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Right now, you’ve got two factions of Splinter Cell: Conviction “fans”: Folks on message boards prematurely bashing it for “trying to be Modern Warfare 2,” and thus “not Splinter Cell” enough. And people like me, who called it their most anticipated game of the year precisely because it didn’t look like a typical Splinter Cell game. Looks like we all get to be wrong. Because much like the details of Sam Fisher’s daughter’s death, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear.
Above: Less of this than you'd think
Personally, I was happy to see Splinter Cell deviate from the “Wait, wait, hide a body, wait some more” formula. While the series wowed initially with impressive visuals and realistic AI, the annual gameplay had grown a bit dull and lifeless, brought down by the weight of conspiratorial portent it so desperately wanted us to care about, it assumed we’d restart failed missions several billion times just to sit through more of it.
Above: Some nasty surprises await!
In that respect, things have changed for the better. Literally projecting Sam Fisher’s motivation on the walls rings true as a welcome new method through which games, like BioShock and Half-Life, unspool a narrative while you play, and not while you watch. However, we were all a bit misled to believe this was all part of a much larger change for the series. And this is where Conviction will get extremely divisive.
Above: Corridors of guys to kill - get used to it
You Splinter Cell purists bitching up a storm on the web: We see you. “You can’t hide bodies? WTFAIL!!1!” Okay… I suppose hiding the remains of your dead adds an element of realism. Thing is, we’ve never found the realistic aspects all that fun to play, so I missed stashing cadavers about as much as I yearn for more crate puzzles in a Tomb Raider game. After all, the last thing I want to in a game is clean up after myself (I recommend the whiners try The Sims.)
Above: Projected objectives and flashbacks leave out some cutscenes altogether
Things have been streamlined, thankfully. And while you can commend the developers for emphasizing the “action” in “stealth action game,” frankly, it’s not enough after Batman: Arkham Asylum kicked our collective asses with what being a cunning creature of the shadows should actually feel like in modern gaming. While the comparison isn’t entirely fair, one can’t deny that both should share the same goals, approach and intended appeal. Sam Fisher is pretty much Batman… if he were much slower, sucked at close-quarters combat, and all his dope ass gadgets were replaced with upgradable guns.
Above: Instead of a of stealh meter, the whole game turns black and white when you're concealed. Making the rare moments of light and color feel sort of like this:
The brand new Mark and Execute maneuver certainly helps in that regard. Stealthily take out someone using your bare hands, and you’ll land you a couple “free*” kills. Here, you can mark your multiple targets from behind cover, then - *pip-pip* - execute numerous enemies with the touch of a single button.
Above: Mark and Execute mutiple fools in less than a second
*Hardened Clancy-philes may consider this “dumbed down,” but trust me, that shit is earned! This is no free kill. It’s not exactly easy to take a guy out up close, and pulling off the perfect Execution requires a keen sense of timing, since even the haphazard squeeze of a silenced trigger will alert everyone in the vicinity.
Above: Interrogations follow a x3 beat that gets old after a while
It feels like Splinter Cell: Conviction desperately wanted to break free from its mold to become more focused on gunplay. But it doesn't, really. Outside of a level that flashes back to the first (best?) Gulf War, squeezing the trigger and emptying a clip is pretty much a liability that’ll instantly remind you that THIS IS NOT A SHOOTER.
THREE THINGS: This is Splinter Cell: Conviction. This is Iraq twenty years ago. And that is NOT Sam Fisher
Splinter Cell has always been - and very much still is - about being patient. You’ll certainly spend a lot less times cooling your heels under the cover of darkness, but that’s still very much the basis of the gameplay. Enemy behavior and overall presentation are still a marvel to behold. But Conviction couldn’t shake something that’s plagued the rest of the series in many players' eyes, and that’s the overwhelming feeling that when you survive, it’s based largely on luck, and not your own badassery.
As Fisher’s campaign goes on, many pieces of the environment that showcase any sort of uniqueness - like pipes, window ledges, and shootable lights - eventually just disappear… And the game reveals what it really is: wave after wave of being outnumbered by enemies in hallways with very little deviation.
The cover system may be one of the smartest we’ve seen in next-gen gaming, but the enemies are smarter. I’d easily wager most people will spend 3/4s of the single-player campaign loading and retrying after you’re repeatedly struck down by enemies that always cruelly outnumber you (Another series hallmark!)
We could take or leave other parts of the evolution, as well. The ghostly image that marks your Last Known Position actually does a disservice to the enemy AI by making them look like morons, and there’s something about using your own fragile body as a decoy that sort of defeats the purpose. And the slick cinematics found in the Interrogation scenes quickly reveal themselves to be unskippable cutscenes punctuated with violent quicktime events.
Above: Share Marks and save your buddy!
If we seem overly negative here, it's because we really hoped for more from the single-player mode. However, as anyone who's followed the series knows, Splinter Cell's multiplayer modes are always the better half anyhow, and Conviction's multiplayer co-op campaign is a saving grace if there ever was one. For all the dev team's assertions of tactical strategery, co-op is the place we saw the most evidence of it, plus it’s more fun than any moment you’ll play by yourself.
Anove: This is what we wanted
Here’s where you and a friend will play as through a completely different storyline as Third Echelon agent Archer and Russkie badass, Kestrel. For some reason, these are the levels that open up and truly showcase how quick and deadly you can be, whereas the rest of the game gradually shrinks and strips away features until your just barreling down a crowded tube full of men who can survive headshots. In case you’re wondering how much fun we had orchestrating kills and sharing execution moves with friends, know this: The game would’ve scored a point lower without Co-op.
Batman: Arkham Asylum?
Oh, hell no. And even an entry-level Bruce Wayne makes Sam Fisher look weak, Power-puff spy by comparison. During most missions, all Fisher has at his disposal is the ability to crouch. Whereas, Batman owns the darkness, Fisher is dependent on it, and his ability to shoot out lights just goes away after a while, seemingly for no other reason than to make each hallway harder. For Batman, the stakes are even higher: If he’s seen, he’s dead. Yet, Splinter Cell: Conviction had me nearly snapping the controller in two following every restart after agonizing restart. Plus, there wasn’t a moment I didn’t feel like grappling out of a situation.
Modern Warfare 2?
No. But then, why should it be? Let this be the last time we have to say this: Splinter Cell: Conviction is not a shooter. In fact, Sam Fisher isn’t even all that great with a gun. Spray and Pray is nowhere near an option here, and firing automatic weapons should generally be reserved for a last ditch effort to survive. If you were looking reasons to dislike Conviction based on a tenuous comparison to MW2, don’t bother, ‘cause it ain’t there.
Splinter Cell: Double Agent?
We think so, even if the internet has proclaimed Conviction’s inferiority without having played it. Even if you aren’t a fan of a streamlined approach, it’s hard to ignore the evolution in the latest entry is more than befitting of the term “Next-Gen.” Add to that, the latest game continues to tell Sam’s story, which should be goofy and outlandishly unapproachable by now, both masterfully and believably. Don’t call it cinematic... because it’s actually better than that.
While co-op kicks an unholy amount of ass, the Fisher campaign wasn’t the drastic departure from the series’ punishing trial and error we were all expecting. Fans may mourn the loss of certain aspects, yet there’s still a commendable evolution found within an experience much richer in player choice and consequences they shouldn't ignore. Outside of the occasional moments where the game starts ham fistedly projecting Fisher’s emotions on the wall (FRUSTRATION!) the storytelling takes full advantage of the medium in a way that few games ever do.
Apr 13, 2010