Saturday, June 11, 2011

-REVIEW: Splinter Cell: Conviction-
in brightest day, in blackest night, BOOM headshot

Title: Splinter Cell: Conviction
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: April 2010 for PC, X360
Price: $19.99 (Steam) $29.99 (X360)

It’ll make you wish you had a dad like Sam Fisher. Or were a dad like Sam Fisher. It’ll make you wish you were your dad if he were Sam Fisher.
I feel sorry for your dad.

this american life

Film has been one of the most influential forms of media in recent history. The availability, accessibility, and popularity of films have made it easy for movies with even the mildest of acclaim get spread far and wide. Inevitably, some of these movies make it into some people’s homes, into some young child’s life, and into his spongy, developing psyche.  As a child of the 80s and 90s, my spongy, developing psyche was indelibly, irreversibly stamped by many things: the large, waffle-shaped boots of Frank Dux and Rocky Balboa, the cold steely swords of Conan and Connor McLeod, and the devastating guns of Rambo and…Rambo II.

This game, however, sends my neurons running helplessly back to the junction of that narrow, but deep, crevice cut by the delicate ninja blade of Private Joe Armstrong and the drug-and-bullet-addled patch formed by a Roger Moore-era James Bond.  But the combination of action, stealth, speed, and unnecessary convolution for the sake of elongating a narrative does more than just remind me of these movies; it lets me play through them.
like some random story generator

There is a story in this game. It’s also not a self-contained story; it apparently follows from the events that have occurred in the past games and resolves some of them.

This is hearsay.

People have told me this, because I have not had the privilege (or spent the time, since I actually do have these games in my Steam collection now) of having gone through those previous stories. However, if those stories are anything like the story in this game, I’ll pass.

In all fairness though, Ubisoft Montreal does a great job telling the story. Cutscenes run the gamut of interactivity: some smartly utilizing loading screens between levels, keeping away from the common “fill up-bar” or “arbitrary clock”, with others playing out in game as you control the camera. Exposition is even placed squarely in your hands during interrogation and other spoiler-y moments.

If you haven’t played this game yet, or haven’t seen any media from it, you may want to skip this next paragraph.
What? You mean like, the bathroom?
One thing I will say is that the use of game environments as projection surfaces is not only a fantastic idea, it’s also been done elegantly and unobtrusively. Being able to have what is essentially two scenes occurring at once, without completely removing the player’s control or ability to pay attention to them (I’m looking at YOU MGS 4) is, to put it simply, nice. It also allows for some cool moments of clairvoyance, and, in my opinion, places the player more directly in the mind of the character being controlled. It’s as though you are seeing Sam’s mind being triggered by the present dialogue. Even if I didn’t care for the story (which I didn’t, really), its seamless implementation into the gameplay made it easy to either ignore or enjoy. I really hope other games take note and begin to try variations on this type of storytelling, because it really plays to the medium’s strengths, as opposed to fighting against it.
Hmm...what should I do next?
why were you talking about ninjas

This is all well and good and easy on the eyes and attention span because the game itself is eminently playable.  It’s my understanding that being a super-spy isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, but I would imagine that a person who has trained and worked as a super-spy would actually find it easy. I mean, you would WANT your super-spies to find their job easy, right? It’s like saying “being a surgeon is hard”, but in your mind you assume that surgeons themselves think that being a surgeon is easy, because that would mean that they’re so good at surgery that your procedure will be completed quickly, painlessly, and correctly. If a surgeon came to me before a procedure and says “man, this is going to be hard”, I think I’d op for a different surgeon.  Of course, there are those procedures that are legitimately hard, but every good surgeon knows that it’s the attitude that counts.
This is probably the most boring bedtime story ever.
Sam Fisher is like a really good surgeon.

