Tom Clancy has given his name to more ass-kicking action vehicles than the Presidents of the United States, and probably made more money in the process. “Tom Clancy’s” is now an adjective meaning “almost pornographically detailed military hardware.” The only things with more lines describing the behavior of guns than his books are his games.
Rainbow Six allowed you to step into the boots of a counter-terrorism unit in a tactical tour de force in which one false move made all the difference between completing your mission and getting your entire team eliminated. Ghost Recon raised the stakes, giving you the power to influence world events by taking down oppressive regimes. And who can forget Splinter Cell? There’s no deadlier weapon than an agent of the Third Echelon.
All of these series have had memorable outings, whether that means successful or failed missions in video game development. With the latest Tom Clancy game, The Division, out today, it seems like the perfect time to look back at the best, worst, and weirdest games.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (Xbox)
2005 | Ubisoft Montreal | Xbox, PS2, PC, GC, DS
Serious evidence that the longer the title the better the Clancy game. This one’s got everything: green goggles, ominous adjectives, even a semicolon. One of the world’s most intimidating (but least intimidatingly named) action heroes, Sam Fisher, returns for his third outing with “Third Echelon” (winner of the prestigious-if-secret “Most Ominously Vague Name for an Intelligence Agency” Award an unknown number of years running). The combination of stealth, brutal close-quarters combat, and Michael Ironside was almost unstoppable—and something television really should have thought of back when they had a chance against gaming.
The series vaulted from popular to unstoppable with some seriously player-friendly upgrades, including easier one-hit stealth takedowns and a Space Invaders-style ability to avoid alerts if you just kill and destroy everything. As opposed to the earlier games’ insistence that leaving blood-stained corpses lying underneath floodlights might just lead to some alarm.
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (Xbox 360)
2006 | Ubisoft Paris & Red Storm Entertainment | Xbox 360, Xbox, PS2, PC
Another entry in the six-word super-title sweepstakes (add the “Tom Clancy’s”), this Clancy game became the best by learning from its predecessors. GRAW eased the difficulty of the original Ghost Recon, but that’s only softening to “solid steel” from “cliff of diamond.” The tactical shooter quickly teaches you that standing up and blindly charging forward in an active gunfight is literally the last thing you should ever do.
It wasn’t too realistic, though. The Xbox 360 version also benefitted from the Great Cover System Plague of 2005, adding the third-person view and pop-and-shoot mechanic previously lacking from realistic entries in the series. (Clancy games like to include the latest military techniques, but U.S. army troops can’t yet project their own souls above and behind their right shoulders for better awareness.)
Rainbow Six: Vegas
2006 | Ubisoft Montreal & Ubisoft Quebec | X360, PS3, Xbox, PC, PSP
Rainbow Six hit its high point in Vegas, as so many do, but unlike most, it left with far more money than it started. It’s a shame that the series’ most successful entry was the one that removed the raid planning stage. No longer could counter-terrorists spend hours choosing which troops and equipment to send through which doors and windows like the world’s most violent interior redecorators.
The gameplay instead followed a series of set checkpoints, reducing the franchise to merely one of the best first-person corridor shooters the world had ever seen. Close confines and tactical teamwork elevated its online play component to the competitive gaming circuit, meaning many players poured more hours of planning and training into the game than many real counter-terrorists.
Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (PS2)
2006 | Ubisoft Paris & Darkworks | Xbox 360, Xbox, PS2, PC
Betrayal by those you thought you could trust is an espionage staple, and it’s why GRAW is also one of the worst games in the series. While the Xbox 360 shocked and awed the gaming world with explosive combat, the original Xbox was a mud-caked footslogger going through the motions. But its the PS2 port that became tangled in its own webbing and accidentally fired a grenade into a fuel dump in its own base. Except that would have been more successfully action-packed than the game.
Sometimes great games are simplified for less powerful systems. But the PS2 port was prepared by erasing parts at random until whatever was left fit into the smaller processors. If this development team saw that your hat was too small, they’d hit you with hammers until it fit, and even then you could tell they’d screwed up the job. And your movements would still be better coordinated than the soldiers in this game.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (DS)
2005 | Ubisoft Montreal | Xbox, PS2, PC, GC, DS
Another of the best games ever broken up until it fit into a much smaller box so that Ubisoft could sell it again. And it works about as well as cutting off a hostage’s ear to mail it in a cigarette packet: about the same size as a DS, but it only proves that something you loved has been badly damaged, and neither is anything you’d play with for fun.
The DS version of Chaos Theory is crippled in more direction than a minefield dance class. The graphics stagger like a drunk at a rave. Aiming at enemies with the stylus is less effective than using the Force on them and involves much more random waving. The security-cracking minigames would bore a goldfish, and even it would swim from room to room thinking, “Wait a second, I did a level exactly like this ten seconds ago.”
H.A.W.X. 2 (Wii)
2010 | Ubisoft Romania | X360, PS3, Wii, PC
H.A.W.X. was an attempt to give the Clancy franchise full spectrum military dominance by dominating the skies. Unfortunately, advanced aerobatics were a bit beyond the Wii. You’d have a better simulation of dogfighting if you flung the console at somebody, because at least then you’d have to be pointing in the right direction, while the game let your jet fighter fire its guns anywhere on the screen at all times. Because even Wii developers couldn’t work out how to fly a plane with a wiimote. It’s an on-rails shooter, and there’s nothing in this world that misses the point more than a jetfighter on rails.
The Wii version also replaced the other consoles’ plot about rogue nuclear weapons with a family drama. This may have been an attempt at peace by deprogramming the next generation into thinking jet fighters weren’t awesome.
1998 | Red Storm Entertainment | PC
ruthless.com wasn’t a computer game, but a computerized board game, and rather a good one. Which doesn’t change the fact that you’re the CEO of a software development firm shuffling resources and turn orders instead of assault weaponry. The only time computer geeks turn up in modern Clancy games is to tell Uncle Sam where to find people that feel it’s okay to feel good about shooting.
We’d love to see modern Clancy players try this. Their reaction to turn-based play would be priceless. Most Clancy shooters are more accurate measurements of human reaction speed than medical trials. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to win this software development game by fractally developing more Clancy games.
Luke McKinney is a freelance contributor.