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If you’ve followed this blog you probably know by now I’ll find any excuse to put together a new PC build. This of course includes building  and optimizing PC’s for the purpose of playing a single game. The last example of this was my Ultimate Ultima VII PC that I assembled and wrote about a few months back that I had built specifically to play Ultima VII. Today’s article is about a similar PC. Back in the day it wasn’t to uncommon to have a game released that required very specific hardware to run at its best looking or sometimes even at all. Either a very specific CPU speed such as in the case of Wing Commander and Ultima VII or using a specific graphics API  such as Glide or S3D and a compatible graphics card to look its best. As we moved into the late Win 9x and Windows XP era these become much less common as games were programmed better for future CPU clocks and the huge array of proprietary graphics card APIs died out and eventually boiled down to Direct X and OpenGL.

The 2002 game Splinter Cell on PC though became an exception to this norm and required a graphics card of the Geforce 3, 4 of 5 (FX) series to display properly on PC. Even here the choice mostly boiled down to the Geforce 4 line as the it could do anything the Geforce 3 could do but faster and the Geforce 5 (FX) line being faster but actually suffering from imperfect compatibility. The need for these specific cards is due to the game being a port from the original Xbox requiring it to use features of the NV2x chips. This mostly pertains to shadows and with Splinter Cell being a stealth game this aspect plays a major role. The NV2x and NV3x use a technique known as Shadow Buffering where as later cards use a technique known as Projected Shadows. The methods are similar but different enough to cause graphical glitches in Splinter Cell when using non Shadow Buffering cards.

The game is completely playable with other cards including those from the Radeon series but is missing some shadow and lighting effects. I am aware that it may be possible to hack ini files or force older drivers to allow shadow buffering on other cards or use game patches to correct the issue but in this article we’re going to focus on a period correct retro machine to get the best authentic experience without the need to use patches or any hacking of files.

So now that we know why we might want to build a Splinter Cell PC let take a look at the machine I came up with.

Case and Drives – For a case I used a ATX PC case I had that was unused. For the Splinter Cell theme I decided to paint the case back using cheap spray paint acquired from the local hardware store though I suppose a dark grey would of also worked. To create a look that mimicked the iconic splinter cell green night vision goggles I found and installed a 5 1/4 inch 3 fan hard drive caddy but left the bay without a hard drive so that the internal lighting I’ll talk about shortly could shine through the three holes giving the night vision effect.

For drives I went with a SATA DVD drive since we will need an optical drive to install Splinter Cell as well as a 1.44 floppy drive. The floppy drive is unneeded for Splinter Cell but it adds versatility to the overall machine.

Motherboard – For the motherboard I decided to go with a socket 478 board. I went with this socket because I wanted to try something a little different (for me) with this build and try out the Pentium 4. The motherboard I ended up using is the Gigabyte GA-81PE1000-G.

This socket 478 motherboard uses the very stable Intel 865PE chipset and supports DDR400, AGP x8, Hyper threading, built in SATA as well as a 800mhz front side bus for the later and faster Pentium 4 CPU’s. The motherboard came without any fan on the chipset cooler so I added this nice little fan with LED’s.

OS and Hard Drive – for a hard drive I decided to go with a 160GB SATA hard drive since the motherboard had built in SATA. For and OS I went with Windows XP for an overall easier experience although the game is also supported in Windows 98.

CPU – for a CPU you can really use just about anything from a 800mhz Pentium III up. I originally played Splinter Cell on a 1.4ghz PIII and the game ran more or less just fine but since I was going with a Pentium 4 build I decided to go all out and opted for the Pentium 4 Extreme CPU. This CPU helps me run the game at high graphical settings and resolution while keeping an acceptable framerate.

The Pentium 4 Extremes were Intel’s high end enthusiast chips and sported 512kb of L2 cache on die as well as a whopping 2mb of L3 cache.  My socket 478 Pentium 4 Extreme runs at 3.2ghz with a 800mhz FSB and hyper threading enabled. There is also a 3.4ghz version available for socket 478 but it can be rather hard to come across and expensive. The P4 Extremes based off the Gallatin core can run a little hot so I would suggest a decent heatsink and fan. I used this Zalman fan that sports a copper stripe and mostly aluminum fins. There are all copper versions available as well.

RAM – For RAM I went with four sticks of 1gb DDR400 running in dual channel mode for maximum memory speed and capacity. My RAM came with heat spreader attached but you probably don’t need anything so fancy in your own build.

 Sound – For sound I went with a Creative Audigy 2ZS. In my opinion this is one of the best old school PCI sound cards and is a good step up from the Sound Blaster Live! and original Audigy cards in terms of audio quality. Splinter Cell also supports EAX or Environmental Audio Extensions which the Audigy 2ZS supports. What this mostly does is create echo effects in larger indoors areas of the game.

