Sunday, 25 April 2010

Review: Splinter Cell Conviction (360)

Sam Fisher’s latest exploit is a very different beast to past Splinter Cell titles, and after five years of waiting many fans of the series trademark gameplay may not be happy with what they get, especially compared to what they might have expected. ‘Conviction’ in many ways seems more driven by its personal narrative and characterisation than by providing players with a wholly realistic setting and story in which to sneak their way through. It is however, a much more exciting game as a result.

Instead of a highly polished and mostly grounded title, in which extreme stealth and careful planning are required, what we have here is a something which has been turned into more of a 24 style blockbuster, in which cleaver use of stealth and cunning are blended into a more action-based approach to the series traditional gameplay values. Call it ‘heightened cinematic realism’ if you will, rather than the previously cold, harsh and somewhat sedate style inspired by the Tom Clancy novels.

The same thing can be said about the forthcoming ‘Ghost Recon Future Solider’, a title which although keeps its squad-based gameplay mechanics intact, also brings to the table a faster paced, more action oriented adventure, dependant on thrills rather than the familiar steady and tense action most people associate with the franchise. At the same time this more accessible nature allows the developers to widen their games audience along with providing a more interesting story outside of the ‘provide target and execute’ nature cemented in previous games.

‘Splinter Cell Conviction’ starts much like previous games, in slightly confined and larger partially lit areas, having Sam Fisher sneaking around avoiding all enemy sentries whilst looking to accumulate his intended target. Even in these opening moments ‘Conviction’ familiarises players with its fresh approach to the series trademark gameplay, seeing them take a greater role in engaging the enemy, silently if not aggressively at the same time. It’s no longer a case of waiting around endlessly for patrols to clear giving a window of opportunity to move freely around, or killing them and dragging their bodies away. Instead, the aim here, as in many places through the game, is to use a combination of invisibility and distraction to your advantage.

At first the game’s use of light and darkness, along with stealth and silent aggression works rather well, and is not too dissimilar from other titles in this series. However ‘Conviction’ isn’t a game that you can play in the same way as say ‘Chaos Theory’ or even ‘Double Agent’, instead it requires you to be a lot more proactive in your choices and abilities in taking down the various guards set around the course of the levels. The game always keeps you moving towards your next intended target, driving along the story and Sam’s thirst for revenge. In many ways, despite still being driven by stealth, the game is no longer solely held back by it, with the way you approach certain obstacles being very different, and sometimes much louder and more brash.

The way the new stealth system works is a good example of this. No longer are you waiting around looking at on-screen cues to determine your status as hidden from your enemies. Instead the entire screen turns progressively more black and white as you become more and more camouflaged from potential foes. It’s an idea that works so much better than the meters used before in previous games. You can know instantly, and subtly tell exactly how hidden you are, and move/adapt accordingly on the fly almost instantly to your situation. This real-time feedback makes sneaking around and being avoided a faster paced affair, allowing you to move through guard-infested areas much more naturally if you have the skills to do so.

Another area of the game which also aids in this ‘quick stealth’ ideology is the game’s all new cover system, which it has to be said is the most intuitive and useful cover mechanic that has been implemented in any game so far. It’s surprisingly simple. Holding down a single button is all that is required, the ‘left trigger’, which sees Sam Fisher immediately squeezed up against a wall still able to move freely around. Pressing the ‘left trigger’ when your near an object, and you’ll take cover behind it, whilst releasing it frees you from your cover point instantly, after which Sam will instead crouch down whilst traversing around his environment.

When approaching an enemy silently and unseen, the game provides you with the option of making ‘hand kill’, a mostly quick and instant kill manoeuvre which when timed correctly is one of the games most useful tools in dispatching of your foes. Be a little too impatient however, and Sam may not be quite as successful, with his attempt at quickly executing a guard becoming a small but noisy scuffle, ousting your presence and forcing you to take alternative action. It’s this element in particular which feels most like a traditional Splinter Cell game, having you carefully approaching targets with a well thought out plan; who you’re going to deal with first, how to get around any potential obstacles that stand in your way, and at what point do you finally execute all you’ve been planning for.

Of course all this takes place in a matter of seconds, requiring quick thinking on the fly, along with a constant change or adaptation of tactics as the scenario plays out. This is what ‘Conviction’ is really all about, especially when you cam combine these tactics with the game’s new ‘mark and execute’ system.

The use of the new ‘mark and execute’ system is perhaps the series freshest addition since removing the trial and error nature of missions found in the first two games. This sees you mark a handful of targets for a quick and lethal attack, which if successful, won’t get you noticed by surrounding guards in the area. Failure to pull it off smoothly however, and the ruckus this will cause can immediately backfire on you, sending a squad of angry guards your way. If you do run out of attempts to ‘mark and execute’ you simply have to perform a few manual stealth kills in order to bring them back up again. It’s a system which keeps you from getting too trigger happy, and allows the game to force back some of that old Splinter Cell gameplay back into the mix.

Also playing out the always active approach taken by the game, the ‘last known position’ mechanic essentially finds you initiating contact with the enemy, through either noisy distractions or mostly, if you’re anything like me, via the ‘mark and execute’ system, in which after getting their attention you have to run away and find a good cover spot or position in which you are completely hidden. Whilst running away or reassessing your cover, the game presents you with a white icon on screen dictating your ‘last known position’, and it’s from here that enemies will start actively searching for you.

