Playing through Splinter Cell latest entry has been a new experience for me. My previous exposure to Sam Fisher limited to a round or two in Chaos Theory and half a level in Pandora Tomorrow. It had never left much of an impact on me, but I had been following the recent information about Conviction with a lot of anticipation for the game’s release. It looked gorgeous and a lot of the ideas and mechanics seemed fresh and interesting.
And for the most part, Ubisoft Montrèal delivered on what they said they would. It is a game that demonstrates a huge undertaking, with a great soundtrack, a very crisp and detailed visual landscape and game mechanics that do things differently from many other similar properties. At its core, Splinter Cell: Conviction is a third-person shooter, but it presses a lot of importance on remaining hidden, assessing your surroundings to discover tactical advantages and being accurate and lethal or fear reprisal of many bullets.
Coming Out Of Retirement – The Campaigns and Multiplayer
Sam Fisher does not want to continue killing people as a nine to five, but here we go again! Continuing with his motivations from the events of the previous Splinter Cell game, you are charged with hunting down those responsible for wronging you and eventually those with intentions of destroying the country you love. As far as the plot goes, what starts out simple gets very convoluted and complicated to a point where it does not really matter besides becoming a cinematic stopgap between you and playing the actual game. This goes for the co-op campaign, as well, but does have a good lead up to the events of the single player experience.
The story is strong enough to keep you going, but hardly an incentive for playing the game. What you should expect to get is an experience that will allow you to tactically remove a room full of people who want to hurt you, often without even knowing that you were there. It is satisfying on your own and double that playing with a friend who has a penchant for simultaneously executing a carefully laid out plan.
Splinter Cell also features a non-campaign multiplayer experience that allows you to play against waves of enemies while protecting a key item, eliminating a group without being detected or facing off against a friend as you both try and take out as many bad men as you can for points. It is varied enough to stand up as a solid play, but unfortunately this and other parts of the game are limited by the mechanics and level design.
Bad Robot – AI and Game Mechanics
The mechanics that they’ve added to really stress this are easy to show off, such as the last known position. When you are facing a group of enemies and happen to be seen, through fault or perhaps just to draw attention away from where you want to be, as soon as you are out of sight a silhouette of yourself appears in the exact position the enemy last saw you. This is a great tool for knowing where the enemy is going to focus their attention, allowing you to slip in behind them or at least far enough away to heal and perhaps reassess your tactics.
What does not work well with this mechanic is the enemy itself. The strongest issue with Conviction is the enemy that you are facing. They are loud, repetitive and not very bright, making interesting elements like the last known position a bit too literal. Enemies will blindly focus on a position for a long while, at least until they know with absolute certainty that you have moved, meaning you can quite easily slip in behind someone while they fire aimlessly at your shadow. While this may sound advantageous, it often can be a bit disappointing to have a carefully laid out plan come together more so due to the failings of the artificial intelligence rather than through your own successes. The enemy will often stand right in front of your last known position silhouette and unload a clip of bullets before realizing that you’re not there.
Limitations in the AI also tend to break the cohesive experience of the game when you shoot an enemy, only to have his friend run up to his corpse and yell “Someone is here!” to a room filled with other corpses. This is especially silly when you take out a procession of bad guys who all run up to the ever growing pile of bodies and wonder just what is going on. Lining up to be shot seems to be counter-intuitive to the super-spy feeling you are supposed to have as the steadfast Sam Fisher.
Even enemies with sonar goggles, a gadget that allows you to see your opponents through walls, rarely take advantage of the tools they are given. They have a tendency to throw smoke bombs to obscure your vision, supposedly not realizing that you are equipped with the same tools that they are and are more willing to use them. Another element of the game that makes the enemies look very silly is the mark-and-execute mechanics that allows you to click on a few bad guys you can see roaming around a quickly take them all out in sequence before they have a chance to move. It is an earned bonus, only up to four depending on your weapon, and is replenished by taking down enemies using hand-to-hand combat. Sometimes telling whether or not you have any mark-and-execute points is difficult to the odd grey-colouring of the bar, but it is useful tool when you find yourself overwhelmed.
What this allows you to do is eliminate a room full of bad people very quickly and efficiently. It is the feeling that they seem to be out to capture, that Sam Fisher is an unstoppable force of nature that an army can not stop. They set up a lot of rooms and levels with hiding places, traps and easily destroyed lighting fixtures that allow you to play out the game either as stealthily as possible, or perhaps just stick to the run-gun-hide philosophy that can serve you equally as well.
