Sunday, 13 June 2010

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction



The subtle art of not being seen is one of the hallmarks of the stealth 'em up genre, a genre whose creation is usually accredited to Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear series. Popularised by the release of Metal Gear Solid on the PSone in the late Nineties, the stealth 'em up offered a different style of gameplay to the 'overkill' mentality that has and continued to characterise a large slab of the gaming market. It required a different approach, a degree of strategy and patience, and rewarded the player with a sense of satisfaction after a successful infiltration. The problem, specifically with the Metal Gear series, was the overbalanced ratio that the player experienced between actually playing the game and watching it through lengthy cut scenes. A year after the release of Metal Gear Solid 2 in 2002, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell offered an alternative experience to the cinematic grandiose of Kojima's series.

Splinter Cell, put you in the sneak boots of Sam Fisher a retired super spy voiced by Michael Ironside who is called back into action for that ‘one last mission’. The stealth mechanics required the player to adopt a predatory approach to espionage, relying on hiding within the shadows and keeping noise to a minimum. Fisher was always armed with his trademark nightvision goggles that effectively turned the player into Buffalo Bill at the end of Silence of the Lambs. Whilst his enemies could not see you, you could see them giving the player an inflated sense of power. There were night vision goggles in Metal Gear, but there were also card board boxes, strategically placed softcore magazines and tranquilizer guns. Splinter Cell gave you a much more linear style of gameplay rooted in high tech gadgetry. Progressing through a mission was often a slow and highly methodical paced experience as you picked off guards one by one, hiding their bodies and tip toeing through the shadows towards your objective. The game proved successful, and a franchise was born on an annual production cycle.

With the release of Double Agent across all platforms including the newly released Xbox360 in 2005 the formula was beginning to feel stale. At least, that is what I thought, I remember sitting down to playing the game and constantly screwing up my stealth approach. I didn't feel like a superspy, I felt like a retard playing as a superspy. Admittedly this was probably the reality of the situation, but the game failed to immerse me to the extent of the first three games. I no longer had the patience for the slow methodical approach of infiltrating levels, evading mouthy guards in a constant crouched position, only to screw it all up because I wasn't hidden behind the wall. Ubisoft obviously were on a similar wavelength, it was time for Splinter Cell to receive a drastic rehaul, to be adapted for the next generation. Afterall, it had worked for Capcom with Resident Evil 4.

Splinter Cell: Conviction has been in production for almost four years. The game has experienced many delays and has gone back to the drawing board on many occasions. Early screenshots released in 2007 revealed a bearded Sam Fisher on the run, a la Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. The gameplay was drastically different to that of the previous titles, involving a more practical approach to stealth a world away from the series’ usage of gadgetry and silenced weapons. Early previews revealed an emphasis on the crowd, Sam would have to blend in with crowds to avoid enemy patrols, when he was spotted and bullets were fired, the crowd would start running for safety, obviously this was an aspect that was incorporated into Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise. Ironically, the finished version of Conviction is not as drastic a change to the series as the game previewed in 2007. However, it is a leaner more fast paced game than feels more highly evolved than its predecessors.

One thing that has not changed is the overall plot, a generic paranoid conspiracy narrative that we have seen in other splinter cell games as well as other thrillers. You once again play as Sam Fisher, a man very much on the edge due to the untimely demise of his daughter that happened in the last game. At the beginning of Conviction, you are informed by a new contact that the circumstances concerning your daughter’s death may be part of a larger conspiracy and so is set in motion a new mission in which Sam is fed tidbits of information from the table as he does the government's dirty work. For all the shortcomings of the plot, the gravity given to Fisher by Michael Ironside really succeeds in humanising the character despite his obvious imperfections as a man with the fitness and flexibility of a twenty year old though the physical appearance of a forty year old man and the voice of a sixty year old man, Sam Fisher is at least a genuine character who is worth rooting for unlike that annoying prick you play as in Just Cause 2.