Graphics card – Probably the most important piece of the Splinter Cell PC build. As I mentioned at the start of the article Splinter Cell is very specific about what graphics cards it needs to use for the best looking and most hassle free experience. Using any card outside of the Geforece 3, 4 and 5 (FX) line will result in the game missing many of the correct and intended shadows and lighting effects. As I mentioned the Geforce 5 (FX) line of cards will work and give the greatest performance and best FPS but they aren’t 100% compatible and you will get graphical glitches such as “shinny textures” at points as well as shadow flickering. Some cards of the FX line display these glitches less then others, for instance the Geforce 5800.

With this in mind if you want a complete glitchless experience your options are either the Geforce 3 or 4 lines. Seeing as the Geforce 4 does everything the Geforce 3 does but faster the logical choice is the Geforce 4. I chose the top of the line Geforce Ti4600 with 128mb of ram. This was the high end AGP x4 offering from Nvidia and will get you the best performance while retaining all the shadow effects. Later Nvidia also released an AGP x8 version labeled the Ti4800 but in reality the AGP x8 offers no real performance boost over the Ti4600. I even recall one source claiming the Ti4800 was ever so slightly slower then the Ti4600 perhaps due to the slightly higher clocked memory on the Ti4600.

I am using Nvidia drivers 45.23 and these are the best overall drivers I would recommend using for this game.

Something to take into consideration is that Splinter Cell is a slower paced game relying on tactics of hiding, waiting and slow thought out movements. This being the case having a higher frame rate really doesn’t seem to take a priority over having better looking and functioning shadows so I really would recommend a Geforce 4 over the Geforce 5 (FX).

extra lighting – In order to go with the theme I decided to install some extra lighting. This included cutting out a spot in the side of the case to mount a green LED fan to help with cooling as well as adding some light strips, one behind the top 5 1/4 HDD caddy and one along the rear vent holes.

These lights (not including the case fan) can be turned off via a rear switch that installs in one of the expansion slots.

Here is the machine with the lights out.

 

 

Lastly were going to take a look at come comparison screenshots and benchmarks. The following images are courtesy of Phil from Phils computer Lab.

Non Geforce 3/4

Geforce 4

Non Geforce 3/4

Geforce 4

Non Geforce 3/4

Geforce 4

Benchmarks

3DMark 2001SE at 1024 x 768 no AA – 14604

3DMark 2003 – 2005

MDK2 at 1024 x 768 x 32 colors w/ T&L – 64.8 FPS

As for running Splinter Cell using FRAPS to watch frames at all the highest settings running at 1280 x 1064 the game seemed to average at around 20 FPS sometimes going up into the 30’s and 40’s and sometimes dipping down to around 15 FPS. At 1024 x 768 the average framerate seemed to stay much closer to 30 FPS. adjusting detail levels downward can also significantly help. Using thermal vision seems to tax the game the most and can really drop your FPS.

Funny thing is I played the game at least up until the CIA level in 1280 x 1064 at the highest graphical settings and the lower FPS really didn’t affect me. This is likely very much due to the slow and methodical nature of this game making higher FPS not as important as in some other games. Of course different people have different tolerances for framerates so it may bother you more then it has me. If this is the case a simple fix is just tuning down the graphical settings, resolution or swapping the Geforce 4 out for a higher end Geforce 5 (FX) and trade off some glitching for higher FPS.

Xbox version

I think it merits mentioning the original Xbox version here since that was the original platform this game was released for. From my research the games runs just fine on the Xbox and is perhaps the better and most hassle free way to play the game. The PC port does have the advantage of quick saves as well as higher resolution options.

Other games using Shadow Buffers?

Yes, the sequel to Splinter Cell, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow actually also uses Shadow Buffers and for a long time suffered even worse then the original when played on more modern PCs  with parts being almost unplayable due to missing shadow effects. On the up side the game seems to render perfectly when using a card of the Geforce 5 (FX) series, also a patch was released by the community to fix some of the issues when using a later card.

Komat, a member of the Vogons forum came up with a patch that fixes some of but not all of the graphical issues when using a card other then the Geforce 3,4 or 5 (FX), you can find it here

Conclusion

In conclusion if you want to play splinter cell on original hardware without glitches or lost shadow effects without fiddling with hacks the only real choice is the Geforce 4, preferably the TI4600 or Ti4800. Something like the high end offerings of the Geforce 5 (FX) series will also mostly get the job done at a much higher FPS but at the cost of a few graphical issues. The one nice thing about this project is even though the PC is fine tuned for Splinter Cell it also makes an excellent early Windows XP machine playing many games from the time at their highest settings. As for framerates, despite the lower FPS you get running Splinter Cell with a Geforce 4 and high settings I say give it a try. The nature of the game makes having a really high framerate not as important as it is in other titles and you may appreciate the better looks over the smoother play.

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2 Comments

  1. There is an error that should say non shadow buffering cards, but says “none”. You can reject this comment.


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