Monday, May 18, 2015

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Essentials (PlayStation Portable) Review

Splinter Cell used to be Ubisoft's "it" franchise, much like Assassin's Creed is now. We got an entry pretty much every year, up until the meandering (and frequently delayed) Double Agent. Splinter Cell's plot wasn't complex but people were generally invested in Sam Fisher as a character. Double Agent looked to push Sam to the brink, and it was exciting. We knew that Double Agent would have branching paths, choices to make, so on and so forth. The final choice would involve the death of a character crucial to the franchise. He either dies by Sam's hand, or Sam saves him.

Everyone knew that there had to be a canonical ending, and Splinter Cell: Essentials was set to confirm which ending it was. There's a couple of problems with that. Essentials came out months before Double Agent and it only came out on the PSP. So, anyone with an eye on the franchise already knew what happened. That's... problematic. I was aware of what happened in Essentials because I knew I didn't have a PSP to play it, so I looked up what happened. I'm sure a lot of people did for this same reason. How was I supposed to know that Essentials would give Double Agent a canonical ending months before I (or anyone else) had the chance to play it? This sort of nullified some of the thrill of Double Agent, and I went with the canonical ending. It didn't feel like there was a purpose in any other choice.

So, Essentials spoiled everything for most of the diehard fans. For some reason everyone was waiting for Splinter Cell: Conviction to confirm the ending, when Essentials actually gave it to us before Double Agent came out. You would think that this meant Essentials was a sad excuse of a game that was best forgotten. Reviews from the time were pretty harsh, but I'm not sure it was entirely warranted.

Splinter Cell: Essentials plays out, for the most part, as a flashback. Sam Fisher is interrogated and recounts certain missions, leading up to that crucial point in Double Agent. This is not unlike the plot framing device of Conviction, with Douglas Shetland recounting events. Most of the levels are taken from the three preceding games, with a few original levels thrown in for good measure. The levels actually translate to the PSP's hardware very well. Graphics are grainy, but the remade levels are brought over with few compromises. There are more loading points and, seeing as this is the PSP, the loads are long.

The PSP translation actually seems to have been very well thought out by the developers. The controls are hampered by a lack of a second analog stick. An attempt was made to rectify this by having the circle button activate a free camera mode or recenter the camera with two taps. It's not completely successful, but it works. The best thing that the developers did to smooth the changeover was to dumb down the AI. The AI is now painfully dumb, but it gives you that extra second to orient yourself and react. If nothing had been done in this regard, the game would be impossibly frustrating. Interactivity with the environment has been toned down a bit, there are fewer lights that you can successfully shoot out but levels seem to be darker than the console counterparts, giving you more areas to hide. Otherwise, all of the features are present.

The levels are about a 50-50 mix of old and new. No levels from Pandora Tomorrow feature in the campaign (which is a shame, I personally think Pandora Tomorrow is a great game), but there are three levels from Pandora Tomorrow included as a bonus feature. It seems like these were possibly cut as a result of rushed development. The plot is... jumpy, to say the least. I was never fully on board with exactly why it was crucial to revisit these points. In particular, the GFO Oil Rig from the original game has never been a level that I particularly enjoyed. The way the game is patched together with new and old makes me wonder if it wasn't planned to be a wholly original title that was abandoned at some point. Including bonus levels from Pandora Tomorrow makes it seem like the developers were just kind of toying around with the PSP at some point to see what they could throw at it.

The real knock against Essentials is exactly that; I'm not sure what the point is. It's really an oddity in the franchise. It spoiled a main game, ported older levels and just sort of seemed superfluous. Is it as bad as the reviews suggested? No, I don't think so. The new levels actually work well and fit with the design of the original levels. They completely hold their own. If I didn't know that the new levels weren't from a main game, I wouldn't know. That said, it's a problem that I even have to compare the new content to old content in the same game. 

This is a short review because there's not much to say for Essentials. It's a rehash of earlier content with a dash of new thrown in and it plays the same way. If you've played Splinter Cell or Chaos Theory, you've already played half of the game. Is Essentials worth it? Not particularly, no. With Conviction reconfirming this game's confirmation of Double Agent's true ending (and replicating and improving upon its storytelling style), Essentials is anything but. It's not a bad game but it's skippable, even for the most die hard fan.

The Score: 7.5/10