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Splinter Cell Essentials
Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Ubisoft Entertainment
Developer: Ubisoft Entertainment
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Stealth/ Action/ Strategy

Graphics & Sound:
The worst thing I can point out about Splinter Cell Essentials is the silly name. Essentials makes me think of herbal shampoo or daily vitamins, and there's definitely nothing sexy-spy-spy about that imagery. If that's the worst I can say, you know the rest can't be very bad... The real line on Splinter Cell Essentials is that it makes me almost recant my theory that sequelitis is the dark side of gaming. I say "almost" because I still maintain that sequels generally suck. Luckily, this one doesn't.

The game is full of dark tones, which are good when slinking from one shadowy pool to the next. Really, there is just good contrast, which is an important part of the stealth action. The cool part comes when switching to nightvision or infrared, watching a dark screen bloom into previously unseen detail. One gripe about the in-game interface is that it sometimes feels cluttered. The mission objective especially seemed to pop up a lot and get in the way, and couldn't be "put away."

Sound is an important part of the gameplay in Splinter Cell Essentials. Depending on how you feel about screen real estate, you may like or dislike the sound meter, since it does take up plenty of space. Basically, the meter reads the levels of ambient sound, on left and right channels. The sounds you make register here, also. This is similar to the indicator showing the level of ambient light in your location. Both sound and light can give you away, but the sound helps most to give away the enemy position, which allows you to adjust your strategy. The cinematic cut scenes are excellent in every way, and there's a great story that plays out through the course of the game. We have Tom Clancy to thank for that.

When is a sequel not a sequel? When it's a prequel, stupid!! Splinter Cell Essentials isn't really a continuation of the previous games, but a sampler of moments from Sam Fisher's life. As we join the story in this PSP installment, Sam has gone on the lam, and is suspected of associating with terrorists. Sam gives away his position finally by going to visit his daughter's grave, where he is picked up by security forces. As these events play out, we see flashbacks to Sam's past. Actually, we don't see them as much as jump into them. Splinter Cell Essentials is a neat kind of game that tells a story, but brings gamers into the plot along the way.

Stealth games have in one sense come a long way, and in another gone nowhere at all. On one level, stealth isn't the kind of action that will have your heart racing. It's pretty deliberate and slow paced, really. There is some pretty strong strategic gameplay, and lots of timing involved in getting through each scenario. The evolution that led to Splinter Cell Essentials has trended toward playing characters who are more physical. Sam, unlike Snake, is rarely laden with much. No guided missles for this killer. Getting up close, in the shadows, and wringing the neck of some poor bastard is a Sam Fisher move. Even though sniping and weapons are a part of the game, the physical aspect makes for a different type of gameplay.

The other element I really like that is played up in Splinter Cell Essentials is movement. Sam can interact with his environment in so many ways. From hanging upside down on rafters and taking pot shots at bad guys to rappeling and climbing, Fisher is all over the place. I wish there would have been a less linear approach in some levels; with all the cool moves, it seems silly that there would only be one way to get in or out of a particular area. As it is, you'll learn to use each of Sam's moves to maximum advantage.

I think the hard part of any stealth game is having the patience to wait until everything is right before you run or gun. Splinter Cell Essentials actually gives you room to run without having to face off against a guard in every room. The physicality I mentioned before makes it possible to mix up combat action with obstacle challenges, which is great. If you think back on Snake, and the fact that he didn't really do anything but run or walk, we've come a long way with Sam Fisher. There are some times when you'll think you've covered yourself well, but still get caught, and it can feel a bit cheap. Luckily, these times are the exception to the rule. The ability to create checkpoint saves anywhere within a level helps to cut the frustration, since there are definitely some tricky points you'd rather not repeat.

Game Mechanics:
Splinter Cell Essentials is excellent as a single player experience, but there is also good multiplayer fun to be had here as well. The connection options and game styles are fairly limited, but for two players who want to pick each other off repeatedly in the map of their choice, how fancy does it need to be?

The controls are simple enough, with some nice features that are worth mentioning. One I found innovative was how the D-pad is used. Instead of just assigning a function to each button, there is a function for tapping a button and a different function for holding the button. It takes some getting used to, and there are alternate controls if you don't like the hand you're dealt. The shoulder buttons take on the role of firing weapons, knocking people out, or doing lethal takedowns. Splinter Cell Essentials certainly isn't a "pick up and play" title, but it doesn't take long to learn the ropes. Interaction is usually menu driven, but always contextual, so you aren't faced with a menu until you need to interact with something.

This is a great title, with superb entertainment value and solid controls. The presentation is excellent, across almost every aspect of the game. Without a more robust multiplayer, Splinter Cell Essentials probably won't hold up as having much replay value, but the single player game is sufficiently robust to make this a must rent or own for fans of stealth games. Anyone who appreciated earlier games in the series can rest assured that Fisher's legacy has not fallen victim to sequelitis.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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