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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction (7.6/10)

Having never played any of the previous Splinter Cell games, I was curious about Splinter Cell: Conviction, the latest chapter in the Sam Fisher saga. As a rule I don't like to start a series mid-story as it were, but the game looked pretty cool so on a whim I picked it up just to see what all the fuss was about. After sneaking my proverbial way through it, I have to say that if you like these sorts of stealth based action games then Splinter Cell: Conviction will be right up your alley and you'll really enjoy the ride. If you don't, then you won't. Sadly, I belong to the latter category.

First of all, the story... as the game begins, a morose Sam is hiding from the rest of the world (and himself) as he mourns the loss of his daughter who apparently died at the end of the last game... or did she (cue dramatic music!)!?! Suddenly bullets are flying, conspiracies come to light, daughters' need to be saved, and Sam is now severely annoyed and intent on royally ruining the day of anyone who had anything to do with this.

At least, I think that is what happened... I'm still not really sure. The story didn't make any sense to me whatsoever even after all the dark secrets came to light. This is understandable since I have no frame of reference (hence the fact I don't like picking up a series in the middle), I just wish sometimes developers would give a more thorough recap for those of us who are new. A lot of allusions are made to what happened previously in the series (even in the middle of the game there are flashback sections), and obviously a lot of the characters I'm supposed to be familiar with. I know, I know, I've got no one to blame but myself, but still, throw me a frickin' bone here! While the story is confusing to noobs, all you really need to know is that Sam is mighty pissed and it's a good idea to kill everything that moves.

As I understand it, Splinter Cell games are synonymous with "stealth." It's all about being sneaky, killing the bad guys before they even knew you were there. Or at least they are supposed to be, hence the fact I put stealth in quotation marks back there. For some reason I've really struggled with the controls in Conviction, making the whole "stealth" thing more of a guideline rather than a rule. Not to mention, as with most third person action games, the camera doesn't help matters. It has an annoying habit of zooming into a close up of the back of Sam's head or a nearby wall thus leaving your blind and vulnerable.  I can't tell you the number of times things devolved into a cluster$#@& firefight because Sam would turn a corner right into some guard with a shotgun who would promptly do what shotgun toting guards do best...namely shoot him in the face. Reload, repeat (the checkpoint, not the shotgun... but more on that later).

But having said that, I think all you really need is some more practice. There is a useful cover system whereby Sam cuddles up to the nearest piece of scenery and from there can then slide to adjacent cover. There is even a handy arrow showing what's cover and what's not. While this works fairly well, the camera rears it's ugly head by not allowing you to really scan your surroundings, allowing enemies to causally stroll up outside your field of vision and perforate your skull.

Then there is the 'last known position' mechanic, which basically means that when Sam is seen but quickly ducks out of sight, an eerie silhouette shows where the guards have last spotted him, and subsequently where they will direct their efforts. Now, it must be said that these guards are pretty steadfast and focused once they think they know where their quarry is... firing round after round into that ineffectual concrete block he was hiding behind 10 frickin' minutes ago. Meanwhile, I've snuck all the way around the giant warehouse and picked the idiots off one at a time. I was tempted to leave the last one just so when he finally ran out of ammo and called for help he'd suddenly realize he was allllll alone...  

But when things go from bad to worse there should really be a quick "RUN AWAY!!!" button (there's your Monty Python reference... you're welcome). I often died because Sam got caught out of cover mid crouch and then slowly tried to creep away while they peppered his backside repeatedly (insert joke here). Not to mention he's not the fastest cat to begin with. I'm also surprised there isn't a way to move the bodies of your victims. Sometimes Sam would sneak up and off some poor sod then sneak back behind the only available cover in the area when the guy's coworkers would show up, spot him, then spot Sam and the cluster&#@$ing would begin in earnest. If I had been able to move the corpse into my hidey spot they would have been none the wiser. Along the same lines, creating diversions isn't really an alternative beyond shooting out lights. You do eventually get a cool remote camera that can be thrown like a sticky mine and then be used to target enemies, create distractions, or explode killing those nearby. However, I figured you'd have more options, and the lack thereof I found decidedly odd.

Another cool gameplay device is the ability to "Mark and Execute" targets. Whenever you take someone out with a silent melee attack you basically earn an "I'm Sam Fisher, don't mess with me!" badge that allows you to mark a target and perform an insta-kill. This usually means perforating their forehead with a single bullet in glorious slo-mo... it's fantastic.

Speaking of glorious things, when Sam "interrogates" someone, he really interrogates them. These mini-scenes are vicious as Sam uses his environment to slam, bash, and brutalize those in his grasp to learn what he wants to know. Sanctioned by the UN he isn't. I made good use of toilets, walls and even a piano in Bourne/Bond-esque fashion. I get it though, the guy is after those who kidnapped his daughter and let him think she was dead... I wouldn't be terribly polite either. 

There are some oddly out of place platforming sections that reminded me a lot of Assassin's Creed or Uncharted. These are essentially mild puzzles, but since Sam won't go anywhere he can't there isn't really a fear of falling to your death, which kind of removes any drama. It actually reminds me more of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West in this regard, you just wiggle Sam along until he makes a different animation and you know you can proceed.

But the major issue I have with Conviction is the unforgiving checkpoint system. It seems to auto-save not nearly frequently enough. I got sick of barely getting through a section only to die in the next (because I didn't know what my objective was or where the guards were) and have to do the first part all over again! Cheap deaths abound, mostly because you seem to have to learn the correct path by trial and error. That's never a good sign...

The graphics are pretty decent despite some of the worst lip syncing I've seen in a while (laughably bad). There are a couple of clever tricks employed here that really add to the atmosphere. The most noticeable is that when Sam is out of sight everything goes black and white. It's a cool visual cue, basically letting you know when it's safe to breath and plan your next move. The other is that 'Mission Objectives' are highlighted as brightly lit silhouettes on the environment which remind you what you're supposed to be doing and illustrating that you are, in fact, getting closer to your goal. These not only look awesome, but also provide at least a little guidance.

After my single player experience I wasn't in a rush to try the multiplayer (which I read was disappointing so there you go). That said, I am intrigued by the co-op. The co-op is a completely different set of missions than the single player campaign which involve teamwork. Sounds clever, but I couldn't find anyone interested in having a go round with me so....

Admittedly, I was really kinda on the fence about Splinter Cell: Conviction in the beginning. It's not a bad game as such, and if you're into this sort of thing then I'm sure you'll love it. But for me, well, it's just not my cup of tea. I struggled with the controls, the story, and the mechanics. Oh, and I probably should have mentioned from the outset that I'm not a huge fan of stealth games to begin with... and as a result it was more of a chore for me than anything.

But then there are those moments where everything works as it should and the game really shines: you've killed half a private security firm without being seen and the remaining guards are wetting themselves in fear at your ghostly presence long after you've left the room. Splinter Cell: Conviction can be immensely satisfying. I'm smiling with sadistic glee just thinking about it.


Score = 7.6 / 10

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