Showing true colors in black & white – Splinter Cell Conviction Single Player Review

Posted on 17/06/2010

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Ubisoft is trying to reinvent the sneaking genre with Splinter Cell: Conviction, the fifth part in the series so far. Taking hints from the stealth gameplay mechanics implementated in Chronicles of Riddick and Batman: Arkham Asylum, this installment tries hard coming up with a fresh approach to lurking-in-shadows.

It’s the Riddick-games Conviction borrows it’s new light meter from, which instead of being an actual gauge on screen is a way of blurring out all color from the player’s field of vision whenever the Character is hidden in darkness. From the latest game featuring Gotham’s Dark Knight it borrows “Detective Vision”, which allowed Batman to see enemies not only in the dark, but also through solid walls, and now serves Sam Fisher to do the same, although with a few glitches since the device has been somewhat tuned town in it’s all-powerfulness, distorting the picture when the player moves around too much. Which leads to the goggles being a lot less utilized in game, but since the new Sam Fisher can see in the dark without the help of any gadgets this time around, this doesn’t really pose a problem.

The new Sam no longer cares about attention, like a panther suffering from ADD.

A wholly new invention in the series by Ubi themselves is the new “mark and execute” maneuver, which sees the player marking up to four targets with the right bumper, and then execute them all silently, securely and deadly with the push of a button. This is a very powerful maneuver, and would have probably proven a real gamebreaker, so the developers provided it with a balancing act, which is the reason the player needs to “buy” any mark-execute by taking down one AI in close combat.

This illustrates one of the games diversions from the predecessors into a much more consciously game-like gameplay, that has more to do with internal videogame designs and logics than a mimicking of reality. Nobody in the game speaks of action buttons yet, but still, Conviction is a lot gamier than any Splinter Cell before – the portable and cellphone versions not included.

Also, Conviction is a lot blunter. Gone is the need of restraint, Sam is on the loose, leaving dead bodies in his wake as a warning to those who survived his coming through – quite literally since it’s no longer possible to interact with downed victims. There are a lot less possibilities of interaction with the environment this time around as well. No more empty cans being flung to distract, no more security doors hacked, no more locks picked, no more nonlethal takedowns, no more extra information gathered through interrogation. The latter is still a central element in gameplay, but essentially all interrogations in the game are glorified cutscenes now, with the only interactive possibility being the choice of what part of the environment the player wants to torture Sam’s current victim with. And I can’t stress enough that the hostiles of the game really are Sam’s victims.

Also context sensitive actions have become a whole lot more prominent, the game doing away with most of the vertical movement buttons in favor of a one-size-fits-all context-actionbutton, which hasn’t been the best decision, since accidental mis-stepping and consequential mission failures happen just too often, Sam opening doors instead of diving for cover, jumping over obstacles instead of peaking under doors, and many other rather hilarious instances of the same liking. The mechanism isn’t broken by any means, it is just quite inconvenient to use.

The in-world UI is a nice touch, which can go bad in context-sensitive actions

So, this is no longer the Sam Fisher we knew, this is no longer the Splinter Cell we knew. Conviction is a stealth shooter with emphasis on the shooter part. This tends to fall short when the game takes that a bit too literally, taking the player on a flashback-sidemission into the first gulf war, during which the game drops nearly all elements of stealth, degenerating into a mechanically boring shooting gallery without any appeal. Luckily this flashback is over quickly, but it being a part of the game puts up the question of why such a lackluster mission was included anyway. Especially since this mission shows the core gameplay of Conviction not to be very adaptable to other playstyles. Not without a cost anyway. Stealth games are quite a narrow genre, to which shooting mechanics usually are a minor component. The Iraq section of Conviction proves that a stealth game’s shooting mechanics are nothing to support a game on itself.

Luckily for the game, it’s levels are quite diverse from one another. The lackluster Iraq level is followed by a masterfully crafted level set on Washington DC’s National Mall, with a fair being in full swing. Here the game actually shines, giving the player lots of incidental redundant information by the way of neutral AI chatter, which is pretty much the only method of redundant information delivery throughout the game.

The other place the game shines at are the downtown-DC missions with their virtual sightseeing tours. The National Mall is really pretty, as is the Lincoln Memorial. Although it is a risky thing by any means having Fisher brutally interrogating and beating up a black politician right at Abe Lincoln’s feet.

The overall story is somewhat convoluted, the characters paper thin and not very interesting, their motivations murky and unclear most of the time. It’s a Tom Clancy game, with all that goes with it, but it shines through setpieces mostly, not through anything like a clever plot or interesting characters.

It’s worst part comes when the checkpoint system fails. This happens a couple of times throughout the game, when the checkpoints commit the unforgivable sin of being placed right in front of unskippable cutscenes. Bar of this, some weird spikes in difficulty and politically risky / inappropriate scenes like the one in the Lincoln Memorial the game’s overall enjoyable. Although with all it’s struggling, the aeons it spent in development, it still stays a long shot from emerging out of Chaos Theory’s shadows. Conviction is not a bad game, but not a brilliant one either.

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Posted in: review, Videogames