After this happens you can use their change of position to your advantage, by either being able to sneak past using a route once heavily guarded, or by gaining a better position to take out a few of the primary guards which properly hinder your progression.

Sadly, on numerous occasions, I found myself resorting to cheap Metal Gear style tactics in which I would take cover whilst pot-shooting at the enemies, moving around into other dark areas before repeating the process once more. It’s in this regard that many long time fans will be pretty disappointed, that you can, when familiar with your surroundings, get away with this when all else fails. Thankfully, upping the difficulty setting makes tactics like these impossible, and the reward for clearing heavily guarded areas that much more desirable. You have to, in essence, play the game like a Splinter Cell title, and not like a duck-and-cover shooter.

In addition, the game has also been overly simplified compared to previous instalments, lacking the ability to pick up and move downed enemies, or creating a distraction by whistling, knocking on objects etc. This in particular makes the whole experience a little by the numbers at times, with on many occasions the game making you do exactly what it wants you to do, and how it wants you to do it. This does in essence help create a more exciting game as a result, being geared towards specific action scenes and story-based segments.

However, in the same respect, people like myself who have never quite gelled with the series stubbornly harsh gameplay ideals will enjoy the fact the having the odd, or regular shootout makes the game feel far more exciting, as well as being more manageable than the previous games. At the same time, the game requires you to be stealthy in your actions, as you can only get shot three of four times continuously before falling dead on the ground. It’s this mix of quick pacing, forward-moving action, and a heavy hand of stealth, that makes ‘Conviction’ such a refreshing game to play, whilst also reworking the series for next-gen audiences. The game also never descends into Metal Gear arcade style action in the stealth sections, instead providing a wholly more grounded approach to such scenarios.

Later on in the game however, you’ll be confronted with sections which amount to being nothing more than a pot-shot cover shooting gallery, in which you lure your enemies into a position where you can easily take them out one at a time. These sections are filled with trial and error gameplay, in which one mistake will see you failing, or at other times dying quickly until you get the gist of how the game wants you to handle the situation. A far cry from the cleverly thought out level design, and thought provoking tactics so strongly featured in the series standout ‘Chaos Theory’ instalment, and a blemish on the solid stealth sections that make up the bulk of the game.

Visually, a lot has already been said about the game elsewhere on this site. Our tech analysis of the demo revealed the slightly disappointing 576 sub-HD nature of the game, and the issues that prevails as a result. The final game however, in many places, doesn’t seem to suffer as much as the demo did, with those ‘issues’ being mainly scenario based. Mostly, the game has a clean and smooth look throughout, with detailed texturing (though sometimes low resolution), and some really nice dynamic lighting and shadowing. Occasionally the upscaling leads to shimmering edges and jaggies being visible on objects far away from the screen, but it really isn’t that much of a problem. However, one thing that is always noticeable, it that the colours are somewhat less vibrant due to the upscaling (looking washed out), and the game also never looks pin-sharp as a result of its sub-HD resolution, with small details sometimes looking fuzzy.

However, Tom Clancy’s latest is perhaps the best looking 576p game so far compared to others released on either the 360 or the PS3. In many ways, the 360’s superb internal scaler makes the game almost indistinguishable from some native 720p rendering games, especially when viewed on a softer looking Plasma display screen. Whereas uber sharp LCD screens and CRT PC monitors tend to show up the sub-HD nature of the game far more frequently. Either way, the fact that the game isn’t native 720p is far less of an issue for most of the final game than our initial tech analysis made it out to be in the demo. So it still holds up pretty well, and looks pretty good overall, though not particularly impressive.

‘Splinter Cell Conviction’ isn’t quite the defining game in the series I hoped it would be. In fact, whilst the game on many levels works to create the most intuitive stealth and espionage experience yet, it’s also let down by its own admission into becoming more of a blockbuster thrill ride centred on action and pseudo-sneaking rather than the hard-edged real deal the Tom Clancy franchise is known for. In one way, it’s a better game for it, allowing the title to have an intriguing edge of your seat style storyline in places, whilst also providing the player with some of the most accomplished gameplay mechanics seen in this type of game so far.

However, the sometimes overly action-based nature, and increased simplicity, of the game derails the experience, especially in sections designed solely for the purpose of providing players with elaborate shoot outs, and tension through trial and error mechanics, which we haven’t seen since ‘Pandora Tomorrow’ on the original Xbox. Other sections also find you instead taking the aggressive route to finding a solution, flushing out guards and silently disposing of them, rather than attempting to seamlessly move past, without so much of a trace left behind. This was of course the intention of the development team all along though, and they have (mostly) nailed it, minus a few stages in the second half of the game, which turn into an all out shooter.

Despite a few criticisms, ‘Conviction’ does a lot right, bringing the franchise up to modern day standards with regards to the controls and intuitive gameplay mechanics so taken for granted by other titles. In this aspect the game almost never fails to captivate, providing a fresh look at the stealth genre, and a much-needed change of pace, making whole game flow a lot more smoothly. The hard-edged gripping realism of past games is gone, as is the use of show-stopping generation defining visuals. But their absence doesn't harm the game quite as much as you might think, instead only alienating the most ardent of Tom Clancy videogame fans.

So in the end, what we have here is a pretty successful re-envisioning of a classic franchise, lacking in visual clout, and some of the important depth found in previous instalments, but not without plenty of excitement along the way. Old fans may be disappointed, but everyone else should find Sam Fisher’s latest exploits more engrossing than before, despite being a little more flawed in its execution.


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