I have three pieces of advice for anyone thinking of giving this third instalment of Ubisoft's much-lauded Splinter Cell series a try. Firstly, turn the brightness up a few notches in the Options menu if you want to see anything at all, as Chaos Theory sees Sam Fisher spending more time than ever cloaked in total darkness. Secondly, if you haven't played the first two games, be prepared for a very rough ride, as you're plunged straight into the deep end in the first mission with no training whatsoever - the developers assume considerable prior knowledge of videogame spyfaring. Lastly, anyone of a nervous disposition should take caution, because, much like its predecessors, Chaos Theory drips with tension, danger and foreboding. This has got to be the ultimate Splinter Cell, marrying the a refined version of the original's concept with Pandora Tomorrow's multiplayer and adding in a co-operative mode, some more sickening ways of killing opponents and an awful lot more in-mission freedom.
That said, however, it's true that Chaos Theory will prove a very familiar experience for anyone well-acquainted with the series. Once again we follow Sam Fisher in his US government missions to dispel international tensions, this time in the East between China and Japan. Once again, the game focuses upon stealth rather than firepower, encouraging the player to sneak around undetected rather than eliminate all opponents. The same split-jumps, grabs, spy gadgets, thermal and night-vision goggles and silenced pistols all make a return, as does the fantastically tense atmosphere - certainly not a bad thing.
The concept, however, is more refined this time around. Though the breathless exhilaration of creeping undetected inches behind an armed enemy remains unchanged since the first Splinter Cell, there is now an element of choice that never existed before. The frustrating rigidity of the first and, to a lesser extent, second games hardly exists anymore. Where previously the player had to make a guess at what the developers wanted them to do in a given situation and then act accordingly, there are now multiple courses of action available. Instead of hunting around a level for a keycode, impatient players can now hack the keypad instead. Locks need not be opened, but can be picked or, when in haste, broken. Setting off alarms no longer ends a mission, just makes it more difficult for you. There are three different ways to open a door, several ways of approaching any given problem. This happily alleviates the frustrating, stop-start nature of the previous two games, which often had the player throwing their controller across the room after their fifteenth failed attempt at the same tiny section of the level, unable to discern exactly how they were expected to approach the scenario.
Similarly, the missions almost never necessitate killing an enemy - in fact, they actively discourage it, as killing enemies lowers your success rating at the end of a mission. Though there is always the opportunity for some careless murdering, it's equally viable to sneak past enemy soldiers entirely undetected, or find a passageway that allows you to avoid them, or, if forced to incapacitate them somehow, perform a sleeper-hold and put them in a corner until they wake up. Sam's rifle has airfoil rounds that allow you to knock enemies unconscious from a distance rather than killing them. Chaos Theory is much more about skill and deviousness than about outright brutality, and it's still quite unusual for that reason. Indeed, it's rather morally pleasing to be able to play a game without killing anyone in today's world of Grand Theft Auto, Doom et al, and be rewarded for your ingenuity rather than punished for your passivity.
If virtual bloodshed doesn't disturb you, though, Chaos Theory caters for you amply with Sam's new close-range commando knife and new neck-breaking moves, complete with sickening cracking noises. Living enemies held in a grab can be used as human shields, thrown over walls or pulled off ledges. After three games' worth of storyline, Sam Fisher is a well-drawn, hardened and rather angry character, so this brutality is not out of place, though it can be distressing. The look of terror on peoples' faces when Sam seizes them, coupled with their pleas for life upon interrogation, Sam's cold replies and their screams when thrown off walls are enough to send disgusted shudders through more sensitive gamers.
With all these options open to one, it's easy to see how Chaos Theory allows for much more in-mission spontaneity than its predecessors. As a consequence, it is more realistic than ever before, and rather more exhilaratingly tense too. Often, the player will be forced into on-the-spot decisions; for example, when the sound of approaching footsteps scares you into breaking a lock outright and diving inside, waiting, breath held, for the armed guard to walk past, or when an unexpected alarm sees you leaping for an overhead pipe and clinging to it whilst people run past below you, praying they won't look up. Enemies behave more naturally, peeking warily around corners and taking cover if they're pushed into opening fire. They chat to each other, and Sam picks up useful tips and bits of information from their conversations; more importantly, though, their stories of their time as a child in Korea when the Americans invaded and resentful comments about the state of the ship's coffee also gives them a believable, human aspect.
All changes taken into account, though, the most remarkable thing about this game is still that brilliant immediacy that has been inherent in Splinter Cell games from the very beginning. Sneaking around in the darkness, shadowing enemies, incapacitating cameras, shimmying up drainpipes and firing sticky cameras onto walls to observe what's happening around the corner... the 'cool' factor of playing a spy game as realistic and atmospheric as this has never been equalled by any other series. It's amazing that this appeal still hasn't been lost, even after three comprehensive games.
What's even more amazing is that it carries over into the multiplayer. If online gaming's your thing, you'll be in heaven with the Live and PC internet options available here. Anyone familiar with Pandora Tomorrow will be very familiar with the competitive options. Playing as a Mercenary is still a very powerful experience, rendering you close to terrified as you fire wildly at the slightest movement in the shadows in fits of paranoia. What's new, though, is the co-operative mode - essentially a whole other game in itself.
There may only be four co-op missions, but they're absolutely fantastic. The opportunity to team up with another spy and help each other up ledges, across gaps et cetera over Live should be seized at the first opportunity - there's been no Live experience quite like it yet. On a single split screen, though, it gets more than slightly tiresome. You really need to play over Live or system link to get the most out of it, given that most of Splinter Cell is to do with spotting things around corners (quite a task with only half a screen to play in).
Visuals have always been important to the Splinter Cell games, and Chaos Theory's typically dark environments and varied, gorgeous locations most certainly do not disappoint. Even the enemies' expressions, Fisher's hair and the curtains in the Panamanian banks are gorgeously detailed. The sound, too, is brilliant, especially when appreciated through a 5.1 speaker system or similar - enemies can be heard approaching from all directions and in some of the locales, such as the creaking boat that serves as the setting for the second mission, the background noises add much effect to the scenario. All in all, it's difficult to see how the visuals and sound could fit the game better.
I honestly cannot imagine the Splinter Cell series ever getting any better than this. Gone is the frustrating, unintentional linearity of the previous games, gone the occasionally suspect AI, gone the slight problems in the multiplayer. What we have here is a perfect version of the Splinter Cell formula. It still requires patience, skill and, occasionally, brutality, but unlike before, it rewards ingenuity, spontaneity and deviousness. The online options are comprehensive and innovative, but the single-player remains the aesthetically gorgeous, intensely satisfying, darkly atmospheric highlight. This is a very good time to be a gamer.