However, the real strength of Conviction undoubtedly lies within its execution, both in the plot and the gameplay. Whilst Uncharted 2 was essentially an interactive action comedy experience in the vein of Indiana Jones, the latest Splinter Cell serves up an interactive version of a slick 24/Bourne esque thriller. Unlike Metal Gear Solid 4, essentially five levels padded out with hours of cut scenes; Conviction succeeds in completely immersing the player within the story as it happens, rarely taking the level of interactivity from out of the player's hands. There is no checking your PDA for your latest mission objectives; instead they are boldly displayed within the game world. Rather than deviating from the flow of the narrative, flashback sequences are projected through grainy filters onto the walls of corridors. The game’s plot is developed through a wealth of interrogation scenes, where you are forced to retrieve information from an unsavoury character through lashings of the old ultra violence. These scenes are characteristically brutal and also humorous in that they involve little to the imagination. Controlling Fisher, you hold the bad guy by the throat and will be confined to move around a small area with several objects that you can interact with. When you see a big plasma screen you know it is just waiting to be busted in by some goon's head. All these little changes keep the narrative of the game extremely streamlined and focused within the pacing of the game itself. The player is always moving forward with a clear mind with what he or she has to do next.

This dynamic pacing extends into the gameplay as well. Conviction embraces current trends in gaming, such as cover based combat and close range one button knockouts. Whilst previous Splinter Cells relied on a methodical approach to stealth, Conviction has mostly sacrificed that for a more bombastic approach that thrives on how quickly you clear an area of bad guys. Though you will still very much be moving around in a crouched position, seeking the protection of darkness and cover; dispatching guards is fast, efficient and brutal, the silenced pistol essentially becoming an extension of Sam’s fists. More than ever you realise just how much a badass Sam Fisher really is. Heads and lights can be easily taken out safely from cover, there is no delay between pulling the trigger and popping out of cover to aim, like in Gears of War for example. You just point the crosshair in the right direction and Sam just makes the shot, it is all so efficient and easy. Added to this new found slickness in combat is the mark and execute mechanic. This takes the mechanic as seen in the Rainbow Six Vegas games, where you will prioritise targets for your team mates to kill by marking them with a touch of the back button. By despatching a guard in close combat you gain the ability to execute, by pressing the y-button you dispose of each of the targets with a perfect head shot. On paper, this may make the game sound easier or at least take away the satisfaction of performing a perfect head shot with manual aiming. Not so. Each weapon has a set amount of marks. I preferred the five-seven pistol, which gives you four marks. I remember there was one room with about five guards, I marked the four guards furthest away from me and walked into plain sight to take down the fifth guard in close combat. This alerted the guards but I had earned my ability to execute, and so with a four presses of the y-button I cleared the entire room in a manner of seconds. Incredibly satisfying.

There will be times when you get spotted of course. Times like these usually see you going loud. As well as his pistol, Sam will be armed with a main weapon, a shotgun or an assault rifle for example. But these prolonged firefights are ill advised. It does not take very many bullets to kill Sam and quite often when faced with these situations you are dead. It really forces the player to adopt the stealth panther approach. Should you be spotted you can use various grenades you pick up to make a speedy get away. Though heaven forbid you confuse the throw grenade button with the reload button and unleash an EMP pulse before you plan your attack, which literally harbours all the subtlety of the world’s most malevolent fart. Yes children, to reload you click in the left analogue stick not the ‘x’ button. Though I imagine you can probably change that in the controller layout.

My main discrepancies with the game do not seriously hinder the gaming experience overall. Upon entering a new location you begin to plan your attack in a manner that evokes early Metal Gear Solid, where each area is a puzzle. This illusion is spoiled when you realise that there is a climbable pipe in the corner and maybe a precariously positioned piece of scenery that screams to be brought crashing to the ground by a single bullet as it hangs dangerously above a group of guards all met in the same place, probably discussing whether or not they liked the ending of Lost. On the subject of your adversaries, the AI of the enemies feels stuck in the past. They will notice dead bodies, shine torches in the absence of light, sometimes act startled to the sound of disturbance, and sometimes they’ll even get the better of you. Most of the time however they effectively serve as walking talking headshot receptacles. They also talk a lot, in fact they will not stop talking. They talk in the familiar unsympathetic tones of the overtly masculine jock strap who seeks only to further his own masculinity by killing you. Obviously, we aren’t supposed to be rooting for these guys and taking them down is made all the more satisfying when Sam figuratively castrates them with one of his brutal finishing moves. But still, it begs the question, just where did the government get these bunch of cretins from? Why can’t they stay silent when they know a super spy is coming their way? What happened to all that military sign language? Wouldn’t silence give them at least an air of menace?
Eventually, the game pits you against various goggle wearing peeps who effectively serve as visions of a younger Sam Fisher that appeared in previous games. Yet they just can’t do subtle. Mostly these guys announce their arrival in the noisiest way possible either by smashing through glass or using smoke grenades and flashbangs. The guards from Metal Gear never did this. They didn’t talk, they just had the red exclamation mark when they saw you, maybe a deep seated suspicion of boxes. At least the bloody FROG guards from MGS4 attempted to create an illusion of fear through their tortured screaming. When training up Fisher, Third Echelon seemed to have got it right. He remains silent in the act of killing, or at least charmingly suave as he gets an enemy by a chokehold.

