Wednesday 1 August 2012

Splinter Cell: Conviction

I'm not plucking games out of the sky, whatever do you mean?

Splinter Cell: Conviction for the Xbox 360, released back in 2010. Fifth game in the long-running-but-actively-ignored-by-me Splinter Cell franchise. And now, having played a game starring Sam Fisher and his three eyed friend(s), I can actually justify why that is.

To cut a long story short, Splinter Cell: Conviction was painful. Not because it's outstandingly horrible, but because the entire experience is riddled with repetition and tedium. I thought we were beyond games like this - I thought bigger budgets and improved standards forced this noise out of existence, but here I am nonetheless, questioning the praise from the video game press while I sit frustrated by a supposed triple-A release.

The card I drew from the deck of life means I have very little experience with the stealth genre. Often I've seen the slow-paced nature of play used an excuse to drag things out over the course of several more hours, applying less pressure on the artists and level designers in the process. But I was nevertheless open minded about Splinter Cell: Conviction at the beginning - the statsistics show no poorly rated Splinter Cell games being released in the last decade, and with a strong fanbase you can only assume the the series has maintained its value. It hasn't.

Two minutes in and I quickly came to the realisation this is more akin to a washed out Gears of War than anything regarding "stealth". The environments are slightly more interactive and the AI scripts have been changed, but the basic gameplay elements are the same - it's a linear duck-and-cover third person shooter, where you fight similar waves of enemies until your hands hurt.

But unlike Gears, in Splinter Cell you can hide from your enemies! You crawl into a darkened area, take out your slienced pistol, and shoot your foes in the face. Rinse and repeat over a dozen stages, charge £40 for the priveledge.

It all feels rather normal until about half an hour into the experience, in which you find yourself busting down a door and gunning down half a dozen men in a well lit room. Stealth! And then there's that stage where you're fighting in the gulf with an AK-47 assault rifle, shooting Iraqis in the face in broad daylight. More stealth!

Much of the game's engine was allegedly overhauled for this release, under a banner Ubisoft term "accessibility". Unfortunately they failed to take note of the story, whose finer details hang on the events of past games. The plot continues directly from the 2008 release of Splinter Cell: Double Agent, and if you've played that, presumably you've experienced the older style of play and don't require an engine change. But I might be mistaken about Ubisoft's choice of words - at one point I was jammed into some geometry and had to manually restart the mission - maybe that's what they mean by greater accessibility, as it gives you access to the inside of brick walls.

That being said, this is the only game in the series shut off to PlayStation 3 owners, so in that respect it's clearly not as "accessible" as good chunks of Ubisoft's game library. Well done marketing teams.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is poorly designed and often built to confuse. Though the game issues rough instructions at the beginning, those not in-tune with the franchise may have difficulty coming to terms with the controls at first. Most of the guns you won't need, and most of the supplimentary items serve little purpose. The camera also repeatedly lets you down, with awkwardness I've not witnessed since the peak of the PlayStation 2.

Frequently life is livened up by a rule change, such as the game forcing you to chase a bloke across Washington D.C., or thrusting you into a "defend the computer" role. Another mission fails you if you're detected by the enemy (real stealth!), and Sam frequently gets to smash faces in lively interregation segments because he's an angry man. Along with some pointless time travelling, Mr. Fisher spends his days finding his dead daughter and stopping the president of the United States from being displaced by crazy corporate terrorists. And everyone betrays everyone and AMERICA.

Later levels are a joke, not necessarily because of difficulty, but because variation is thrown out of the window in favour of glorified Space Invaders segments, where Sam has to gun down waves of enemies sprouting the same few lines of horrible dialogue with machineguns. There's too much padding - you spend far too much of this game fighting people beat-'em-up style.

Sam will frequently die a miserable death, as he can only take two or three gunshot wounds to the face before keeling over. Due to dodgy checkpoint placement this can often lead to clearing out the same rooms more than once, or enduring unskippable cutscenes on a loop. The scent of untested mediocrity is always in the air, and there's plenty of trivial design flaws which add to the frustration.

Despite some interesting artistic concepts (whose effects wear off after a while), the world is frequently dark, plain and generally lacklustre. All things considered, the cutscenes are also pretty poor - Sam has an emotionless face to go with his generically dull John McClaine impression, and there are awkward frame rate drops which can only be attributed to someone slacking on the job. Conviction feels out-of-date - as if it were a ten year old game tweaked to try and meet modern standards in a stupidly short time frame. I can imagine this being great by 2004-standards, but these days I'm not so sure.

Predictably the audio is forgettable, though you can still buy a soundtrack if you've no taste in music. The best things to come out of the speakers are the bleeps and bloops of the main menu, but spend too long playing with them and you'll be presented with a plug for the latest Rainbow Six game, because corporate arrogance is fun! Patches for fixing bugs? I don't think so!

Nevertheless I can't stand on a platform and say that Splinter Cell: Conviction is the worst game man has produced. Structurally it's more than adequate, playing reasonably well and looking fine. It's just an extremely average package overall - Ubisoft have clearly poured money into this one, but never thought to divert the funds away from the polish and into the core gameplay (and don't forget - the Unreal Engine does a good chunk of the work!). On the plus side, its sequel, Splinter Cell: Blacklist seems to have addressed some of the shortcomings, but having played Conviction, I'm skeptical that Blacklist is worth my time.

So yes, I wouldn't actively recommend Splinter Cell: Conviction. Though not atrocious, it's a mediocre game trading off a brand - unless you're a massive fan of the series this can be avoided.

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