Now that I’ve had a little over a week of exposure to the new Splinter Cell, I’d say I’ve got enough experience raked together to attempt to express my impressions of it. So here goes.
If you’ve been keeping up with the Splinter Cell franchise, then you’re probably aware of all the “controversy” surrounding this particular release. Splinter Cell: Conviction is the first release in the series of stealth games since Splinter Cell: Double Agent back in 2006. It wasn’t long after that that Conviction was announced, slated for a November 2007 release. With only a little over a year between projected release dates, it didn’t come as a huge surprise when Conviction missed its launch date; after all, these things take time and most of us appreciate when developers take an extra few months or so to get things just right. However, we were taken a bit by surprise when it was announced in May of 2008 that the game had been officially put on hold and had been “taken back to the drawing board”.
Now, it’s 2 years later and we’ve finally been re-introduced to our old buddy Sam Fisher, and it’s a beautiful reunion, if a bit of an odd one. I say odd because this isn’t quite the Sam we’re all familiar with, which is actually quite understandable. In Double Agent, Sam is informed that his daughter, Sarah, has been killed by a drunk driver, which devastates him to the point of causing him to be removed from active duty. Compiled on top of that, at the end of the game, Sam is forced to kill his best friend Irving Lambert in order to maintain his cover amongst a terrorist group. When you put all of that together, you’ve got a Sam Fisher who’s good and pissed off at pretty much everybody. He’s very much a different man than the rigidly loyal and patriotic Third Echelon agent we met back in 2002; which is fine. A darker Sam seems to be a natural response to him losing everything in his life, and this shift in personality makes his character feel a bit more human.
Ultimately, the story is pretty standard fare for a Splinter Cell game. It begins with Sam on the hunt for the man who killed his daughter, but eventually leads into your run of the mill “save America from a bunch of jerks who got an EMP” kind of plot. Admittedly, the narrative is presented in a pretty impressive fashion. Introductions to each chapter of the game are given by an old friend of Sam’s, currently incarcerated by a shady group of individuals and being grilled for answers about just what happened throughout the course of the game. The voice actor for this character does his job well and makes these bits of exposition feel like you’re really caught up in the midst of a modern spy movie; which for all intents and purposes you are. Right from the outset, Conviction presents a pretty strong Bourne Identity vibe, what with the rogue agent on a mission of discovery and all. The locations actually feel very espionage film-esque as well. You’ll see a mansion in Malta, secret research laboratories, and even the Lincoln Memorial and the White House. The backdrops they provide really do a lot to strengthen that feeling of being one of the world’s most bad-ass super spies.
Adding to the immersive element of the narrative is the new idea of how to present mission objectives. The Ubisoft Montreal team came up with the idea that instead of having a clumsy HUD popping up onscreen telling you what to do next, they would instead project your mission objectives onto the environment. This is just downright cool. If your next objective is to, say, interrogate Captain McTerrorist then “interrogate Captain McTerrorist” will be projected onto a wall, doorway, pillar, or whatever in real-time. It gets even more impressive when you realize that they actually put a virtual projector into the game, so walking in front of whatever surface the objective is printed on will result in the words also projecting *onto you*. It’s a really impressive element that adds an artistic feel to the game. So overall the presentation is great; even if the plot does sometimes feel a little like this.
But as interesting as a game’s presentation may be, it wouldn’t be worth much if the game wasn’t fun to play. Luckily, Splinter Cell: Conviction is a lot of fun, so no worries. When previews of the gameplay began to emerge on the net, it caused more than a few murmurs of discontent; and understandably so. Gone is Sam’s ability to move the bodies of his opponents, as well as his darkness and noise meters and a few other tricks such as the split jump. All of this results in a game where you’re perhaps a bit less stealthy than before. Sam isn’t hiding from his enemies so much as stalking and hunting them like a well-armed tiger with Michael Ironside’s voice. Your arsenal also now consists of everything from pistols to assault rifles to shotguns, meaning that you’re not necessarily toast the second somebody spots you; instead it’s sometimes feasible to blast your way out of trouble with enough bullets. If you were looking for the invisible Sam of days gone by, then you might be a bit upset.
