controls, and the camera issues at the heart of them, are damaging to the enjoyment of the game. When sneaking around at a slow pace we were just about able to hold everything together. However, when you get spotted by the enemy and quick, decisive action is needed, it is very difficult to react. Frustrating deaths become the norm as a result, breaking up the flow of the experience. On top of this, the controls often make it impossible to avoid some alarms: in one area we had to jump over a number of laser detectors, but trying to move forward with the Circle Pad while jumping with the D-Pad led to a predictable wailing of alarms. Regardless of the difficulty setting you will have problems, and it might just be easier to dress up as Sam and infiltrate an enemy location in real life.

Visually, the developers have done an adequate job. It’s early days for the 3DS in terms of understanding it’s graphical power, but aside from some blurry environment textures this game looks reasonable. The 3D effect does add to the immersion, with a decent sense of depth that is pleasing on the eye. One point to bear in mind is that this game is dark, which makes sense, but you’ll have difficulty seeing what you’re doing if playing in a bright area. We thought it would have been humorous to see Sam trip over occasionally as he stalks around in the dark, but sadly it never happened. Sam does have "Fusion Vision" goggles for seeing in dimly lit areas, with outlines of enemies and items in white. You’ll need these goggles a lot.

The soundtrack is a high point, with good quality arrangements. You’ll know when an objective is around the corner as the music will start to pound in anticipation. The title goes the other way as well, where the only sound at some points is the quiet clicking of your footsteps. If you're playing in a dimly lit room with headphones plugged in and the 3D slider cranked up, you may occasionally be sucked into an immersive experience.

Conclusion

Splinter Cell 3D's main problem is that it feels like a missed opportunity. There are moments when you get a grip of the controls, shoot out a light and creep up on an enemy, all viewed in a nice 3D effect. These moments are few and far between, as the annoyingly difficult and complex controls often mean that you fail to execute the missions as planned. Add the complete lack of additional modes and content from the original title and this screams of a rushed port. More thought was required to bring the Splinter Cell experience successfully to the 3DS, and the square pegs and round holes development approach has undermined the overall experience. There is some enjoyment to be had for series veterans, but most gamers would be well advised to play the original instead.

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