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Pew Review: Splinter Cell: Conviction (360)

After how many years of development has this game been released? Lots of years! About as long as it's been since I've done a cblog review! So, this had better be worth the wait right? Right??

As someone who couldn’t stand the old Splinter Cells for more than 2 hours tops, I was kinda hoping that Conviction would be the action/stealth hit that I could stand. The older games we more trial & error based puzzles involving the stealthy removal of guards in levels. At some point I just grew tired of spending time on it, so I quit.

Conviction solves this problem by becoming not-Splinter Cell. Stealth is still the main draw of the game, but it has been Gears of War’d. You crouch, slide from cover to cover a la Wanted, hide in shadows to become stealthed, etc. And then there are SMG’s, Assault Rifles, really loud Shotguns and infinite ammo for your pistol. That’s right, you have infinite ammo for the pistol, which is also the most accurate, silent and useful weapon in the entire game.

Basically, Conviction is the game where Sam Fisher is just pissed off and going Bourne against whoever is opposing him. This supposedly explains why Sam doesn’t feel like taking his time and why he just wants to go from point A to point B in a level in an as efficient way as possible. Just like me! I am starting to like the game already.

This Bourne style comes back in multiple ways. First, there are some key Interrogation scenes where you get info about the story, and then totally forget about what is being said while you try to slam someone into the scenery as hard as you can. No worries: you can destroy a lot of scenery with a human body and it looks great.

Another aspect is more of a gameplay device. With every melee kill you perform (you cannot always run up to someone and melee him to death), you get the ability to mark a number of enemies and kill them all, regardless of whether they just ran behind cover or a metal truck. This leads to two big changes. One, the game’s puzzles become more skill based as you try to melee one guard, mark and execute 4 other guards, and then melee the last remaining guard to refill your mark/execute ability. This is opposed to just having to figure out yourself how you are going to clear an area like in the older games.

Another change that it results in, is that the focus is more on overt action than on stealth. You can stealthily snap someone’s neck in the dark, but once you mark and execute people while they are not the last in the room, others will notice. And if they notice, they will come for you. And if they come for you anyway, you might as well just use your ridiculously accurate pistol to shoot them all in the head in the first place!

One way to look at this is that the levels are just a playground for you to fuck around with the guards, and to take them out however you want. Stealth players can still sneak. Action fans can do their Gears of War thing, although they will get flanked and die a lot. This brings up the AI, which is at the same time great and severely retarded.

If an alarm is sounded, the AI will know your last known location and swarm it. Since you usually cannot cover all entrances to a location, this tends to lead to either a giant firefight, or death. So the AI can be competent enough to dissuade you from doing stupid things. However, the whole ‘leave a shadow image of your last known location’ can lead to ridiculous situations when guards shoot at your shadow image for a full minute while you sneak around to flank them. You would think they would be a bit smarter when dealing with a shadow image, but they are not. It works as a gameplay device because it makes them very predictable to deal with, but still..

With a half decent AI, the choice to go action or stealth, and around 10 levels or so to play through, there is a decent amount of content to play around with. One small thing makes the singleplayer campaign worthless however: the story is dumb. It’s not just ridiculous as you would expect from a Clancy story, what with secret organizations and government conspiracies and whatnot. It’s just a dumb story that you won’t care about, and that ends rather abruptly with no closure at all.

This is kinda interesting, because it looks like the script has almost nothing to do with the entire rest of the game. A lot of work obviously has gone into the level design, the models, the AI and behaviors and the “emotional design” which I’ll get back to later. The story feels like it was not really part of the game, and at no point will you care about it. It’s just there to make you go from one random level to the next.

The storytelling however, has some interesting elements. For instance, you are introduced to your creepy looking daughter in a way that explains some of the core mechanics of the stealth system. At the same time, it shows Sam as a character outside of the job. It basically does in 5 minutes what Heavy Rain tried to do in an hour or so, which was funny to see. There is also a lot of playing around with the storytelling’s more elliptical nature. Things are shown at one point, only to be seen from a different perspective when you get to play to that point in time. It works well enough, has that cool factor that sets it apart from the more average storytelling methods in other games (say, MW2) but doesn’t really reinvent anything either.