Don’t get me wrong, though; this is still very much a stealth game. Play it like a shooter game and you’re gonna get hurt. Staying undetected is still the key to success more often than not, and even if you happen to mow your way through a crowd of enemies with a 12-gauge that’s about as subtle as Dennis Rodman, then you probably won’t feel very accomplished about it. The real enjoyment comes from taking out your enemies as silently as you can. The stealth mechanics have been reworked to accommodate this new, faster-paced stealth action. When you’re obscured in darkness, the color in the game fades into black-and-white, letting you know that you’re more difficult to see, which I honestly prefer over the somewhat awkward darkness meter of past games. I recall one instance in the first Splinter Cell game where I was simply crouched in a corner with a guard looking right at me. Yet because my darkness meter was maxed he just turned and walked away. Enemies aren’t quite that stupid anymore. If you try to hide “in the open” like that, they’ll still see you, so don’t try it. Also, a cover system has been implemented into the game, much in the same style as existed in another Ubisoft title Rainbow Six: Vegas. Now, I love cover systems, and Vegas’ system has been my favorite for the past several years. I’m happy to say that Conviction has now stolen that place of honor. While it retains the idea of actively holding the left trigger instead of using a single button press, it also incorporates movement. If you’re hiding behind a box, and you want to hide behind that dumpster ahead of you, you can simply aim your crosshairs at the corner of that dumpster and press another button to dive behind it. Using this system to creep up behind an unsuspecting enemy feels incredibly intuitive, and I very much hope that other developers will learn that *this* is how cover should be done.
Other new features include interrogation sequences, which are interesting in a sadistic, holy-crap-why-would-you-do-that? kind of way. The problem with these sequences is that they are obviously highly scripted, so that you can only interact with fairly obvious environmental objects, and you’re trapped by invisible walls in a fairly small area, making these interrogations feel less impressive than they could have been. The game also incorporates a “last known position” feature, which leaves a silhouette of Sam in whatever area the enemies believe him to be in. It’s pretty simple, and we’ve seen similar ideas before (minus the silhouette) in games like Metal Gear Solid years ago; but using your last known position as a lure to guide enemies into a trap as you take them out from a pipe on the ceiling ends up being amusing… perhaps more than it should be, now that I think about it.
But perhaps the single biggest new feature that has been added to Conviction is the inclusion of the Mark and Execute system. With this, players can “mark” a number of targets, putting a floating arrow above their heads. When the arrow turns red, that means they’re in your sights and you’re free to tap a button and take out any enemies you marked all at once. Some people wrote this off as a simple “win” button, but don’t be deceived; you can’t just go through the game executing everybody you see. You have to first earn the ability to mark targets by performing a melee kill (which you should be doing anyway just because they’re fun to do). Also, each weapon has a limited number of marks, the maximum being four, while most only have two or three. This means that you can mark four people at most with this ability then after you use it, you have to perform another melee kill. It actually provides a good balance between ranged and melee attacks throughout the game, and the feeling of reward you get from marking a room full of bad guys, breaking down the door, and then popping off a string of headshots in the space of a heartbeat actually provides some of the most memorable moments of the game.
And really, that’s what it all comes down to. When trying to decide if a game I’ve played is worth the money, I usually ask myself if it provided any “holy crap that was awesome” moments; the kind of stuff that we nerds gather around the water cooler and relate back and forth to each other to pass the time. If it did, then I’m usually pretty satisfied with it. As of now, Splinter Cell: Conviction has given me a good handful of those moments in the single player campaign alone, and co-op has provided me with a good deal more. I recognize that many die-hard fans of the series won’t necessarily appreciate the changes that have been made to their beloved franchise; and I can understand that. But for me, Conviction got me excited about stealth games again, for which I have to give it credit. Instead of losing its former glory and fading into obscurity, it climbs atop the shoulders of its predecessors and strikes a triumphant pose, having emerged as a hero in its own right, and certainly earns my praise as my favorite game in the series.