Splinter Cell: ConViction Review

We talked about Splinter Cell: ConViction – and the new direction Ubisoft Montreal was going with it – a few weeks ago. So how does the final product stack up?

ConViction drops you back into the shoes of Sam Fisher, America’s greatest covert operative. Three years ago, Sam left Third Echelon – the shadowy government agency he worked for – to find the people responsible for the death of his beloved daughter, Sarah. As ConViction progresses, Sam will meet friends and enemies old and new as his investigation leads him into the heart of a deadly conspiracy.

At least, that’s what you’re supposed to get out of it. In practice, the plot holds together for about half the game, after which it becomes increasingly convoluted before ending in a confrontation with a villain so two-dimensionally and irredeemably vile that the choice you’re ultimately given regarding their fate makes no sense in the context of the game you’ve just played.

ConViction features the most grizzled and vicious incarnation of Sam yet, a morally reprehensible vigilante who brutalizes and kills without mercy or hesitation. Unlike previous Splinter Cell games, it’s generally not possible to clear an entire mission (much less the whole game) without fighting, and every interaction you have with hostiles is utterly lethal. In some ways, this is good: the new CQC takedowns are visceral and fun to watch, and ConViction is more forgiving than previous SC games with regards to the ranges at which you can perform these moves. There’s also a good selection of upgradeable weapons, and being cleared to use them is nice. It’s clear that you’re up against some awful people, but I still would have liked the option to employ less-than-lethal force.

This is reflected in ConViction’s selection of gadgets –  ie, “explosives”. Non-lethal airfoil and shock rounds, sticky cameras that spray knock-out gas and light-disrupting OCP devices are gone, replaced with frag, flash and EMP grenades, remote detonation mines and explosive sticky cameras. Moving bodies is no longer possible, either.

While Splinter Cell purists might scoff at such changes, it’s not all bad. With the strong emphasis on action, Ubisoft had to implement a shooter-grade cover system, and the result is top-notch. Getting into and out of cover is smooth and intuitive, as is moving from cover to cover. The old light and sound meters have been dispensed with, replaced by a fade to black-and-white when you’re concealed in the shadows (The lack of a sound meter is a bit of pain, but the bottom line is that you shouldn’t run anywhere; skulking around like a hunchback is your best bet).

Perhaps the most talked-about new feature is Mark & Execute. At first glance, it seems like an “I Win” button: Mark enemies with the right bumper, then hit Y to Execute, instantly killing each Marked enemy with a headshot. In practice, the system is more complex: you can’t Execute targets that are out of range or LOS, the number of enemies you can Mark varies from weapon to weapon and – most importantly – you must perform a CQC takedown in order to unlock Execute. Having used it, you must perform another takedown before you can Execute again. There’s no stockpiling, either: if you perform 10 takedowns in a row, you’ll still only have one Execute available.

You can Mark enemies even if Execute isn’t currently available. Not only are Marks a useful tool for keeping track of patrolling enemies, but this also allows you to set up Total Bad-Ass Moments™. In one level, I happened upon a large room with four guards inside; a fifth guard was standing by the open door. Execute wasn’t available, but I had a plan: I quickly Marked the men inside the room, then snuck as close as possible to the door guard. When he glanced away, I charged from cover and took him as a human shield, unlocking Execute. Without missing a beat, I Executed the four guys I’d Marked earlier and finished by cracking my captive’s skull against the wall. End result: I eliminated five armed guards in about six seconds, without any of them getting a shot off or raising the alarm – rad!

As in other Splinter Cell games, Sam can interrogate certain people to get useful information. In ConViction, you maneuver Sam and his prisoner around a small area and Sam will abuse his captive depending on where you’re standing when you hit the Interrogate button – from simple groin kicks to more imaginative methods such as smashing heads through TV screens.

Level design is pretty good, but there are not many areas that feature more than one way in. Indeed, there are times when the “stealthy” route feels almost like a concession to the Splinter Cell name, something the designer included because Sam is supposed to climb in through the roof vents or whatever, right? Still, there are a few solid areas; the Washington Monument stands out as being particularly good, both design-wise and thematically. By contrast, the Parking Garage, with its old-school insta-fail system, rapidly wears out its welcome. Additionally, as the game progresses the level design suffers, with the climax devolving into a corridor shooter where stealth falls by the wayside.

The AI is passable, if given to fits of remarkably stupidity. Patrol routes are not always the same, which introduces some welcome variability. Once alerted to your presence, enemies will remain alert for quite some time. They also really like to talk.

The game communicates objective and background information by projecting it on nearby walls; it’s kind of like you’re seeing what Sam is thinking. The system is also used to identify important areas and objects, rather than having them flash or putting a big arrow over them. This does get taken too far in one scene, when a variety of emotions (“Mistrust”, “Hope”, “ANGER”) flash around the room, but otherwise it works pretty well.

Another plus is no loading: once you start playing, the only time you’ll see a loading screen is if you die or retry. Loading is hidden behind cutscenes, and you can cut most of those short.

There’s no save game option in ConViction, so you’re at the mercy of the developers as far as keeping your progress goes. Unfortunately, auto-saves are either in short supply, poorly placed, or both. Failure will sometimes force you to replay large chunks or sit through unskippable cutscenes, which is irritating.

