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Splinter Cell Chaos Theory

SHAWN: It’s a full-scale firefight between the Koreas—in short, more ballistic zap-pow in one late scene than the series’ previous installments put together—and the perfect place to play secret operative. As silent-but-deadly superspy Sam Fisher, you’ll shoot out streetlights, scale fire escapes, and stealth-kill guards by the dozen; the raucous machine guns and men in the do-or-die grip of adrenaline overdose just make your job all the easier. Sam can even take potshots at warring soldiers from either side of the DMZ (the demilitarized zone dividing the north’s dictatorship from the south’s democracy) without his previously touchy handlers at HQ pulling the plug. Chaos Theory isn’t the cruel, ball-busting taskmaster of Splinter Cells past—the exacting details don’t matter so long as the duties get done, and it’s a better game because of it.

Chaos Theory’s best bits occur between battlefields, but the rest is right on, too. Case in point: Chief spy Lambert details the workings of an alarm system about which Sam assumes, “triggering three means the mission’s over.” Not so: “This isn’t a videogame,” says Lambert. And in some ways it almost isn’t—certainly not where rendering a realistic world is concerned, what with its rained-on rocks, crashing waves, and cobblestone walkways done up in makes-you-wanna-touch-it texture; the terrified peepers of the terrorists in Sam’s strangleholds; and a camera—the most flawlessly functional in its genre—that captures every atmospheric detail from every conceivable angle.

What looks lifelike also acts it (maybe not flesh and blood, but more on that in a moment). Snuff candles to create cover, track a shadow across the walls of a teahouse and punch through the paper to get at the guy on the other side—some of it works to your advantage. Other stuff works against it, as anything out of the ordinary—open doors, lights unexpectedly turned off—sets your enemies on edge, at which point they’ll use flares and flashlights, or, based on the severity of the situation, create ramshackle barricades with overturned shelves and bookcases. The result: You’re constantly wary of possible repercussions, always prepping a countermeasure for the next contingency. And when guards who somehow gurgle for backup through slit throats do blow Sam’s cover (a snafu as old as the series), the new save-when-and-where-you-want feature makes it (almost) OK.

Don’t let what little hair-pulling that does happen put you off. Even the intimidatingly technical spies-against-guards versus game—now with even more complex levels, objectives, and tactics—offers tutorials to get you started. And if its tangled hunter-and-prey intimacy proves too intensely competitive, you can share the shadows in cooperative mode (playable via splitscreen, system link, and online). Its four-mission search for a bioweapons black marketer is so contagious that I wished I could’ve played Sam’s entire solo campaign with my partner in crime prevention. How’s this for high-five collaboration? Shoe and I each grabbed an enemy, pulled out our silenced pistols, and shot one another’s captive dead on the three count so that they both slumped at the same time. Joint acrobatics—think cheerleaders turned covert operatives—make getting from point to point as gripping as sussing out attack schemes, and the same cause-and-effect that makes every move count in Sam’s outing carries over here (sometimes with unforeseen consequences, as I learned when yammering too loudly over my headset rattled a watchman).

SHOE: My dilemma was as big as this game. Dare I score this review a 10? For its predecessor, Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow, that was easy. The revolutionary four-player spies-versus- mercenaries mode alone justified the big one-oh. But now that’s been done, so some of the oomph is gone—and I sure hate giving a game a 10 unless I seriously, seriously mean it.

So I think back to my week of playing through Chaos Theory. I saw bugs—nothing world- ending, but bugs nonetheless. The first half of the solo game, although solid, didn’t show me anything mind-blowingly new. The co-op campaign—which has horrible voice acting, by the way—ended on quite the whimper (this could have something to do with it having no ending whatsoever). I knew most players would have a tough time with the versus game, a hardcore mode that requires patience, newbie-friendly tutorials (of which there are plenty), and hours of practice. And why are the controls slightly different from mode to mode? That won’t allow anyone to ride the steep learning curve more easily. Maybe this game isn’t a 10, huh?

But then I remember the highlights of my week, and it hits me like I’ve opened up a long-lost photo album of my most memorable gaming moments. I remember, in single player, being in a dark room when suddenly, power came back to the office complex, lights turning on all around me, doors opening, guards approaching, and my radio contact yelling for me to get out. I panicked and froze up, not knowing what the first action item was on my immediate to-do list. For the briefest of moments, I felt like I was there.

I remember being pinned down in an alley by a guard unloading clip after clip at me, then looking over at the other half of the splitscreen to see my co-op partner Shawn creeping up behind the guy to snap his neck, and smiling, knowing my bro would get me out of that mess.

I remember cursing that same bro when he blew me and Mark up with one well-aimed frag grenade in versus mode. But later, I got my sweet revenge when I turned on my thermoptic camouflage suit at just the right time, became see-through like a Predator alien on a jungle safari, let Shawn run right past me, then ran up behind him to grab him by the neck to talk some trash through his headset before I snapped his neck.

So I will give Chaos Theory that 10. It’s simply brilliant. The modes, graphics, gameplay, sound, music, acting, dialogue, and every other little piece in between all come together to create a tense, sweaty-palm experience you can’t find anywhere else.

MARK: No argument here: Chaos Theory online is genius. I want to stress that it takes time to learn versus multiplayer’s convoluted maps (even with the new, much-needed walkthrough tutorials), discover the rules and gadgets that suit your style, and find other players at your level, but once you do—and the game helps you do all three—the payoff is incredible. Co-op is even better. You and a buddy boosting each other up to otherwise inaccessible spots, covering each other’s backs, flanking enemies, causing diversions, sneaking and whispering—the teamwork possibilities are as limitless as the fun you’ll have exploring them.

