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Splinter Cell lights up the computer screen

By Matt Slagle

Associated Press

In the not-too-distant future, specially trained soldiers infiltrate enemy compounds, to spy and even assassinate threats to national security under the direction of a secret U.S. government program called Third Echelon.

As Sam Fisher, you'll play one of these elusive agents in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell.

Xbox owners have had the luxury of playing this game since November. Ubi Soft has finally made it available for the PC, and it's better-looking than ever.

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Splinter Cell players face daunting tasks: You must infiltrate the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, find out what happened to two fellow operatives who have gone missing and unravel the mystery of a suspected terrorist organization in the capital, Tbilisi.

The key to success is not to get caught or leave a trace of your existence. Be ready for lots of lurking in the shadows, ducking behind security guards and traipsing down moonlit rooftops.

Even one false step on a patch of loose gravel -- any sudden movement, really -- and the enemy will probably find you.

You've got fatal weapons like a silencer-equipped pistol but most arms, such as smoke grenades and ring airfoil projectiles, are designed to incapacitate, not kill.

Besides, a call to arms usually results in the "game over" screen. Remember, you're supposed to be a sneaky agent, not an ammo-blasting commando. If you shoot back -- and occasionally you'll have no other obvious choice -- the enemy tends to be well-armed and very accurate.

My advice? Save early, and often.

I'd be wise to take my own advice. I restarted one level at least a dozen times because I couldn't figure out a way to get past two corrupt police officers without dying in a gun battle.

It finally dawned on me that tossing a bottle down a nearby stairwell might distract them. I was right -- the sound of smashing glass was enough to get them out of my way. And by sneaking past, I didn't have to expend any blood or bullets.

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Splinter Cell is controlled with the same mouse-keyboard combination used in most three-dimensional games on the PC, but looks are another matter.

I hate to gush, but Splinter Cell's graphics -- particularly its lighting effects -- are simply the best I've ever seen in a video game, enhancing its already thick atmosphere.

Street light filters through cracks in walls, fences and porch lattices. The dancing reflections cast by a single light bulb swaying in a corridor have never been so vivid.

I was disappointed to shoot out the lights to keep from being spotted!

But, once it's dark, flip on your night-vision goggles for an equally impressive showcase of the latest in home computer graphics.

All of this reality-bending imagery will tax most computer systems. The game runs best with at least a one gigahertz processor and a late-model graphics card.

There were moments of extreme frustration. Some of Splinter Cell's nine levels were a bit too open-ended. I spent hour after hour wandering the same courtyards, wondering where the heck I was supposed to go next.

Help is available. The Internet is rife with Web sites that will walk you through the game, but I wouldn't recommend using them unless you're truly stuck. Where's the fun in playing an otherwise excellent game if you already know what's coming?

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Splinter Cell: www.splintercell.com/us

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