Review: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction
Up above, thick clouds paste up the sky, the moon just barely blinking through every so often; even the crickets seem to have gotten out of your way on the ridge. Shadows hug your shoulders and you feel your breath behind your eyes as you count “one, two, three, four hostiles” below you in the quarry.” The one lying behind you, the one with a new orifice at the base of his spine, obviously hadn't heard of the buddy system; the guys down below though are going to be a little trickier to deal with. They can't see you at all, though they might feel something; still, they can look at the dark as much as they want and see whatever their mind's fancy. You're a Rorschach test on black paper. This will be easy. Four squeezes, four heads, that's all it is; you line up your first shot... your finger twitches a little, and you miss? They look up, flashlights stabbing; you fumble and throw a flash bang (any reason?) that bounces off a tree and lands two feet in front of you. White noise, a few comments regarding your mother, and not even a reload later you're back to the load screen...F#@*!
Isn't this that moment where you're pulled out of the game? You were in it but then something stupid like this happens. It's that disconnect when what you intended to do doesn't exactly translate virtually, in this case, instead of a virtuoso demonstration of ballistics and marksmanship, you might as well have run around the evil-doers base with an air horn. You wouldn't have done that in real life, your trigger finger isn't next to a button that automatically throws grenades. This is one of Splinter Cell: Conviction's delights. It does a great job of translating your intent and planning. Along with this strength is a surprisingly engaging story and protagonist. And added to a great story mode is a bad-ass cereal box prize bonus: some of the most challenging co-op modes I've played.
You remember those lunchtime scenarios you'd come up with your friends. The ones that concerned shock troopers crashing through windows with smoke grenades; where you'd plan out Han Soloesque gun-slinging and maybe some John Woo acrobatics to clear the room, all climaxing with that final round between the eyes of the last troop holding Stacy Edwards, the captain of the cheer leading squad, hostage? Then it ends with her making out with you? At least me and my friends did, and I think someone at Ubisoft did as well because that's the kind of planning you can execute in SCC (minus the making out with Stacy part).
The kind of smooth movement you'd have moving between targets with an actual gun in your hand, or actually running between cover is a lot easier in reality than with an analog stick. Ubisoft did a great job in approximating that with several control and environmental elements. The Mark and Execute system is the game's greatest proponent of this. You get to pre-target enemies and as long as the targets are in range, Sam Fisher can then instantaneously strike head shots, clearing the room without raising alarm. To make things fair, certain weapons only allow you so many marks (pre-targets). The Five-Seven pistol (now my favorite) provides four marks, the most in the game. This doesn't mean you can just run through the maps taking out four people at a time though.
Fisher only gets Mark and Execute after performing a close quarter take down. Why grinding someone's neck allows Fisher super marksmanship ability, I'm not too sure, but it kept the game from becoming straightforward. Mark and Execute overall might sound too easy, but when you take into account that Fisher is a super spy, it makes sense. He should, and is more than capable of, executing multiple head shots. And in a genre where stealth sometimes depends on simultaneously taking out multiple targets, I'm thankful for it. Quickly moving cross hairs between heads can get sloppy when done manually with an analog stick. If you kept raising alarms in scenarios like this, the game play would get bogged down after a while.
Environment also provides for great planning and game play. A little artistic feature I really enjoyed involves shadows. When Fisher is wrapped in shadows, the world goes black and white, with enemies and environmental traps (propane tanks, lamps) remaining in color. It looks great and conveys that mood of concealment, but more importantly, it means enemies can't see you. You can prowl from the shadows to the edge of light, grab an enemy (holding B to take him hostage) and bring him back into the shadows to snap his neck; no one will ever find him (ooooooooh, chills). You can also climb pipes up walls and across ceilings inverted to further survey an area from shadow. Or you can move through the room like this without alerting anyone, or even engage the enemy form this position; it's great for ambushing and the enemy will have trouble finding you.
A little detail that really comes in handy when you are discovered is called Last Known Position. When enemies see you and are alerted to you, an outline of Fisher is projected at that spot. This is your Last Known Position. It's great because enemies will focus on that spot and will even move in to flank it. You can then maneuver accordingly and take out enemies skillfully. Planning goes a step further with gadgets like the snake cam. You peak under doors with it and can even mark enemies on the other side for a quick Mark and Execute when you kick in, or calmly open, the door. The ultimate in planning though is the new tri-focal sonar goggles. They let you see through walls and highlight enemies as the signal pings off and returns. Yes, you can use Mark and Execute with the goggles, but to make it fair, the image washes up and fills with static as you move. So it's more of ping every so often thing since they work best when you're stationary.
This all provides for that sense of classic sneak and shadow Splinter Cell. There is a shift in the overall direction of the series though. As I mentioned before in my Initial Impressions blog post, there was an inclination towards more action in the game. Now having finished the game; I see that it's a well balanced amount of action in a refreshing way. There was plenty of silenced pistol sneaking throughout the game, but it felt nice to burn through magazines of tax-paid ammunition every so often. You can even incite the action yourself. If the mission doesn't strictly require non detection, you can alert everyone in the base to come on down to the fire fight in the mansion's atrium. There's a slew of weapons to choose from if you want to gun sling, but if your priority is sneaking, you only really need your pistol. Again, the Five-Seven is the way to go.