Ubisoft’s website prides itself for being the company that “designs emotion”. In Conviction, they definitely deliver. At times. Throughout the game, certain scenes that are happening right now, or happened in the past, are projected onto the game world itself. You’ve probably seen that in one of the interrogation scenes in the early videos: someone is talking about your daughter, and you see some events projected onto the wall. This works really well to keep you grounded inside of the game world and living through the character you play.

Another implementation of this is that hints and goals are projected one things that are along the way you are supposed to take, and on goals themselves (e.g., Power Generator One). It looks cool, and you won’t even feel lost since a marker effectively guides you where you need to go. More interesting is the method of projecting Sam’s feelings onto the environment during certain cutscenes. People tend to play and manipulate Sam, which makes him angry. During these scenes, you will see words like GRIEF, ANGER, BETRAYAL, REVENGE flicker and flash all over the walls and environment. It actually works really well to convey what emotions your character is feeling.

However, the bigger question is whether you should convey what your character is feeling. In this game, you are never really Sam Fisher because he is infinitely more BALLER than we could ever be. It was nice to see him react to certain news bits though, but at the same time it’s a bit of an easy way to circumvent the problem of how the player identifies with the player character. If you just tell the player, then that might come at the cost of identification since the player is just told what to think.

Aaanyway, back to the game. Long story short: it is fun to play. Once. Then you’ll probably not play it again. Which is kind of sad, since the game is only around 8-10 hours tops. Which is not worth $50-$60 at all!

Luckily, there is a really fleshed out coop mode with splitscreen and everything. Plenty of challenges to play, plenty of co-op levels (even a campaign) and probably some multiplayer modes. If you like doing these things, then Conviction might be worth a purchase. If you don’t really care for playing co-op though, or if you can’t see yourself playing co-op any time soon, then Conviction is just not worth it.

For me, it was a short game with a ridiculously stupid storyline and no conclusion whatsoever. If you want me to feel attachment to whatever I am supposed to do or save, it would be nice to get a little more than a “so he lived happily ever after” or a “too bad he died” kind of conclusion. Not that the game ends that way btw, but consider it a spoiler-less way of explaining it.

Overall I was just mildly disappointed in Conviction. The core gameplay is fun, if not perfect (but then I am not a stealth fan). It’s like what MGS4 was to MGS1. I hated MGS1 and quite enjoyed MGS4. But after Conviction, I can kind of see why MGS4 had such long cutscenes. Conviction does not have those, and as a result you basically have no story at all. Because the story is very important for a singleplayer game, especially one like Splinter Cell or MGS, it's really weird that so little attention has been paid on the script. It could have made the game great, yet now it makes it feel disjointed. Almost as if a publisher had put multiple fantastic teams on the game without really having a good creative oversight person in charge, hmmm!

There is some replayability if you want to, but I just don’t want to. In the end I mixed up enough straight action, stealth sneaking and gadget tomfoolery to have seen what the game has to offer, and that was enough for me. If you can, I’d just rent it/gamefly it. There are enough interesting ideas visible in the game to warrant a rental, but just go in not expecting much epicness. There is epicness, but it’s not worth $60. And without a same-level co-op partner, you will just not be playing this game after the first week.

Sadly, Splinter Cell: Conviction does not really live up to the hype. It is a fun ride, lets you play in a different way than you’ve probably been playing for the last 6 months or so, but is utterly forgettable.

Oh yeah, and indoor lighting looks really silly when there is no lightsource, the graphics range from nice to blehgeneric and everytime you melee someone to get the mark/execute ability, a giant flash with a loud noise makes sure you didn't miss that (which tends to look like you just got shot at or something, very annoying). It still has a better story than Heavy Rain though, but so did The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Played the game on the 360 on Normal difficulty. A Realistic mode is available which requires a lot more stealth and gadget use. And double the patience. Did not play co-op for obvious reasons. Hilary Goldstein over at IGN gave the game a 9.3 which is a bit on the high side if you factor in value for money. I'd say something in the 8 range would be fair. There is quality in the package if you care for what's inside, but most gamers will be better off just renting it.

Limited Edition preorder note: Assault Rifles are pretty much useless in the game, so don't worry about getting a LE unique Assault Rifle. It will be useless.
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About Maurice Tanone of us since 5:41 AM on 07.16.2007

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Hai! You may know me as Professor Pew in older times. If you see a cblog here from beyond September 2010 or something: that's from the cblogging days and not anything editor-related :)