November 29, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

As Sam Fisher, a highly skilled operative assigned to a supersecret branch of the NSA, you’re deep in hostile territory and attempting to infiltrate a heavily guarded compound with…an empty soda can? In the wickedly ingenious Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, a piece of litter can be as effective as a bullet; hurling it down an alley will distract a guard long enough for you to slink into the building undetected.

It’s stealth, not reckless trigger-happy abandon, that dictates every one of your missions: The strategy is to stick to the shadows — or create new ones by shooting out lightbulbs — and make as little noise as possible. Even a snapping twig can blow your cover, making every step a taut, nail-biting affair.

Splinter Cell consists of a series of operations, which range from disarming nuclear devices to breaking into CIA headquarters. And if the missions seem fairly ordinary, the game’s visuals are definitely not: Around every corner is a scene that shows off Splinter Cell’s considerable graphic muscle. Intricate silhouettes, wispy puffs of smoke, and raging fires look unsettlingly real. (And the sound effects are just as amazing.)

Even the game’s many small details are impressive: among them, a lock-picking trick that uses the controller’s vibrations; and a projectile that sticks to a wall, lures a thug with a bird call, then knocks him out with a cloud of gas. Splinter Cell, as should now be apparent, is a truly innovative title offering tremendous gameplay. Our intelligence assessment: We spy a huge hit.

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