Let me start off by saying I'm a huge Splinter Cell fan....on PC, but up till now I found the xbox/ps console versions (namely "Chaos Theory" and "Double Agent") frustrating as hell - tempermental and sticky controls often meant falling off a ledge, or jumping instead of ducking at a crucial moment, breaking my cover, and unleashing holy hell.
So when, reluctantly, I was coerced into buying and playing this chapter I was actually very pleasantly suprised indeed. Perhaps this was because this game is much faster paced, and ultimately a lot easier. Those familiar with the Splinter Cell series will know all about the previous unforgiving emphasis on the stealth aspect of the game - shooting lights, hiding bodies, stealth meters, sneaking around trying not to get caught because if you did it was more often than not game over (especially at higher difficulties where enemies could dispatch you with a few bullets!) In this game however the emphasis is often on taking down enemies - often clearing a room of all guards is the only way to progress. Die hard fans might shirk at the idea of leaving bodies behind with a lack of hiding body mechanic, but for those who want to stick to their old ways of uber-stealth, there is also the arsenal of gadgetry and plenty of shadow covered ceiling pipes to help you sneak around - just don't be suprised when the improved AI means you get caught by a patroling guard you could have taken out earlier!
The game itself actually plays more like a stealth - TPS hybird, with epic fire fights being rather frequent and whilst Sam does feel more robust this time around, don't expect to last long out in the open! Fortunately there is an active cover system, and even once you're seen it is very easy to slip away; break an enemies line of sight and they'll investigate your "last known position" (marked visually by a translucent outline) - making it all too tempting to plant a proximity mine in that place for easy kills!
There is a "mark and execute" mechanic which will have even the newest players executing incredible (and often...logic defying...*ahem*) feats of marksmanship. This can feel like "cheating" to some, but there's no doubt even you'll be using it in the final levels!
Game length for single player story is decent at 10 hours, but there's plenty of incentive to go back and complete feats of daring, stealth or marksmanship as you are awarded upgrade points which can be used to outfit Sam with better body armour, more ammo clips, more gadget slots etc. There is also a challenge mode of "deniable ops" which often involve clearing zones of enemies, infiltrating, or sneaking around levels you will have already encountered but with new enemies this time around.
The highlight of this game for me has to be the co-op story mode, which unlike being a simple rehash of the main story actually acts as a prologue in its own right - adding at least another 6-8 hrs. The characters are believable and engaging and the story is great with a classic Tom Clancy twist at the end that will keep you guessing! Of course the challenge mode is also available in co-op so there's plenty of stuff to keep you and a couch buddy entertained - making it by far the most sociable Splinter Cell yet.
There's something here for new recruits and old Third Echelon veterans - whilst newbies might be a bit lost in the story, there are some neat loose ends which get tied up for those who are invested in Fisher's story. The gameplay is exhilarating, striking the right balance between stealth and action - this is a real must. 5/5