Then there is the plot. There are memorable moments, such as the section proceeding a key revelatory scene in which Sam becomes aware of what has actually been going on, breaking out of Third Echelon in the vivid colours of an adrenaline induced burst of rage. Another is a particularly inspired chase scene at the Washington Monument. There are points when the game’s narrative doesn’t work so well. For instance, the game includes a fairly uninspired Iraqi flashback that essentially plays like a poor man’s ghost recon. Which I guess is no big thing, its not like these two franchises are linked to one another in any particular way...
Then we come to the whole dilemma surrounding Sam’s dead daughter. At the beginning of the game, we are reintroduced to the game’s emphasis on darkness through a flashback between a younger Fisher and his daughter, as he teaches his young daughter not to fear the dark. I thought the game would have more of these scenes, strengthening Sam’s relationship with his daughter over time, in a similar way to the original God of War, which gradually revealed the tragic history of Kratos the further you ventured through the game. But I guess that would have only worked up to a point, namely the point when you find that Sam’s daughter, the one you thought dead, isn’t actually dead at all. It feels like a cheapened resolution, I signed up to this game, thinking we were getting a vengeful fuelled version of Sam Fisher, a man on the edge with nothing to lose, a loose canon firing on anybody stupid enough to cross him. This was the ideology that Double Agent was based on, and the plot was the only thing which that game had going for itself. But hey, for fulfilling the fantasy of being a super spy, you’re not really playing the game for the story.

Aside from the main campaign, there is also the co-op multiplayer which serves as a prequel to the events of the single player. Splinter Cell has always managed to do multiplayer well. First introduced in the second game Pandora’s Tomorrow was the spies versus merc mode, which had two players tasked with infiltrating a base whilst the other two defended the objective. The spies played from the conventional third person view, possessing all the acrobatic abilities of Fisher whilst the mercs were limited to a first person perspective. It was a completely original take on multiplayer. Since Co-op seems to be all the rage at the moment, I am pleased to report that the developers have put as much time into crafting the multiplayer as they have with the single player. Resident Evil 5 should take note. For all the changes made to the Splinter Cell formula it all works incredibly well in co-op, in fact I’d go to say that the multiplayer attachment is worth the full price of the game alone, far more enjoyable as the single player. You and a friend assume the roles of Archer and Kestrel, an unlikely partnership between the US and Russia who are tasked with tracking down a couple of EMPs that have annoyingly gone walkabout. My experience was a bit like the odd couple, I was the cold calculating one carefully taking out guards silently whilst my friend preferred to kick down all doors and go in all guns blazing with a boomstick. Despite my organised approach, I would always risk my own neck when I was inevitably tasked with reviving with my magic defibrillators of curing. Messing about aside, there comes the time following several failed attempts when both of you knuckle down and decide to take the level down as a team, and when this happen the game soars. Aside from the co-op story, the game ensures replayability by various different game modes from a Gears of War styled horde mode and a conventional deathmatch mode.

In conclusion, Splinter Cell: Conviction is an excellent rejuvenation of the series. Some die- hard fans may mournfully recall the old times which allowed for a more organised approach, but for me personally I think the changes to the game revitalise the series and the genre as a hole. In the wake of Metal Gear Solid 4 especially, the fifth Splinter Cell game provides a far more linear approach to the stealth ‘em up genre that rarely sacrifices time spent playing the game against watching the plot unfold. As much as I love the Metal Gear Solid series, Conviction is more efficient as an interactive experience. Given the choice between watching the latest thriller at the cinema or playing Conviction alone or with a friend, I know exactly which experience I would choose.
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