I was surprisingly engaged by the story. It isn't anything special; just your stock, power-high secret agency coup d' etat against America bit. It's the way that it's told though that matters. Through Fisher's eyes it's a story about a father's love. It's also a story about trust and sacrifice. I won't divulge the context, but the best crafted moment in the game, one that a lot of games try to achieve but mishandle, is just a close up of Fisher. It isn't overpowered by a melodramatic orchestral number, and there's no accusations or vows or maxims. It's just a human reaction: anger. A thick, sloshing anger that rears and roils; one that wants to split Fisher apart.
Some of the story is narrated by Victor Coste, Fisher's old friend from the Gulf War. He's telling it in an interrogation room of an unnamed agency after the events of the game. Coste's narration conveys to the contextualization of Fisher's story; that Fisher's search for the truth is swooped up in these greater events involving the fate of the nation. Another great story telling element is very subtle. Throughout the environments, scenes, pictures, words, and instructions are projected onto walls and other surfaces in a grainy old school film manner. They serve as a way to look at Fisher's thoughts without blatantly doing so with cut scenes or flashbacks. They tell you Fisher is always thinking and brooding and the past is always present to him. There's a great flashback in the tutorial though. When you're learning to use shadows, Fisher recalls a night when his daughter was younger and was scared of the dark. It's very revealing of his state of mind; one that's weathered and tired, one that lost meaning when he lost his daughter. Other cut scenes reveal future events, and without giving anything away, they again recall Fisher's cynical thoughts on trust.
Don't you love it when a game feels like it's worth the $60? After going through the campaign, I was very pleased to find out the multiplayer and Deniable Ops modes are more challenging than the story. Multiplayer has it's own story line that precedes the events in SCC. You play as either a Third Echelon agent code-named Archer or as codename agent Kestrel from Voron, the Russian counterpart of the agency. The game play is so rewarding. Here's where you have planning at its best. Your buddy can take out an enemy on a ledge while you head shot the guard in the tower. You can both Mark and Execute, and if you're both using Five-Seven pistols, well, let's just say it's caramel deep-fried in sexy. The layout of guards, cameras, and laser grids makes the whole thing one giant sneak and kill puzzle.
Other multiplayer game modes such as Last Stand have you protect an EMP generator against waves of enemies, and a Uplay (Ubisoft's frequent player point system) exclusive, Infiltration mode, has you hunt down enemies without raising an alarm. As soon as someone becomes aware of you, the mission is scrapped. I found this mode especially challenging. What makes the multiplayer even sweeter though is split-screen play. Yes, split-screen play. I'm of the school of gaming that still enjoys having a friend next to me while I play so this was a real treat. SCC's Deniable Ops are basically the single player version of the multiplayer game modes, minus the story and Face Off modes. All in all, this is a really awesome addition to the game.
I only had a few complaints about the game and they're not even that serious. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Ironside, Fisher's voice actor, has an amazing voice. He's up there with James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), and Dennis Haysbert (The Unit, but more importantly, the All-State guy; Are you in good hands?). It's just that his voice didn't seem to match up at points. I guess Ironside (Isn't that a sweet name?) wanted to convey a Sam Fisher who'd been through too much; but it came off too weathered sometimes. With the sometimes over-haggardness of the voice, and Fisher obviously aging, you could even take the game as one long commercial for “Touch of Gray” hair dye by Just for Men; yeah, you can throw a football through a tire, and dislocate someone's spine. I couldn't help but laugh because his voice sometimes came off like an Optimus Prime, Harrison Ford hybrid (Optimus Ford, Harrison Prime?). It only bothered me sometimes though, and that said, please don't kill me with your steel vocal cords Mr. Ironside.
You don’t like my voice?!
What really annoyed me though was the Face Off multiplayer mode. You're supposed to hunt down the other spy while there are NPC enemies thrown into the mix; that's what I think kills this game mode. I wanted to focus on hunting down the other player, but NPC's get in the way and if I wanted to, I could win the match just by focusing on NPC's; absolutely pointless. It might as well be the regular hunter mode where you just have to eliminate enemies. My last complaint is Fisher's walk. It annoyed the hell out of me. I really appreciate that Ubisoft took the time to create realistic movement for Fisher, but they overdid it in this aspect. It reminded me of the “Ooooh! Look at me! I'm Batman!” iron-torso walk from Batman: Arkham Asylum. I guess they wanted to show power behind Fisher's every step, but it's a little counter-intuitive to the spy game. If I was a bad guy on the look out for a super spy in a crowd, someone who looks like they can kill with their forehead, I wouldn't have a hard time spotting Fisher's angry runway model strut. One last thing, no overtly large combat knifes? How can you have a stealth game without the joys, the elation of knifing? SCC really feels like a complete package. A classic Splinter Cell feel that doesn't feel tired and redundant with great action, control, and compelling story. Along with a sweet multiplayer suite, I feel it's worth the buy. This review is based off a retail copy of the game.