I’m Afraid I Can’t Let You Do That, Ian – Level Design
When you’ve become fairly comfortable with the mechanics, it basically turns you into a force to be reckoned with, especially when the AI feels so limited. The way around this, it seems, is to design the levels and scenarios in such a way that you are forced into a high-stress combat situation that may go against the way you’ve been playing up to this point. For instance, walking through the streets and being challenged with a barricade of baddies who you can not sneak around and will be detected instantly if you walk near them. Your only real choice is to either start picking them off and alerting the rest to your location or throwing flashbangs and grenades.
It is actually surprising how many scenarios like this come throughout the co-op campaign and single player campaign experience. While a break in the gameplay is often welcome, instead of having you trudge through the same scenarios at length, it feels like the difficulty becomes artificial ramped up at some of these scenarios due to the nature of the mechanics. You are not equipped to handle much gunfire, so when a group of men storm a room with little cover you often will go through trial by death, figuring out what tactic works and what doesn’t by simply dying over and over again and trying different maneuvers. It feels dated and different from the rest of the experience, and does not happen often enough to hurt the game significantly, but it does not help.
The design of most of the worlds is actually well constructed. Levels look gorgeous and are very detailed, and most rooms provide you ample routes for tactically eliminating your enemies. With stealth games this design can make or break the experience, and through most of it is makes it. This is actually more noticeable in the co-op campaign, where every level layout feels like it is designed for two people to make their way around. Allowing you to hang from objects, ledges and easily take down enemies from any position makes for a satisfying experience that the level design helps greatly with.
The biggest failing in the levels come when you are playing online. The co-op campaign is your multiplayer experience, meaning all the levels are contained there. This limits what you can do in the game, either becoming You + Friend VS Bad Guys or You VS Friend VS Bad Guys. Your experience contained within the co-op campaign will be the same as going online, save for the fact when it is one super spy versus another you will often just ignore the other bad guys and start running at each other with automatic weapons until the other one falls down.
Lock & Load – Weaponry and Replayability
The gun play in the game is by far some of the strongest in any stealth game I have played in a long while. It is enhanced by a wide variety of weapons are your disposal, but limited by the exact same element. You have a selection of automatics, rifles and pistols to choose from, but the deadliest and most effective weapon often remains as the silenced pistol. It is a shame, because throughout the entire experience I did not feel encouraged to use anything except my first selection of weapons. When you use a non-silenced weapon it almost feels like you are doing it wrong, as enemy fire will take you down quickly (especially at higher difficulty levels) and just about anyone will hear if you take someone out with an AK-47.
While this may be a limitation, the incentive of upgrading your weapons is one that will keep you progressing in the game. Pistols become more effective as you add power or range to their abilities. The way that you get points for upgrading this is through a set of challenges in the game, such as taking out 10 enemies without being seen or killing 50 enemies while hanging from the ceiling. It is this that will drive you to continue to play the game long after you have finished the campaign. Not to say that the multiplayer component of the game is not strong enough to keep you going, but it does not quite have the same charm and cohesiveness as the campaigns do.
We Only Hate Because We Love – Conclusion
I know that what I have written may seem overly critical, and it is something that I have been processing in my head for quite some time. It is not that I did not enjoy my experience Splinter Cell. I actually did enjoy my time with it, and continue to play it having beaten it sufficiently for review well over two weeks ago. It is because I enjoy it so much and see so much potential in the ideas that it has explored that the faults become more evident to me.
It is a good game, well designed and rarely does it feel like I have been cheated out of a kill or limited by the mechanics and movement. I can pick a spot, pick a tactic and make it happen, and that is not something that many games can attest to. The enemy AI severely limit the satisfaction that comes as a result of a well executed plan because the consequences of making a mistake are not present. You can stumble quite severely and make a great recovery not because of your ability to think on your feet as much as the inability for the computer to think at all. It is a cat playing with a toy mouse. It is fun, yes, but there is something about a challenge and an opponent that you know is capable of outmaneuvering you that makes success all the more rewarding.
The entire package offered here is exceptionally strong despite these shortcomings and offers a very different gameplay experience to those familiar with the series than previous installments have, and that is to its credit. You have the ability to make the game into whatever you most enjoy, be it all hide and go seek or all shoot first and maybe ask questions. The inclusion of a strong and separate co-op campaign makes the whole game all the more desirable and it is something I would recommend trying with a friend, even as a split-screen experience. Nothing quite beats a well timed co-op execution and it is always good when a plan comes together.