Ubisoft Montreal has captured this by making the controls ridiculously simple: context sensitive commands cover the majority of the more acrobatic options at your disposal, making it feel like you very well could be a super-spy. There’s no guessing about what you can and cannot traverse, either; they implement the much-touted surface-projection technique to its fullest by providing unobtrusive notifications about how and what Fisher will do when you press that context-sensitive button. For added simplicity, the number of dedicated actions you have are also few. This is what true streamlining is all about. It takes into account the intended design of the game and builds a control scheme around it.
He's also a very good father. Thanks daddy!
The drawback is that it isn’t as stealth-focused as its predecessors (from what I’ve heard). But I’m not reviewing this game based on its forebears: I’m just looking at this game. And for what it is, its slick, sleek, trim fit allows it to flex and bend to your will with surprising accuracy. There are very few, if any moments, that I can recall Fisher not doing exactly what I intended. The tight, straightforward design also allows the game to teeter-totter between fast-paced and thoughtful, sometimes even simultaneously. It’s what I imagine being a super-spy would be like, minus the personal vendetta and extreme paranoia.

Light has also played a large role in the Splinter Cell series and in this game is treated with as much gravitas. Gone is the light meter of yore, replaced with a more cinematic (and equally effective) desaturation effect: when Fisher is in darkness, the colors fade to Black and White. Those objects and enemies still illuminated remain in color, giving it an unexpected, but welcome, artsy feel. It only enhances the satisfaction of taking them out with a double-tap or stealth kill.
I didn't mention the mark & execute mechanic. Eh.

some people like fish, I like steak

Thankfully, this elegant control scheme is coupled with thoughtful level design. Ledges, pipes, and other alternate routes are abundant in every level. Some are so well integrated into the aesthetic of the level that they don’t seem to be traversable until you see that surface-projected hint telling you they can.  Most of these don’t necessarily change the way you complete a level, or go to alternate exits, but they do give you multiple options for how to maneuver about each encounter.  In other words, for a linear game, it feels refreshingly open. On top of this, there are numerous gadgets at your disposal (which are unlocked as you proceed through the mission). Weapons, on the other hand, are curiously restrictive. This is one aspect of the game that I feel went unpolished, or perhaps was such anomalous problem that it was simply never dealt with.

I might diverge slightly here, so skip this paragraph if you don’t care for my speculation. 
This is you and me debating about whether you should skip the next paragraph.
 Weapons in this game are not particularly diverse. Nor are there a huge variety of encounter types that would require them to be. As a largely stealth-type game, it makes little sense to create scenarios where blazing guns are in fact the best way to overcome your enemy. Still, modern games have conditioned us to expect variety in our choices, hence the variety of weapons in your stash. But just as it makes little sense to have blazing-guns scenarios, it makes as little sense to have guns that only have a full-on blazing-guns mode. These weapons (the SCAR, AK47, Mossberg, etc.) are nice to have, but never get used. In fact, most of what other games would consider “primary” firearms get neglected in favor of a silenced sidearm (one of which ends up having all the best perks), because after all, it’s the most effective tool for 99% of the encounters. And it makes the most sense. What’s more, primary weapons have limited ammunition, while sidearms do not. It’s a wildly obtuse anomaly in an otherwise well-thought out game.
This is also you and me. I have turned into a red-haired woman. Wait, what does that say in the corner...?
More on the point, Conviction also contains levels upon levels which are filled with bad guys to kill. Aside from the main campaign, which is about 6 hours long (cutscenes included), there is another full multiplayer (though it can be played singly) campaign that will run you another 5-6 hours. The most stunning part about the inclusion is that it’s completely different from the singleplayer. It literally is an entirely different set of levels, story, and objectives. Adding a second player to the mix also opens up some extremely satisfying, extremely cool moments that will leave you, and your friend, begging for more.
How can I resist when it's in all caps? and TWICE
 sir, place the wallet in the box and step away, slowly

If you haven’t gotten around to playing this game yet, I can understand why. At retail, it was rather expensive. What’s more, reviews that you read most likely told you of the relatively short singleplayer campaign and the (at the time) multiplayer-only side campaign. However, at this point it’s much harder to stand by that argument. I purchased it at a discount, but to be honest I would be more than happy to have purchased it at its present price. It’s more than a bargain, it’s a gem. If you’re a Splinter Cell adherent, I must advise you to take it with a bit of that presumptory salt and discard your preconceptions. It will let you enjoy it. For those of us who have the luxury of being a bit more objective, there is no real reason not to experience this game. It’s a piece of well-executed game: easy on the eyes, pliable in the hand, tickling for the brain, and an all-around piece of simple enjoyment.