When Splinter Cell debuted on Microsoft's Xbox last November it did so to rave reviews and sales that would make 'cut me own throat Dibbler' proud. Xbox owners were evidently keen to show off the superior graphics of their console as well as enjoy some game playing between turkey dinners. Like moths to a flame they rushed out in droves to pick the title up. Here in the UK it set a new Xbox sales record of forty thousand units over its first weekend and has gone on to sell over 650,000 units throughout Europe. Its exclusivity prior to Christmas did much to buoy the Xbox over that crucial period and helped it pull away from Nintendo. But exclusivity, like fame, is apparently fleeting and in January Ubisoft announced that Splinter Cell would be making its way to the PC, Playstation 2 and Gamecube. The PC version was originally scheduled to be released at the end of January but has been pushed back to March. We recently received a preview copy of the PC version to see how the move from the console is shaping up.
There were some fears that the PC version may not have all of the graphical beauty that adorned the Xbox version. Having seen it in action rest assured that the game looks fantastic. To fully appreciate the effects you will need a new graphics card that supports pixel and vertex shaders but it will be playable on lesser machines. A demo is available for download that only features one small level but is useful to test compatibility with your system. The lighting in the game plays an integral part as you must try and remain in the shadows undetected. You can shoot out lights to hide your movements and a small meter on the screen shows you how visible you are to the enemy. When you're out of the shadows the high resolution of a PC monitor shows of the tremendous amount of detail that is present in this game. The down side is that aliasing is much more noticeable compared with a TV picture and having seen both incarnations I would say that the Xbox looks better, but it's down to personal preference. For those of you wondering the test system had a geforce 4Ti.
So the game looks a lot like the Xbox version but how does it play? The move from the dual analogue controller to a keyboard and mouse system was always going to be tricky but they have done a remarkably good job of it. The standard WASD first person shooter controls are used for movement and your speed is changed by scrolling the mouse wheel. It works a lot better than it sounds and of course when it comes to aiming you have the added advantage of the accuracy and response of a mouse. Splinter Cell involves a lot of jumping around and acrobatics, even on the Xbox I personally found it quite awkward at times to control the character and this is also the case on the PC. On balance though what you gain with the shooting accuracy you lose on maneuverability. I think that trade-off was always to be expected, after all the PC doesn't really have a large number of platform games to choose from. Picking locks on the Xbox was done using a clever little system where by you would rotate the control stick until you felt the controller vibrate. For the PC this is done by tapping forward, back left or right until you find the correct combination and in practice works quite nicely.
The interface that was present on the Xbox is also present here much to my dismay. Mission objectives, data sticks, inventory, options, loading and saving are all accessed from a one uber menu. With a console you obviously have very few buttons available to the player for selecting items and reading information but not so with a keyboard. You can access items your carrying by holding the control key and then selecting them with the mouse. The system isn't terrible by any means but when I glance down at my keyboard I just think there are plenty of keys available that could let me quickly select common items. This is only a beta version of the game and hopefully the interface will see some changes before the full release, even if it doesn't the current incarnation is still very playable. One big bonus that the PC version has over all the other incarnations is the ability to quick save and load at any time. I'm sure one could argue that it makes a game too easy but I personally hate having to repeat large sections just because I've misjudged a jump or not spotted a security camera.
So far it seems that PC owners will be treated to a very well polished port of a very popular title. Most of the strengths that the PC has available have been utilised by the developers to augment the title. Any problems that the original had, such as the linear nature of the levels, remain but so does all the the great visual flair and diversity of character movements. The difficulties of moving from a controller to a mouse and keyboard combination have been overcome to provide a well balanced system. It would seem that the best incarnation is still going to be that of the original target platform, namely the Xbox, but if you don't own one then get ready to find out what all the fuss is about. Besides, any game cool enough to use Michael Ironside for a voice over is ok my book.