But I had expected the online game to be brilliant. As for single player...well, frankly I thought Mr. Fisher was getting “a little too old for this s***,” as the scruffy middle-aged special agent himself might say. So little had changed between the original Cell and the not-even year-old Pandora Tomorrow that I wasn’t really itching for more of the same. But Chaos Theory’s admittedly minor tweaks—a gun to suppress electronics and lights, a few new moves, small interface issues finally smoothed out—taken together make what’s basically the same game exciting again. More than ever, the levels brilliantly encourage and allow for stealth, no matter which of the various possible paths you take through them, so they rarely devolve into the big shoot-outs my previous Cell missions always somehow became (though that option is certainly still available for you Rambo types). You’re also now constantly eavesdropping on enemy conversations and interrogating guards at knifepoint, which works along with the ridiculously sharp graphics to pull you into the game like never before. Even the story, though still a little dry and a lot convoluted, has more of the charm and genuine humor the previous games only hinted at. The old man’s still got it. P

Good: Three games in one

Bad::Versus mode is incredibly complex and intimidating

Multiplayer Mileage: Depends on whom you’re playing with

The verdicts (out of 10)

Shawn 9.5

Shoe 10

Mark 9.0

What About... PlayStation 2? GameCube?

We didn’t get a reviewable Chaos Theory for PS2, but we did spy it in action. What we saw looked good: The same amount of enthusiasm some old people have for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, we have for the graphics here. New techy tricks give this a visual boost over PS2 Pandora Tomorrow, and that game already looked hot. And...hold on to your seats! Like before, the PS2 version gets something the Xbox game doesn’t have. This time, it’s a special stealth-kill move where main man Sam Fisher can drown enemies in water, which you won’t see that often. Yeah, who needs new levels anyway?

On the multiplayer side, the PS2 gets the versus mode for four (online only) and co-op mode for two (unfortunately, it’s splitscreen only—no online or local network).

GameCube Chaos Theory is MIA (to our ever-curious eyes), but Ubisoft insists it’s still coming out March 31 like the other versions. The GC Pandora Tomorrow looked and played great, so we’re not too worried for this sequel. GC Chaos Theory gets the same new water stealth-kill move (see PS2), and like before, has Game Boy Advance connectivity for monitoring sticky cameras, checking out your know, the usual.

Also as usual, GameCube owners get the bird from every Nintendo executive ever involved in making the system Internet-phobic. Like before, GC Chaos Theory won’t see any of the fantastic versus play modes, but at least you can co-op with a buddy via splitscreen.

Ménage à...uh...Four: What’s New in Versus Mode

Splinter Cell’s been an awesome series, but it’s really the four-player versus mode introduced in Pandora Tomorrow that propels it to legendary status. Two stealthy spies, two heavily armed mercenaries, and a whole lot of gadgets, strategies, and tension-filled moments make this one of the best multiplayer games ever. If you’re a PT vet, here’s what Chaos brings....

Maps: 11, but only six are new. The rest are taken from Pandora (Museum, Deftech, Warehouse, Bank, and River Mall). Boo.

New spy equipment: Heartbeat detectors aren’t that handy with their limited range, and the thermoptic camouflage suit (think Predator invisible) seems to get us into trouble more often than not.

New merc equipment: Spy smoke grenades aren’t so bad now because gas masks are real lifesavers (when we remember to activate them). And our Reviews Editor Demian Linn is in love with the Camera Network Browsing Device, which lets you scan the different areas of each stage. Team players will appreciate the new backpack, which replenishes grenades and mines.

Mercs get new guns (assault rifle, shotgun, and submachine gun), though none of us like the shotgun.

Upgraded gadgets: Mines now have three functions (the new one is a poison that drains a spy’s health), and spy traps (now “spy finders”) have two (you can now set them for proximity detection).

New moves: Boost your spy teammate to reach new heights, share equipment, heal your partner, spin 360 degrees in a “ber-serk attack” to nail that pesky spy sneaking up on your six, and more. We like.

Modes: Story combines all of Pandora’s modes into one: Deactivate computers, sabotage targets, and extract discs to deposit them somewhere else—depending on the stage, it’s a mix and match. Some objectives even cause reactions in the level (for example: blow up the water heaters and you can release blinding steam everywhere). Disc hunt mode has spies running around in an Easter egg hunt, picking up discs everywhere. Deathmatch mode says good-bye to any objectives; just kill the other guys.

In all modes, you can edit the rules: limit gadgets, ban certain moves, etc. The replayability here is Pandora times 100.

Help: An unlockable tutor mode and guided level walkthroughs help agents-in-training get used to the stages.

Fixed: All previously known bugs are fixed here. So all you cheaters out there will have to find new exploits to take advantage of. Or better yet, just bugger off.

Comic Relief

Take a break from the heady, sometimes too-real Tom Clancy spy-thriller stuff and head over to to download some ha-has. The cynical (and sometimes plain evil) Penny Arcade guys supply some funny spy- training manuals and a surprisingly (but not always) serious comic series, while the jackasses (that’s a compliment, mind you) from Mega64 risk community service to show what real-life Splinter Cell would be like in our nation’s strip malls and parking lots.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Electronic Gaming Monthly.

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