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Splinter Cell: Looking Into the Shadows


Splinter Cell is a long-running series of stealth action video games that are developed primarily by Ubisoft’s various studios. Most of the time, it was Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Milan who were the most notable factors in development, but there’s much more behind the scenes than that. And while the development of the games isn’t exactly the point of this feature length deep dive into the series, it’s worth touching on in places.

Splinter Cell was originally inspired by the works of famed author Thomas Leo Clancy Jr, otherwise known as Tom Clancy. Mr. Clancy is perhaps best known for his military and spy orientated novels which rocketed him into novelist stardom, having seventeen best sellers under his name with in excess of 100 million copies of his stories in circulation. Why and how the Clancy brand endorsed the Splinter Cell brand is unclear, especially since Tom Clancy himself isn’t the creator of Splinter Cell, a point that some people seem to have missed or misconstrued over the years. The Tom Clancy brand is tied to the series, not the man himself. Sadly, however, Mr. Clancy died of heart failure on October 1, 2013.

Inspiration or influence?

Another point that needs to be made more clear is the claim that Splinter Cell was inspired by Metal Gear. It wasn’t–quite the opposite, in fact. Clint Hocking, Ubisoft Montreal’s creative director, has said that the stealth action genre of games owes its existence and success to Metal Gear and other games that have “done it better.”  So while Metal Gear didn’t influence Splinter Cell or its development, it did help to lay the groundwork for the stealth action genre. Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself:

Metal Gear is a stealth action game. Every game that has ever used that idea owes its existence to the success of Metal Gear. Other people have done it better since, in my opinion, and we now have a deeper understanding of the gamespace that a stealth mechanic can create, but all of us analytical types who understand it now could probably never have conceived it and sold it to a publisher in the first place. Without Metal Gear, there would be no stealth games. So it’s not really that I feel we were “influenced” by it, but rather that we owe the existence of our game to those who were brave enough to take the first step and to open up the new genre for us to create in.

~ Clint Hocking, speaking with Thom Moyles of gamecritics

Boots on the ground.

So, Splinter Cell first arrived all the way back in 2002, first arriving on the Xbox in North America on November 17th, which was followed up by the European release of the game on November 29th. Immediately, the game was a hit. When it came time for release, Ubisoft and Splinter Cell were sitting pretty atop 1.1 million pre-orders. Come the end of March in 2003, Splinter Cell sales had reached over 3.6 million copies, 4.5 million copies by the end of June, and 5 million come the end of September, spilling over to 6 million by March of 2004.

The first trailer for the game, while incredibly base my modern standards, was many people’s first exposure to the fledgling series and it zeroed in on Sam Fisher, his role in the game, and how/why he was going about doing what he was doing. In effect, the trailer introduced a core mechanic of understanding in the game. Sam Fisher is the only American to hold The Fifth Freedom.

The Fifth Freedom operates on the premise that the four freedoms as articulated by President Roosevelt are something that can be built upon when required to imbue a particular individual with great powers at the cost of total erasure and deniability, should that individual ever be discovered or captured during the time in which they conduct their duty.

The four rights as outlined in the Four Freedoms speech are:

  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom of religion
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

The Fifth Freedom allows the holder of said freedom to disregard any law, pact or agreement, any guiding framework of ethical behavior towards others and the complete ability to supersede the rights and freedoms of all others. To quote an Operations Commander from the series, “All means are acceptable.” The Fifth Freedom is akin to James Bond’s Licence to Kill, but it goes far beyond that. Despite being a fictitious freedom, it is central to the games and is often overlooked by many who consider Sam Fisher to be a generic spec ops type of soldier.

As a matter of fact, in 2013’s “Fifth Freedom Trailer” for Splinter Cell Blacklist, Sam dictates his interpretation of the Fifth Freedom. He says, “Few presidents have ever granted the Fifth Freedom. It’s the right to defend our laws, by breaking them. To safeguard secrets, by stealing them. To save lives, by taking them. To do whatever it takes to protect our country. The Fifth Freedom is mine alone. I am Sam Fisher. I am a Splinter Cell.”

(It’s not a very good trailer, misrepresenting the game and presenting non-playable vertical slice gameplay as being in the game when it isn’t, but it is what it is.)

