Splinter Cell Conviction
While Sam Fisher is preparing his return this April, Ubisoft recently welcomed us into their Parisian office building to show us a preview version of Splinter Cell: Conviction. We were granted no less than 4 hours with the game and could give the single player campaign and the multiplayer a go. More than enough time to get an idea of the qualities and flaws of this new episode.
First of all, we were able to try the first three chapters of the single player campaign, the first two having already been shown at official presentations or in some of the promotional videos. Never mind that though, as it was still a great opportunity for a real hands-on. We were indeed really anxious to see what this rethinking of stealth action games could bring to the genre.
The game opens up with a relatively short tutorial mission aiming to introduce us to the new features of Conviction. You can now take cover like in any TPS using the left trigger, go from cover to cover at the press of a button, the screen turns black and white anytime the player is well-hidden in the dark and there is of course the now famous Mark & Execute feature, which suffered much criticism in forums worldwide. This chapter is quite understandably both very straightforward and guided but it is simply an introductory sequence, which is mainly there to establish the game's atmosphere and set up the storyline.
The second level (the one that served as a demo at last year's E3 during the Microsoft conference) offers a bit more alternative paths to reach your objective. Don't get me wrong, it is clearly not a real open environment, but it feels less like walking down a narrow corridor. This chapter is a good opportunity to get familiar with another new feature, the Last Known Position, as the chances of being spotted are many, especially if you are the careless type. Just like the first level, the mission ends with a violent interrogation scene which would almost make Jack Bauer appear as harmless as Jessica Fletcher.
In the third level, Sam Fisher has to quietly escape a military base where he is held prisoner, which requires him to perform several acts of sabotage necessary to his escape. Helped by an old acquaintance of his infiltrated into this organization, Sam is forced to bully her a little in order to avoid suspicions, something that he seems to do wholeheartedly. Here, even if the level is still very linear, we no longer feel as guided as in the beginning. It is time to put the lessons learnt into practice.
When executing means getting good marks
The first thing that strikes us when starting the single player campaign of Splinter Cell: Conviction is the feeling of pace and rhythm. First immediate consequence; the desire to simply give in and go with the flow, and therefore to rush headlong, is big. Fisher is much more flexible and capable than before, and the possible actions are much more fluid. That being said, the classical approach remains possible, and will even be recommended in some levels especially if, like me, you opt for the realistic mode (the highest difficulty setting). By the way, I was assured that the final version will offer even more challenge in this mode. Considering the preview build didn't leave much room for mistakes (Fisher's resistance to bullets being all relative), it should satisfy many of you. Anyway, the way the game is paced already, those who, like me, want to take their time destroying all light sources for better neutralization of their preys will also be content. Even more as the means available to get rid of all the zealous guards aren't lacking: Objects can be brought down on them, you can knock them out with lethal melee attacks, death can even come from above if you jump on them and of course you have your faithful silencer pistol.
The Mark and Execute technique is obviously part of the new features, but you should know that to be allowed to use it, you must first take an enemy down with your bare hands, which means you must approach him quietly enough. Let us be clear, however, absolutely nothing obliges the player to use this new system. The purists will therefore be able to continue to kill their targets manually, and getting two headshots in a row is completely doable, provided you're fast and skilled enough that is. As you won't always be able to Mark and Execute, there is a good chance that the beautiful slow-motion effects that go with it will not get old.
The Last Known Position turns out to be quite handy when the player is spotted and things start to get a little crazy. Some will see such a feature as another way of making the gameplay even more assisted by providing feedback on the potential reactions of enemies. In practice, this allows you to mess around with the AI, by playing cat and mouse. You immediately know if you have managed to break the line of sight, which allows to develop a new approach while the guards are checking the perimeter. Another visual indicator is the switch to black and white when Fisher is in the shadows. The enemies are easier to spot because they remain in color, but it's not always easy to see where the darkness stops, thus, one can easily find oneself in broad light without intending to. Maybe it is just a matter of getting used to it.
Among the missing elements, you can no longer whistle to attract the attention of the enemies, a subterfuge that used to come in handy in the previous games. In Conviction, we can for example trigger a car alarm for the same kind of effect, but it does not allow the player to choose the area where he wants to ambush his prey. It is also a shame that Fisher can no longer carry the lifeless bodies of his victims to hide them from the other guards patrolling the zone. This is not particularly disadvantageous since the game is now designed that way and the ghost patrols from the first episodes are no longer there. Nevertheless, it would have been nice to have the choice to do the job properly. Fisher might be on his own, he does not necessarily want to stir up the whole neighborhood every time he checks over a building. On the other hand, as in Batman Arkham Asylum where knocked out enemies cannot be carried, it gives the opportunity to feel how stressed the guards get each time a body is found and Sam Fisher remains invisible. That being said, you can still dispose of lone guards by taking them into a human shield and moving them out of the light into a quiet corner somewhere.
The interrogation scenes are part of the great work accomplished in the way of narration and rhythm: they are interactive cut-scenes where the player is free to move around as Sam questions a suspect. They will make you realize the level of violence that the hero can now show. Contextual actions are triggered by the B button and they will vary depending on where the player is in the environment. It's up to you if you prefer to test the solidity of the Maltese ceramic toilets on the head of an unfortunate crook or if you can not resist the urge to wipe off your feet on the face of your makeshift informant.
