The third level of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, which takes place on board a moving train, is simulatenously one of the most thrilling and exciting and yet entirely frustrating levels of any game I have ever played. And as such, it is a perfect macrocosm of the game as a whole.
The level starts with your character, Sam Fisher, rappelling down from a helicopter onto the roof of a speeding train. From here, he has to get on board the train and locate one passenger, a suspected double agent named "Mortified_Penguin" (yes, the dumb name is even made fun of in the game). All this without killing anyone and, above all, without being seen - if your character is spotted by anyone other than Mortified_Penguin, it's game over. Simple, right?
Since games tend to take their cues from Hollywood blockbusters, it's fair to say that a lot of people playing Splinter Cell will be familiar with many of the settings, combat techniques and high-tech fuckery-foo featured in this game from watching James Bond and Mission Impossible movies. And although the Splinter Cell series had always aped its influences to a very high standard, it really hadn't shown me anything I hadn't seen elsewhere.
And that's why this level took me completely by surprise.
Let me explain. Very few games have ever really attempted to do anything involving trains. The few that stand out in my mind are the train from GoldenEye (although that was just like being in any really long, narrow corridor and never once felt like an actual train). There was also a train level in Red Dead Revolver that attempted to recreate the atmosphere of the trainride shootouts from old Westerns. But on the whole, there are very few games that can support a 'train'.
So kudos to Ubisoft for trying to actually give us something that behaved like a real train. When you first drop down on the train roof, your character automatically crouches against the wind. Pushing the stick forward, your character visibly struggles; straight movement is difficult, and he staggers around against the force of the wind. Stand up for an instant, and he's blown back a bit. Jump and he's blown off the train entirely, although why anyone would want to do something so obviously stupid is beyond me. Ahem.
Once inside the train, things get no more simple - each compartment is well lit and populated. When your goal is to remain completely unnoticed, both of these are immediate show-stoppers.
The first trolley is the storage area, patrolled by an inspector. There are a couple of lights here, and a locked door at the far end, blocking your exit there. Fortunately, there is a trap in the floor which allows you to crawl out and under to the next compartment.
So here's where things get tricky. Shooting out the lights gives you an extra few feet of darkness to crouch in, unseen. But there is virtually no way to reach the trap in the floor without being seen by the guard. I know: I've tried. I tried again and again. I must have retried this one particular compartment roughly a dozen times before I discovered what I was supposed to do: knock out the guard.
But I didn't know that I could do this. In the previous level, your character meets up with an informant in a locked room with no obvious exits apart from an air vent, which brings you to another locked room. After 10 minutes of running around, trying a few things, I started to get frustrated. I spoke to the informant again, my character asking him if there was any way out. "Do you think I'd still be in here if there was?" I asked again. And the game started repeating this one conversation again: "Is there a way out?" "Do you think I'd still be here if there was?" "Is there a way out?"
So I hit the informer.
Just a quick punch, that's all. After I did this, I crawled around for a while and finally spotted the gas-vent I was supposed to shoot to open up the way to the extraction point. At the end of the level, my character's boss gave out to me for killing the informant. But wait a minute - I just punched him?! Obviously, my punches are lethal!
So, it was in a similiar burst of frustration that I hit the guard. This time, no boss giving out to me for killing him. How come my punches only knock this guy out? Is he made of sterner stuff than the informant?
Through the floor-trap and onto the next compartment, and there are similar issues. I wait until the guards finish their conversation and run for the door - I'm spotted. I try again, doing the exact same thing as before, and this time I'm not spotted.
From there, I climb outside the train and inch my way along the side of the compartment, trying not to be spotted by anyone and also trying to avoid being knocked off by a passing train.
And so on, and so on, until finally I meet mortified_penguin. He tells me he has to make a phone call, and I'm my orders come in to follow him and listen to his conversation using my "Laser Mic" - a telescopic microphone which the manual tells me "works by picking up microscopic vibrations, especially from glass." So I stand outside the door of the compartment where the conversation is taking place and point the laser mic through the glass, but I get nothing. I'm told I failed the mission, try again. Only when I go through the door and use the laser mic from close-range do I complete this part of the level.
This lack of consistency is apparent in virtually all areas of this game - from the videogame tradition of only having some doors that can open, there are also some lights that you can shoot out while others can take a grenade and still shine. And it's this lack of consistency that ruins the game's ultimate objective of completely free-form gameplay.
Anyway, back to the train.
The level ends with a brief firefight on the train followed by your character climbing onto the roof again and running down the full length of the train to climb onto a rope hanging from a helicopter, all this while an enemy helicopter is shooting at you. Thrilling stuff - arguably better and more innovative than anything Hollywood has given us.
But I reckon, in all, I must have restarted this level 20 times, because each time I was forced to use trial-and-error rather than a consistent set of rules to complete each section. When restarting a level becomes second-nature, it's time to start asking questions.