You’ll finish the game in about eight hours, less if you’re not a scrub like me, more if you decide to replay certain areas over and over to get them “just right”. In terms of multiplayer, though the much-loved Spies vs Mercenaries adversarial mode is gone, ConViction does feature a short cooperative campaign as well as Deniable Ops, a challenge mode for one or two players that give the game extra legs. Weapon selection and upgrades carry over into the multiplayer mode, providing impetus to go through the single-player at least once.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is a fun game. Although I was frustrated in a few places, I was able to get through with a minimum of fuss, and I’ve greatly enjoyed what I’ve played of Deniable Ops so far; I’m looking forward to trying it with my wife or one of the O514 guys as a partner. Still, as much as I like the game, I feel that it’s Splinter Cell in name only. Call me narrow-minded, but I’ve come to associate SC with the ‘stealth’ half of ‘stealth-action’; ConViction is a pretty fundamental departure from its roots. Still, there’s a good game here – check it out and decide for yourself.

7.5/10

PROS
+ CQC Takedowns look good, feel great!
+ Mark & Execute is the shortest route between you and Feeling Awesome
+ Excellent cover system
+ Projected objectives/goals is a cool touch
+ No loading screens
+ New focus on action keeps everything (including Sam) moving quickly
+ Washington Monument level
+ Deniable Ops is lots of fun, even by yourself.

CONS
– Story kind of falls apart halfway through
– Auto-saves need to be more frequent and better placed
– AI is sometimes dumb as a bag of hammers
– Most “gadgets” are just grenade variants
– New focus on action might leave fans of previous SC games feeling left out
– End-game suffers from dull level design
– No Spies vs Mercs

???
– Sometimes you’ll Execute a guy through an obstruction

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Splinter Cell: Conviction

We’re all fans of the Splinter Cell games here at the O514. So it’s good to know that Splinter Cell: Conviction, the fifth game in the popular stealth-action franchise from Ubisoft, is out in a couple of weeks.

Like the original Splinter Cell and the third game, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Conviction was developed at Ubisoft’s Montreal studio. This time around, secret agent Sam Fisher (voiced by Michael Ironside) has quit his job working for the U.S. government and is out to find and punish those responsible for the death of his daughter Sarah (Splinter Cell: Double Agent). The game missed the late 2007 release for which it was originally slated, and was officially put on hold in mid-2008 while the team went back to the drawing board. Conviction was expected to be available in late 2009, but was pushed back again and will finally see the light of day on April 13, 2010.

So what has Ubisoft Montreal been doing for the last two years? Trying to re-invent the stealth genre, for one. In an interview, Creative Director Max Beland had this to say:

What we decided to do was change how we thought about the stealth genre in general. So instead of making the stealth genre something that’s slower […] we decided to turn that inside out. If you’re the best elite agent in the world […] why do you have to hang off a ledge and move at one centimeter per minute? […] So we started asking ourselves all these [sorts of] questions, and we decided that we’re going to make you the ultimate predator. Instead of forcing the stealth on the player, where you’re seen and the alarm rings and you need to re-try, we’re going to do the opposite. We’re going to make stealth something you want to use. We want you to be a predator, not a grandmother. Being a grandmother before kind of forced you to be stealth. You need to hide in the shadows because if you’re seen, they shoot you and you’re dead. But what if we make the shadows something that’s interesting and makes you powerful and you use as a tactical tool against your enemies. So that’s how we’re able to approach our franchise differently while staying true to the values.

This approach explains how Sam is able to shimmy on pipes and crawl along ledges at speed. That’s not to say that stealth has been completed removed from the equation, however.

Of course, sometimes you just want to go loud:

And since everyone loves action, Ubi has decided to implement a system that makes it easier than ever to be awesome:

And another feature we [implemented is] “Mark and Execute.” We were looking at all our references [and] there’s a great scene in the movie Vantage Point with a bad guy going up a flight of stairs, […] not making any noise, and then some CIA guys pop out and he just kills them all super fast. And that’s action, but it’s stealth […] no one knows he’s there. So “Mark and Execute” was our answer for how to deliver that. The concept is very simple. You can mark enemies and then get in range and press the Y button and Sam shoots them all automatically.

In other words, Look ma: no hands!

Conviction will ship with a fairly robust multiplayer mode, which is largely focused on cooperative gameplay via Xbox Live, System Link and [vertical] split-screen. Nice to see some love for folks who don’t have an XBL subscription!

Ubisoft seems to have composed a grittier and more brutal chapter with Splinter Cell: Conviction. I mean, just look at all the explosions and gunfighting in this trailer:

Will it all pan out? We’ll know for sure in a couple of week.

(And no, you aren’t hearing things: that is indeed Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down“)

Way Beyond Good

A recent trip through DeviantArt searching for character portraits led me, in that roundabout internet way, to remember that a teaser for Beyond Good and Evil 2 was unveiled at Ubidays 2008 – a defacto confirmation that the game is officially in development. For those of use who immersed ourselves in the completely charming, harrowing and emotionally believable universe of BG&E, this is fantastic news; the original game is one of the best this gamer has ever played, and was described by the notoriously picky Trippenbach as “a game I would want my kids to play.”

For those not in the know, the 2003 BG&E was a very well reviewed flop. It scored an 8.7 on metacritic while being tragically destroyed at the gate by new editions of other Ubisoft games; Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia. It’s taken five years for a sequel to rear its head – and anyone who played the original is likely salivating at the prospect of returning to Hyllis. We might even hold out hope for the trilogy Michel Ancel originally imagined, assuming, of course, that lightning doesn’t strike twice.

If you haven’t played the original, do. I guarantee it’s worth the $10 it’ll cost you on steam. The legally available download of the game’s Christophe Heral soundtrack is also a must-have for any ipod.

Let’s just hope the sequel comes out in less time than it takes Tripp to start producing children…