As a man who has frittered away the better part of his youth on sleep and videogames, I feel comfortable saying you have to keep pushing yourself if you want to stay at the top. It's not an easy maxim to live by, and not many can genuinely claim to pull it off - me, maybe Hasselhoff, and now, I think I can happily say, the team behind Splinter Cell, here in its third PC iteration.
With every new episode, Ubisoft's flagship has pushed the boundaries, hard. The first set a new standard for interactivity, gadgetry and sheer cinematic joy; the second pioneered an unimaginably clever new multiplayer paradigm. And with Chaos Theory we find the most complete picture yet. The Spies v. Mercs multiplayer is back, retooled and focused to make it more accessible and coherent. Next to that, there's another completely new and unprecedented stealth game type in the co-operative mode, essentially a game within a game offering four custom-built missions for two. It's a slight addition, but most definitely a welcome one. And of course, there's the main event: the lengthy new solo outing. It's the total stealth package for the modern man.
What's more, it's a game to silence the critics. The team has clearly studied the reviews and web forums meticulously, as pretty much every grievance ever expressed by fans has been addressed. You thought the first one was too linear? Not this time pal - you'll be doing more exploring than an over-zealous customs official. You thought the AI was weak? Quite the opposite, bub - it's now among the most sophisticated and responsive in the business, leaving Thief 3 desperately rubbing sticks together ?in the Dark Ages.
Even the most anal criticisms we made in our review two years ago have been answered - the characters have more depth and humour to them, the gadgets are less redundant - you can even throw people off cliffs and boats. Whichever way you turn the thing, it's got it covered. Of course, that doesn't mean it's perfect, but it is tuned better than an F1 motor on race day.
TO THE LIGHTHOUSE
To bring you quickly up to speed, the game once again takes place in the very near future. There's a nightmare flashpoint brewing in the Far East, as North Korea and China start ganging up on Japan, and America is forced to stick its oar in to prevent World War III. On the other side of the world, Sam Fisher is in Peru trying to rescue an information specialist from some half-arsed freedom fighters, and wouldn't you know it, the two events turn out to be intertwined. Cue a series of globe-hopping missions that take in New York, Hokkaido, North Korea, Seoul and a cargo ship somewhere in the Pacific.
At first, veterans may think little has changed, but delve deeper and you soon discover a world of delightful little tweaks (which sounds a lot ruder than was intended). The gadgets, for example, have been comprehensively tidied up. Useless things like the chemical flares have gone. The two different types of sticky spy cameras have been combined. The pistol now comes with an OCP device that can temporarily knock out lights and other electronic devices. The attachments for the SC-20k modular rifle now make more sense, forcing you to choose between the new shotgun add-on, a sniper scope and the simple, stabilising fore-grip.
The biggest addition however, is the combat knife, which is more fun than it has any right to be. The quick, up-close kills add a (worryingly) gratifying new dimension to the game, and now provide some of its best moments. You honestly won't care about damaging your stealth rating once you've got a taste for the knife-kill - my favourite move in the game is now the 'jump and barrel roll into knife in guts of incredulous bad guy' (though the 'hanging inverted neck snap' comes a close second).