Who, or what, is First, Second, Third and Fourth Echelon?

While it’s never exactly the focus of the series, it’s worth talking about Third Echelon, Sams “employer,” for lack of a better word. Inside the many branches of the NSA’s intelligence division, a top secret and high security clearance division was established with the goal of combating sophisticated, technologically-hidden threats to the United States.

Given Third Echelon’s mode of operation, herein meaning dispatching highly trained individuals to gather information, conduct assassinations, or generally getting up to no good on their country’s behalf, they understandably have the internal motto of, “Let Vigilance Be Our Sword.”

The aforementioned highly trained operatives go by the name of Splinter Cells Here’s an excerpt from the manual found inside the PC release of the first game:

The top-secret initiative, dubbed Third Echelon, marks a return to classical methods of espionage, enhanced with leading-edge surveillance and combat technology for the aggressive collection of stored data in hostile territories. When intelligence deemed critical to national security cannot be obtained by traditional means, Third Echelon is granted clearance to conduct physical operations. Denied to exist by the U.S. government, Third Echelon deploys units known as Splinter Cells: elite intelligence-gathering forces consisting of a lone field operative supported by a remote team. Like a sliver of glass, a Splinter Cell is small, sharp, and nearly invisible.

As the name suggests, Third Echelon isn’t a standalone organization.

First Echelon – The First Echelon was developed as a global network of organizations consisting of various intelligence agencies who were tasked with intercepting and seizing communications from foreign powers before relaying them back to the NSA for further analysis. Initially operating during the Cold War, the First Echelon found itself without purpose come the fall of the Soviet Union and the world gave rise to higher levels of technology and communication.

Second Echelon – The Second Echelon existed entirely to focus on this new level of technology and communication, but the ever evolving state of technology and the ever growing complexity in information encryption proved to be too much and as a result, the NSA suffered its first systems-wide crash.

Third Echelon – Formed in 2003, the Third Echelon exists to stand on the frontlines of the War on Information as the most cutting-edge force that the United States can call upon for clandestine operations involving information retrieval and, to an extent, counter-terrorism.

Fourth Echelon – Fourth Echelon was founded in 2012 to perform “blacker than black” special operations as part of a counter-terrorism unit. Different from previous Echelons, 4E finds itself directly under the control of the president and his headquartered on the C-147B Paladin aircraft for the sake of constant travel and deployment, cutting down on the time required when it comes to the point-to-point relocation of assets.

Who are the Splinter Cells?

Sam Fisher – Perhaps the most well known operative from Third Echelon, Sam is a career soldier and the most “activated” Splinter Cell.

Dan Lee – Dan was a Splinter Cell based in China. He was killed in action when tracing an arms deal by a Russian terrorist organisation known as The Shop.

Rick Benton – Rick was a Splinter Cell that was based in Iraq, murdered in a hotel in Brussels.

Marcus Blaine – Marcus is a Splinter Cell that is presumed to have been based in Israel. Assassinated by members of The Shop.

Agent One and Agent Two – A pair of, relatively speaking, new recruits who were effectively Splinter Cells-in-training. Both Agent One and Agent Two have assisted Sam Fisher in-op on two occasions.

John Hodge – A Splinter Cell who accompanied Sam Fisher on an operation in Iceland, John was shot and killed by Islamic terrorists. (John Hodge only appears in the Version 1 build of Splinter Cell Double Agent.)

Ben Hansen – The once handler of Archer and Kestrel (Splinter Cell Conviction) was one of the agents assigned to locating Sam Fisher when he went off the grid.

Kimberly Gillespie – Kimberly was one of the agents assigned to locating Sam Fisher when he went off the grid.

Nathan Noboru – A Splinter Cell from the novel adaptation of Splinter Cell Conviction.

Maya Valentina – A Splinter Cell from the novel adaptation of Splinter Cell Conviction who also served as Archer and Kestrel’s handler after Ben Hansen was reassigned.

Allen Ames – An agent that was trained by Sam Fisher, but who later turned rogue.

Daniel Sloane-Suarez – A Splinter Cell admitted into the program upon Anna Grímsdóttir’s recommendation. Operated under the callsign Archer, he was eventually killed by Voron Operative Kestrel.

