Earlier this week, Ubisoft released the third iteration in the Splinter Cell series, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Like previous games, you’ll continue to play the role of Third Echelon super-spy Sam Fisher (with voiceovers for Sam provided by actor Michael Ironside) as he stealthily creeps through darkened corridors, air vents, and other exotic locales.
The plot is a bit different this time around. The year is 2007 and Japan has determined that recent information warfare attacks may have been caused by a foreign government(s) or a new terrorist cell. Tensions are rising between China, Japan, and North Korea as Sam is sent in to sort out what’s going on. You’ll be equipped with some new gadgets, including your handy SC-20K assault rifle, which has been updated in Chaos Theory, as well as your trusty combat knife.
Unlike Pandora Tomorrow, which was based on the same graphics engine as the original Splinter Cell, Ubi uses a newer version of Epic’s Unreal engine for Chaos Theory, just like Gearboxes Brothers In Arms: Road To Hill 30. In terms of complexity, think of the engine as somewhere between UT 2004 and Unreal Engine 3. As a result, just like BIA, Chaos Theory requires a DirectX 8 graphics card. If you don’t have a programmable graphics card, you’ll have to upgrade in order to play Chaos Theory (fortunately, most gamers have GeForce3 or better graphics cards by now).
Shader models supported
Once you get past the game’s silly installation routine (for some ridiculously weird reason the game ships with two different CD keys, one on the back of the manual and a second poorly printed key inside the case, not to mention a CD authentication routine that loads each time you start up the game, taking a few additional seconds to complete) you’ll be greeted by the game’s main menu. Here ATI enthusiasts with DX9 cards will be disappointed to learn that the game only runs with 1.1 shaders, as Chaos Theory only provides support for shader model 1.1 and shader model 3.0, which was first introduced by NVIDIA’s GeForce 6 series of graphics cards. If you recall the original Splinter Cell, Ubisoft provided a more advanced shadow buffer mode exclusively for NVIDIA users.
Fortunately, the game still looks great in 1.1 shader mode. As we discovered in Far Cry last year, games can look just as good using older 1.1 shaders. If you recall, it was initially believed that Far Cry extensively used 2.0 shaders for many of its beautiful scenery, including its highly admired water. We were the first site to break the story that Far Cry used 1.1 shaders for most of its advanced effects, much to everyone’s dismay. Eventually CryTek added support for shader models 2.0b and 3.0, but these newer shaders were used to improve performance, not to enhance image quality.
If you have a high-end GeForce 6800 or 6600 card, you’ll see a few other exclusives in the shader model 3.0 portion of the game’s menu, including high dynamic range lighting (with tone mapping), parallax mapping (an advanced form of displacement mapping), and high quality soft shadows.
Shader model 3.0 options
For this article, we wanted to focus on the performance of ATI and NVIDIA’s high-end cards, so we’ve compared them head-to-head using the game’s 1.1 shader mode. We’ve also run tests with HDR turned on as well as shader model 3.0, so we can see the performance enhancements the newer shader instructions brings. Let’s first take a look at the game’s AA quality, and a few of the other eye candy features Ubisoft has included in Chaos Theory.