Friday, 16 April 2010

Short but sweet - Splinter Cell Conviction Review

Splinter Cell is back after over 2 years of being AWOL
I'm a coward, a man who is afraid to stand up to you but will stab you in the back first chance I get, literally. At least that's what a psychological examination of my gaming persona would probably be, I'm always a rogue, a thief or a sniper, usually all three if a game will give me the chance. Considering this revelation it will probably come as no surprise to you that I am at my happiest when playing any game that caters for a stealthy approach. The Splinter Cell series has always been a good outlet for these sneaky desires, even though I tend to accidentally walk into the person I'm sneaking up on ninety percent of the time. During that other ten percent however I'm an unstoppable killing machine, which isn't necessarily a good thing in a game that rewards non lethal takedowns, I suppose that's the cowardice again in that I'd rather slit a guard's throat out of fear he may discover me later (probably when I run right into him) than let him live. Hours of careful planning go into these killing sprees, watching every guard's patrol root like a hawk and spending countless deaths just learning what approach to take, while all this recon work may be worth it during the well oiled carnage that follows, there were times when creeping slowly down the same corridor for the hundredth time can get a little boring. Splinter Cell Conviction must have heard my sighs because, for the most part, it is an extremely exciting and enjoyable experience even when having to repeat the same parts again and again.

Mark & Execute is by far the best new feature
Conviction was originally due for release in November 2007, but was pushed back for extra development time because of another Ubisoft stealth action game; Assassins Creed. Apparently when the Splinter Cell developers played Assassins Creed they knew that they were going to have to radically shape up their product as it had been completely outclassed and would have looked outdated when it hit the shelves. Thank goodness they made this difficult decision, the time allowed them to take a step back and look at Splinter Cell as a series from a completely different angle. The intention had always been to make protagonist, Sam Fisher, the ultimate bad ass, but its hard to seem like a lethal killing machine when he has to spend hours in the shadows deciding what to do next. Jason Borune and (the new) James Bond were two examples of the sort of character they wanted Fisher to become, both are in essence sneaky characters but you rarely see them pause to consider their next move, they are always progressing forward, ducking into and out of shadows briefly between lethal and accurate takedowns. The new system born from this inspiration is the ability to mark targets for execution. Tapping the 'mark' button while at an enemy adds an arrow above their head. This allows the player to keep an eye on enemies even through walls and other obstacles, and new level of awareness means that it is far easier to plan strategies while on the move. After performing a hand to hand stealth kill, the ability to execute is unlocked. This turns the arrows over the enemies heads red, and with the press of another button, Sam skilfully picks off any targets that are tagged. It's a simple addition that encourages stealth but can also bail you out of a lot of head on confrontations. It is also probably the best feature to ever grace the series, in any previous Splinter Cell it would be nigh on impossible to drop into a room of five guards, land on one of them and score perfect headshots on the other four in the space of a few seconds. Its a really empowering experience and no matter how many times I used it during the game, I couldn't help but grin ear to ear every single time. There will be times when things go wrong and even the mark and execute system can't save Sam from being discovered, in these times the last known position gameplay mechanic kicks in. When an enemy spots Fisher, a silhouette appears in the position that the enemies think he is in. This visual clue allows players to quickly slip around and flank them. It obviously doesn't work in the open, as most of these times you get spotted usually end in an instant hail of bullets, but when you accidentally peak out of cover and get spotted, it becomes a useful if not revolutionary tool. Tools and gadgets are a staple of any Splinter Cell game, although they have been scaled back considerably for this outing as there are no terminals to hack or any locks to pick, again these are decision that have been made to keep the pace of the game as brisk as possible, and within the context of the story it makes sense that no longer working for the government considerably scales back the cool toys at your disposal.

Even the mission objectives drip with style
The story is pretty standard stuff but as it is being presented in such a stylish manner, the basic plot never becomes a sticking point. One point in particular, the interactive interrogations and transitions between scenes are extremely slick and at times it feels like you're taking part in a Hollywood blockbuster. These transitions are an example of how much Splinter Cell Conviction oozes style, everything that would usually be presented in a mundane way in any other game is done with buckets of flair. Mission objectives are projected in huge letters onto the sides of walls and cars, button prompts hover above the relative objects when you approach them, and the game has a very distinctive visual style. About ninety percent of this game is in black and white, whenever you slip into darkness all the colour bleeds from the world and you are creeping around in monochrome environments with just the enemies and important objects left in colour. It looks extremely cool and gives the a unique look, but it brings up the same problem from the other Splinter Cell games when wearing the googles, in that you're looking at an extremely attractive game through a black and white filter, and sometimes can't help but feel you're missing out because of it. In general the graphics are good but certainly not amazing, but as with every other element of the game, they are enhanced by the unique style and creative direction. The audio department is probably the places where the least tweaking has taken place, the score is brilliant, combining the trademark audio style that Amon Tobin brought to the series in Chaos Theory with some very Bourne Identity-esque music. Voice acting is generally top notch and thankfully, Michael Ironside has returned as the voice of Sam Fisher despite rumours that he may not have. Other characters are a little less impressive with one of the games main villains sounding like he is giving a pantomime performance. At times I was expecting him to don a top-hat, twiddle a moustache, and give a good old fashioned 'mwahahaha' laugh, which in retrospect may have actually enhanced his role.

Co-Op is a lot of fun if you have a buddy who has your back
Despite (mostly) quality voice acting, it's really hard to get emotionally invested in any of the characters in this plot as it's over so damn quickly. There is a tendency for games to be quite short these days, but even by modern standards Conviction falls short, clocking in at a rather uninspiring 5-6 hours. I'm a firm believer that if the time is well spent it doesn't matter how long a game is, and I did really enjoy my time with Conviction, but this actually works against it. I just wanted to keep on playing and the time spent with the story, it just didn't seem long enough. Outside of the story, there are a few other modes that extend the games lifespan such as a 5-6 hour co-op story to play through either locally or online. Its a cool feature for sure, but if they had tacked on the option to play through with an AI buddy it would have greatly extended the lifespan and enjoyment of the game for singleplayer obsessives. A couple of other multiplayer modes, such as hunting down a certain number of foes without being seen, can be played solo, but these aren't enough to justify coming back again and again. Chuck some human players into the mix and these modes are a lot of fun, and while they're not quite as good as the spy vs merc option from the last three Splinter Cells, they will certainly keep multiplayer fans entertained for some time to come, especially given Ubisofts promise of free DLC every week for the next few weeks.

Despite a few short comings, Splinter Cell Conviction is still the best game in the series to date, and the easier access mission structure and gameplay elements will certainaly make this an ideal game for those who have struggled with the series thus far. It may seem like a dumbing down to hardcore fans, but the trade-offs are in the name of a faster pace and generally more enjoyable and exciting experience are more than worth it. If you're only planning to play Conviction in singleplayer I'd have to recommend that you rent the game first, as most hardcore gamers will be able to breeze through the story in a single sitting. But if you're going to play a fair bit of mulitplayer and have a good buddy you trust with your virtual life in co-op, I'd say buy this game without a second thought.


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