Staging and presentation
Talking about narration, it seems like a good time to mention the efforts that have been put in the staging of the story. Very perfectible in the first installments (I challenge you to give me a detailed summary of events of the first three games...), Double Agent had already shown a clear progress in that area. It definitely made the adventure less impersonal, and especially more immersive (whatever your opinion about the game itself). Splinter Cell: Conviction does seem to improve the system by bringing the scenario to more practical considerations by making it a lot more personal for Fisher. As a result, it gets more interesting, and through a more dynamic staging of the story - the game being thought of as one long sequence shot - the player is never distracted. The interrogation scenes, the playable flashbacks, the absence of loading screens, all this largely contributes to making the player more involved in the adventure. Considering how detached from what was going on you could feel in the first games, it's a welcome change and we thank Ubisoft for that. We will still wait to see if the game is really as full of surprises as we have been promised.
But is the technology behind the game capable of supporting these efforts? Well, even if the engine of Conviction seems less impressive than Alan Wake's, thought exclusively for Microsoft's console, the rendering of light sources and their integration in the environment is very well-done. Moreover, as I stated above, the hero's animations are much more realistic and flexible than before, and it's always with great class that Fisher will slide from cover to cover or leap from a wall onto an enemy. The AI seems to do its job, rummaging through the areas where you've neutralized the lights for example, but we hope the high repetitiveness of the comments from the guards when they're tracking you was due to the preview build. As for the soundtrack, the music score remains quite faithful to the spirit of the franchise, even if some mixes sound more original because they combine phrases from the memories of Fisher with electronic music. Of course, Sam Fisher would not be Sam Fisher without the excellent performance of Michael Ironside. Ubisoft therefore delivers a game that looks and sound good, and we are really looking forward to exploring the U.S. capital city and its famous landmarks like the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, or even the White House, all these locations being the setting of some key events i the story.
The more, the merrier, as long as it's two only
Splinter Cell: Conviction also features a multiplayer mode, but unlike Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, it is limited to one or two players and the player(s) will only be opposed to the AI. The multiplayer is divided into two distinct modes: the Prologue, which is basically a story-driven cooperative mode that takes place before the main adventure, and the Special Operations mode offering four different types of missions in 6 different environments. So you'll have the choice between several game types: Hunter (where you must move discreetly while eliminating your targets), Infiltration (where the game is over the second you have been spotted), Last Stand (where you're asked to protect an EMP bomb against increasingly difficult waves of enemies) ), and finally, Duel (where two players fight against each other in a map filled with AI enemies). We asked the developers why they had decided to drop the Spy versus Mercs mode of the other games to focus on a coop experience. They said that they really wanted the player to feel like a predator, just like in the single player campaign. If Sam Fisher is on his own, the two characters of the Prologue need to work together to take down their preys. Because of this new approach to gameplay, Spy versus Mercs could not work.
For this preview, we were only able to try the Prologue mode. After equipping the essential night-vision goggles, I started the first mission with a fellow journalist. If the single player mode allows Sam Fisher to improve his weapons in exchange for points earned when performing certain actions, the multiplayer is not left behind since the progression in the campaign will also grant you points to customize your avatar (with different outfits for instance) and to upgrade your gear (bulletproof vests, larger magazines for your guns etc.). At first, because of a lack of clear communication with my teammate (it was not simple with headphones but no microphone), we did not coordinate our actions and we really went head first. Although the choice of the normal difficulty setting probably spared us some unfortunate setbacks, we soon realized it was not in our own interest to trigger the alarm and to face the flood of guards that results in. Once we learnt to talk to each other, it was much easier to pretend we were highly-trained spies.
The two maps that we had time to cover seemed large and long enough to allow both players to split up to get into position. It is possible to use a double Mark and Execute and shoot four targets at a time within a few seconds. Do not think you can exploit this feature since the conditions to use it are the same as in single player. Moreover, in some cases, you will be forbidden to use your guns, forcing you to think about your every move. The beginning of the second level where some police officers and surveillance cameras watch the surroundings of a building proved how poor our infiltration skills were. Another thing to know is that, when a player is shot down, he must wait for his teammate to come and revive him (which takes a little time as you can imagine). Yet, he still can sit up to take down the remaining targets, which is obviously riskier as they can return fire. In a nutshell, though short, this small taste of the multiplayer mode was promising and since we had some good fun, it seems safe to assume you will too.
It took Splinter Cell: Conviction a while to finally arrive on Xbox 360. Many delays that have helped restart the concept from the beginning to try to make an experience more intense and more fluid for the player. The result is a game that is definitely of a higher pace than its big brothers, but which still allows for a more subtle approach for the purists. The action has become more playable and natural, so we should not get the same awkward action sequences of the first games where Fisher was forced to use his assault rifle, the game having clearly not been designed for that. If Conviction on the whole seems a little more open than before, the various paths are easy enough to locate. An open window that gives the opportunity to step outside, a pipe wall that rises to the ceiling etc. Despite this, we must admit that having more options is definitely a good thing and gives a minimum of freedom to the player willing to try different things. Keep in mind that we only saw the first three levels of the single player campaign, however, and that the rest of the game will surely have its share of surprises. Plus, with a multiplayer mode that focuses on cooperation, the game promises many hours of infiltration in good company. As longevity goes, we were announced a meager 7-8 hours for the single player campaign, the price to pay for a highly-paced adventure, at least we can assume. To this, we must add the 4 to 6 hours needed to complete the Prologue and all the time spent playing the Special Operations mode. Maybe some will find it a bit short, but after all, don't we say that all good things must come to an end?
About the game
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