Widely regarded as one of the premier stealth focused series on the market, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, together with its long-time hero Sam Fisher, have both proven reliably enthralling for genre aficionados since the series made its debut all the way back in 2002. Like any franchise however, not all Splinter Cell titles have been created equal and so with that in mind, here are the best Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell games ranked from worst to best.
Splinter Cell: Essentials
A series entry that was exclusive to Sony’s PSP handheld, though Splinter Cell: Essentials was certainly ambitious in concept, the reality played out rather differently. Set after the events of Splinter Cell: Double Agent and representing a distinctly barebones take on the pre Double Agent Splinter Cell formula, this entry in the series wasn’t just a stripped back take on Sam Fisher’s sneaky adventures, but also a broken one too.
Thanks to a collection of horrendously dark levels that made traversal a real pain, some truly terrible visuals and the absence of a second analogue stick which made controlling the normally lithe Samuel Fisher feel like you were controlling Andre The Giant if he was made of marble, there’s little to recommend about Splinter Cell: Essentials and so its spot as the nadir of the long running franchise feels appropriately deserved.
Created with the notion of providing players with a glimpse at a more morally conflicted Sam Fisher, Splinter Cell: Double Agent felt like one step forward and two steps back in relation to how it meaningfully progressed the franchise. Though being able to experience three different endings depending on what choices you made in certain missions was a neat thing when it came to anchoring its central concept, an unsightly return to the trial and error mechanic of earlier instalments meant that it became frustrating more often than not.
Splinter Cell: Double Agent really was also the tale of two versions of the same game that had a massive gulf of quality between them. When it released in 2006, it did so around the time that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles were just getting their feet under the table. With the previous generation of consoles still going strong at the time of its development, the game’s coding duties ended up being split between two different studios, with Ubisoft Milan and Ubisoft Shanghai taking on the newer consoles and original series developers Ubisoft Montreal, taking on the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube versions of the game. Can you guess which one ended up being superior?
That’s right, the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube versions won the pony on account of the fact that because it leveraged the same engine that the series had used for years, it played much more like a classic Splinter Cell game, whereas the version of this game which found its way onto the newer platforms and PC, didn’t really feel much like a Splinter Cell game at all, but rather some generic stealth adventure with prettier visuals. The gap between the two versions only widened when taking the available modes into consideration too, since not only did the previous console gen version of Splinter Cell: Double Agent include more multiplayer modes than its newer counterpart, but so too did also include a co-op game mode that was completely missing from the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC versions.
Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow
A robust continuation of everything that Ubisoft Montreal accomplished with the original Splinter Cell, it’s certainly reasonable to posit that Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is perhaps the most conservative of all the titles in the series, barely straying from the design bedrock established in the first game, at least in terms of its single-player campaign. What it did do however, was introduce the adversarial Spies vs Mercenaries multiplayer mode for the first time, providing players with an entertaining cat and mouse style dynamic that provided the game with legs beyond its story campaign.
Ushering the Splinter Cell franchise into an all-new era, Splinter Cell: Conviction introduced a great many new features that while it made the series newcomer-friendly for the first time, certainly rankled with franchise veterans equally too. In a series first, this game allowed players to interrogate their enemies and in true Punisher-like fashion, drag them around the environment and slam their heads through urinals, into mirrors, onto stoves and much more besides. Though visceral, the mechanic was ultimately limited in that you would always eventually get the same response from your hapless foe, no matter where you interrogated them.
A more subtle addition that it brought to the series was a new system where if Sam Fisher is spotted, a silhouette will be placed at the last location where his enemies had spotted him. By far the largest change that it wrought however – and one that would also shape the next entry in the series – was the controversial mark and execute system which allowed Sam Fisher to identify multiple targets and then kill them all at once. Though you needed to kill enemies quietly in order to build up the mark and execute bar, it’s fair to say that this new mechanic sometimes made it feel like John Woo’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, rather than Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, which as you can imagine hardly endeared it to the series’ stealthy stalwarts.
