If there's one key feature for the stealth shooter, it's agility - of both body and mind. A complete contrast to bloody first person shooters, where the only rule is 'If it moves, shoot it,' games like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell are all about options. If designed well, any problem you come across should have a number of solutions. Maybe you can observe the guards' movements patterns and sneak over the fence in the one instance where every five minutes their backs are turned. Maybe there's a generator you can blow up that will cut the power and lights to the main gate. Maybe you have collected enough ammo to take them all out, but you'll still have to think about the best ambush position. Maybe, maybe... The point is, as a player you should be able to use your imagination. You might be following a linear plot, but your own creativity can also find a place to breathe.
It's this sort of latitude that's made the Splinter Cell series so popular. Playing as gruff special operative Sam Fisher, you get the agility to glide through the shadows unseen, sneaking over walls and crawling along pipes. There are also enough gadgets - such as his night-vision goggles and non-lethal weapons like the ring airfoil knock-out round and various types of guns - to make sure you can make a big bang when you really need to.
And the ability which joins these actions together is control. In terms of console games, it's relatively easy to set up thanks to the controllers' twin joysticks, which let you rotate and roll like a ballerina. But sadly, with its d-pad and a touchscreen, it's not the case with DS. That's the main problem with this version of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory. There's just not enough available, quick, control for you to move Fisher around in the usual third-person view. Or point a gun at enemies in a comfortable manner when you have more of a tight first-person perspective camera. And when it comes to his classic moves of wall jumping or sneaking up behind guards to take them out silently, it's best not to bother.
Of course, it's not a problem developers Gameloft haven't tried to solve. The enemies in this game move very slowly and are exceptionally stupid. There's also a radar which shows their position, and when they spot you, a little exclamation mark appears above their head Metal Gear Solid-style, so you can see what they're thinking. There's a new move, the SWAT turn, which lets you move quickly, too. But while this all keeps you alive for longer than you'd expect, it doesn't make the game particularly fun to play.
Other issues are also linked to the DS as a piece of gaming hardware. As Nintendo has always said, it's designed to do certain types of game brilliantly, but it's not a PlayStation 2 or a GameCube. It can't handle fast-moving detailed 3D graphics and sadly that's what Splinter Cell-type games require. So, even ignoring the control problems, Chaos Theory isn't a good-looking game. It's dark, with muddy textures and blocky characters. There's rarely enough scenery for you to hide behind and you can't shoot out the lights to create strategic patches of darkness, either.
That said, the animation is surprising smooth, at least until you have to open a door. If Sam isn't directly in front of it, he'll slide over without moving his feet. It's the sort of thing you used to see in games years ago, but in 2005 should be treated as a warning sign that the game in question is facing serious technical problems and probably should have been cancelled.
So are there any good points? Well, ignoring the control issues, the multiplayer is nicely designed with co-operative and head-to-head modes and a range of new maps to play. The co-op missions see one player taking the role of the unarmed hacker, while the other protects him. In the four-player Versus mode it's a similar situation, with mercenaries trying to protect their computers from the hackers, and at least then everyone suffers from the same problems.
The touchscreen is also well employed in the lock-picking mini-game where you have to nudge the different lock mechanisms with the stylus to open certain doors. And if, for some reason, you really enjoy the game, there is loads of it to fight your way through - there are nine levels of anti-terrorism action.
For everyone else though, this once-anticipated game is a bit of a disaster. Maybe given a couple more years, Ubisoft will be able to get a version of the Splinter Cell world to work well on DS. But, like Sam Fisher trying to infiltrate the enemy camp, it will have to think a lot more carefully about options available to it.Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory is on sale now.