Leon Coltrane – A Splinter Cell from a short crossover story between Tom Clancy’s Endwar and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. Non-canon.

George and Thomas Voeckler – A rare duo, George and Thomas were twins and Splinter  Cells who have assisted a Ghost Recon team in the past. At some point, George was killed during a mission in the United Kingdom.

Getting vocal.

For the longest time, since the first game in 2002 through to Splinter Cell: Conviction in 2010, the voice of Sam Fisher had been provided by the Canadian actor, Michael Ironside. His deep voice and unique timber gave Sam an immediately recognisable mode of speech that always cut through whatever was happening on screen. From quips about feeling old as younger upstarts entered the agency, to noting that a guard hadn’t shaved and offering him assistance with the edge of his combat knife, Sam’s voice became an iconic part of who he was.

It is perhaps because of this long -tanding association of Ironside as Fisher that fans were disgruntled over him being replaced by Canadian actor Eric Johann Johnson. There have been many stories floated around the internet as to why Ironside didn’t reprise the role, and it doesn’t help that the games creative director gave their own reason which stands counter to what Ironside says is the case. I’ll lay it out in three cases, and you can decide which to believe for yourself. Personally, I’m inclined to believe Ironside, the only person who seemed to ever really genuinely care about Sam and have a personal investment in the character.

The fans – Following remarks from Ironside regarding his opinions of Splinter Cell Conviction, many lifted the first statement they saw and ran with it. So one would often see conversations about how he didn’t like the game. But that’s not the case. When approached by Ubisoft, Ironside declined reprising Sams role due to a script and character narrative that he found to be flat. Speaking with Collider, Ironside said:

I turned it down at the beginning. I wasn’t interested in doing it because structurally the way the character was built was that I thought “I don’t want to do this.” And they asked what was wrong and I said “Well, he is too monochromatic. There isn’t enough humanity in the character. There is no conflict underneath his decisions.” They came back at me with a fresh look at the character and a new way of doing things and the new artwork.

Many fans took this to mean that after Conviction, Ironside had no intention of coming back to Splinter Cell which isn’t true.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s Creative Director Maxime Béland – Speaking to IGN, Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s Creative Director, Maxime Béland, put forward the notion that Ironside was unsuited for the role because they were using motion capture:

Basically, before we would use motion capture…So we would hire an actor to play the body of Sam. Then we would have Michael Ironside play the voice of Sam, and then we would have animators animate the facial of Sam. So you kind of had this thing where you have three performers – you had Michael Ironside for the voice, the animator that’s doing the performance for the face and then you had another body performer… So on Blacklist, we knew that we wanted to raise the bar of our scripted events, of our cinematics, and to do that we knew we had to go to performance capture. The difference between motion capture and performance capture is that with performance capture, you’re capturing everything at the same time. So we had one actor doing the body, the voice and the face. We have a camera that’s recording all the facial animations so right there, because you’re capturing a true actor’s performance, and the level of quality is raised instantly.

Now maybe this is just me, but this seems like nonsense. Compare this to this and you’ll see what fans mean when they say that Eric’s version of Fisher just doesn’t work.

Beland also gave the same reasoning when it came to talking about why series favourite background character–until Conviction–and voice in Sam’s ear, Anna Grímsdóttir, was replaced by actress Kate Drummond despite Claudia Besso having filled the role since the beginning with the exception of Pandora Tomorrow.

Sam Fisher’s Original Voice Actor, Michael Ironside – Contrary to all of the above, Ironside told Ubiblog host Chris Watters that he had his own reasons for not tackling Blacklist. In fact, seemingly snubbing Johnson’s performance of Sam Fisher, Ironside said, “People think of it as returning to a cottage or a building or a place… I’m Sam. Sam never left; I’m here,” before going on to say that he tried to leave Splinter Cell in good hands and walk away because he had prostate and bowel cancer. “Well, I don’t know if you guys want to talk about this or not, but I got cancer and I thought I was actually going to die and I had 60-65% of not making it. I had prostate and bowel cancer and some others. I tried to walk away and put it in good hands and just walk away.”