Where Splinter Cell: Conviction did excel though, is in its cooperative multiplayer modes and particularly a cooperative campaign that provided an all-new story and levels for players to tackle in split-screen co-op on console. A time sink that I’ve personally put a good many hours into, it’s not a stretch to say that the cooperative multiplayer campaign was more compelling than the single-player campaign itself.
Up until the release of Splinter Cell in 2002, the stealth genre was largely presided over by giants such as Metal Gear Solid and Thief, so for Ubisoft, trying to make any sort of headway was certainly no mean feat. Though other games in the list have surpassed the first outing in the series in a number of ways, it still ranks this highly largely out of respect for what it pulled off nearly twenty-one years ago.
When the first game released all those years ago, there was really nothing quite like it at the time. Going for an over the shoulder, third-person perspective that was different from the first-person perspectives and elevated viewpoints of the time, it felt a lot more immediate than its genre counterparts. From its emphasis on destroying light sources to staying in the shadows, to its embrace of high-tech gadgetry and kicking off the series fascination with its split-wall takedowns, Splinter Cell kicked off a revolution of high tech, hardcore stealth that millions of gamers would gravitate to for years to come.
Something of a black sheep among purists, Splinter Cell: Blacklist ended up being the best of both worlds – not only embracing the core stealth tenets that served as the genesis for the series, but also the much more action based beats of its later entries. In sticking with the broader design decision of widening the appeal of the series, it goes down the Hitman route – which is to say that whether by stealth, assassination or outright confrontation – the game doesn’t prescribe a particular method of play in order for the player to find success.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist also furthered the series’ obsession with gadgets, allowing Sam Fisher to control a versatile tri-rotor drone to scout out locations and stun enemies. Beyond that, it would also introduce a hub area to the series for the first time, allowing players to wander the halls of the Paladin airborne operations craft and talk to NPCs, take on missions and track the progress of other players across the globe. In addition to leveraging a next-generation graphics engine, together with a massive extracurricular content offering which included a range of adversarial and cooperative missions, it looked set to write a blueprint for the series to follow when it released in 2013.
If anything, the only real knock against Splinter Cell: Blacklist is that it didn’t maintain the services of actor Michael Ironside, who had lent his gravelly tones to Sam Fisher since the series inception. Currently the most recent entry in the franchise, on its tenth anniversary it’s difficult not to wonder just how much of Blacklist’s hybrid design DNA will seep into the forthcoming remake, currently under development at Ubisoft Toronto.
Predictably sneaking in at the top spot, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is almost universally recognised as the best Splinter Cell game and for good reason too. Though it resolutely sticks to the series core formula, it makes a number of properly meaningful changes which enrich the overall package greatly. Though the light indicator from previous games returns, telling players how shrouded in darkness they are (or not), Chaos Theory also measures the amount of noise from both Sam and the ambient sound in his vicinity. This introduces an all new level of risk, since in order to remain undetected, Sam must always ensure that he is making less noise than the world around him. Splinter Cell has always felt like a stealth simulator where so many variables need to be in your favour for success and Chaos Theory absolutely satisfies in that regard.
Chaos Theory also sees a complete rework in regards to how fail states work. Triggering the alarm multiple times no longer ends the mission and neither does killing innocent civilians – though you will still be chewed out for doing so and have your mission rating severely degraded. This means that should everything devolve into a more confrontational affair, so long as you can handle yourself, you can still complete the mission. Chaos Theory also sees the use of Unreal Engine get kicked up a notch too, with the implementation of ragdoll physics (a first for the series), reworked lighting, deformable materials and improved shadows.
Complementing an already superb package, adversarial and cooperative multiplayer modes return, together with a reworked Spies vs Mercenaries mode that boasts all new gadgets, moves and maps to boot. Absolutely crying out for a proper remaster, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory doesn’t happen to just be the best Splinter Cell game ever, but it also manages to easily take its claim as one of the best stealth titles of all-time to boot, standing proudly alongside the likes of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Thief.