This interview was conducted while Ironside was bringing Sam to life again in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, where the famed character made a surprise return. In another Ubisoft video interview, Ironside can be seen wearing motion capture equipment and talking about how it was his first time ever doing motion capture. The interview thoroughly debunks Maxime Béland’s claims that they needed an actor who had, “not only the voice but also had the physicality that Sam Fisher has.”  Here was Sam, performed by Ironside in Wildlands.

The insane four month port.

Ubisoft ShanghaiSplinter Cell (PS2) Graphic and Animation Team

When Splinter Cell first arrived in 2002, it arrived on Xbox with a slightly staggered release window, with North American and European releases arriving 12 days apart. The initial reception was great, with Eurogamer awarding it 9/10, Game Informer awarding it 8.75, GameSpot awarding it 8.6, and IGN giving it 9.6. The PC, PS2, GameCube, and Mobile Iterations of the game (including the N-Gage variant that I still have a sealed copy of for some reason) were all released throughout 2003, with a particularly mind-blowing turnaround for the PS2 build.

Wu Dong Hao was working as a producer on Splinter Cell and has said that the port for PlayStation 2 was the most challenging one that he experienced. He says that the technical breakthroughs that were needed to get the game out on time were “almost overwhelming” and adds that a lot of what made it challenging was that they needed to equal the Xbox version because of its success. When talking about this in his postmortem of the game, he said “the success of the Xbox port of the game made everyone realize that there was no way to make just average-quality PS2 port of Splinter Cell. We had to match that quality.”

The production cycle for the PS2 build ran for no more than four months, says Hao. According to his postmortem of the development cycle of this port, they went in with aggressive milestones to ensure that the time constraints were met and that Ubisoft were “adamant that the game be released by the end of its 2003 fiscal year.”

The cycle was:

  • From beginning of production to Alpha: 9 weeks
  • From Alpha to Beta: 5 weeks
  • From Beta to Master: 4 weeks

You’re reading that right! Ubisoft Shanghai took the Xbox build of Splinter Cell and turned it into a fully functional, Xbox-par PS2 title in less than four months. Should you wish to read Hao’s postmortem in full, you can do so here.

Whatever became of the Splinter Cell movie?

Basil Iwanyk is an American film producer and is well known for his involvement in the John Wick series, so it’s a pleasant coincidence that I’ve mentioned him before in relation to Splinter Cell. What’s less pleasant however, are his plans for a Splinter Cell movie that has been hanging in limbo for years now. It must be said that after hearing him talk about the movie, I really don’t want it to happen. I digress.

Speaking to Collider in January of 2017, when asked about whether or not he was still producing the movie, Iwanyk replied:

I am. We’ve got a script. It’s a little long, but it’s the best script we’ve had. Now that I’m back from Mexico City, we’re going in there to figure out how to cut some pages and give it to [Tom] Hardy. This draft kind of addressed Tom’s notes. We’re going to give it to Hardy in the next couple of weeks and hopefully try to get it done this year.”

Obviously, given that this was in 2017, that never happened. However, whenever Assassin’s Creed’s box office earnings came into play, this is what Iwanyk had to say, specifically regarding Splinter Cell:

Splinter Cell really is a first-person shooter game. And so the challenge of making Splinter Cell interesting was we didn’t have this IP with a very specific backstory. That allowed us to make up our own world and really augment and fill out the characters. I don’t think one applies to the other because I don’t think our movie will feel like a movie that came out of a video game, I think it’ll feel like a badass, Tom Hardy action movie, which is what we wanted.

Exactly which video game series Iwanyk was talking about, I’m not sure. But it’s certainly not Splinter Cell, which does have a very specific backstory and already has a plethora of characters from all corners of the world to draw upon.

So it’s probably safe to say that the movie adaptation has been dropped given the general lack of movement on that front.

But here’s the kicker: There was a movie teaser in Splinter Cell Chaos Theory.

Correct! Chaos Theory, a game from March 2005, was already teasing a Splinter Cell movie. Just wrap your head around that nonsense. From Paramount Pictures, were supposed to get Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: The Movie, coming soon, only to theaters! Except, it never did. And probably never will. Hopefully.

Thanks for reading our deep dive into Splinter Cell. With any amount of luck, you found it engaging and maybe even learned a thing or two about the series you didn’t already know. Got a bit of trivia you want to drop? Fire it into the comments below!

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