Saturday, April 24, 2010

Review: Splinter Cell: Conviction Single Player Campaign

I never got into the Splinter Cell series before the latest incarnation. Mainly I attribute this slip to not owning an original Xbox, where the series seemed to be most popular, but I also blame a late developing interest in stealth-based gameplay, born mainly out of the excellent and recently mentioned Rainbow Six: Vegas series. In fact, the last Splinter Cell, Double Agent, was released in 2006, the same year as the first R6:Vegas, and Conviction comes two years since the sequel to Vegas was released in early 2008.

The R6:Vegas series drew me into the Tom Clancy shared universe of games, and my game collection now includes EndWar, a Real Time Strategy game played using a capable and enjoyable Voice-Recognition system in conjunction with the controller, and H.A.W.X, a fantastically fun and thrilling arcade-style flight simulator, favouring action and basic controls over a hyper realistic style. So far, I've skipped on the two Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfare games, but the upcoming Future Soldier looks interesting enough for me to look forward to it's release. It didn't take much to pull me into Sam Fishers story as well, and Ubisofts marketing reeled me in, hook, line and sinker.

Because I've never played any SC game previous, I was worried about difficulties following the story. Conviction is strongly tied into the earlier games in the series, and characters and events are key plot points in the newest incarnation. Thankfully, Conviction has a wonderful, visual method of relaying key events, projecting Sams memories onto the surrounding world. It's a neat feature that works really well. This projection system is also used to mark objectives, lighting "Execute These Two Guards" or whatnot onto the nearest building. It is assumed that these projections are a hallucination of Sams aging mind.

The single player experience is accomplished and polished.  Interesting flashforward moments hint at Sams inevitable fate (spoiler alert: it's Alzheimer's). A few levels break from the standard pattern of "1) Infiltrate building, 2) Kill guards, 3) Get to objective". These play out as set pieces, often adding a unique gameplay feature exclusive to that level. The whole experience is cinematic and action packed, and there were times when I really felt like I was playing a summer blockbuster Hollywood movie, in particular, the Bourne Identity.

I loved the twists and turns the plot goes through. The story is engaging, if a little ridiculously over-the-top at times, but I was never lost. In fact, I tore through the eleven chapters in the "Daring Adventures of Sam Fisher, Modern Ninja" in just two days on Normal difficulty. I would have finished it in a single sitting, but at 2am Saturday morning I realized I was a) making stupid mistakes that got me killed time and time again, and b) painfully close to the ending. Saturday morning, I completed the rest of the game in a little over an hour.

Does this mean that the game is short? Well, yes. But is that a negative comment. No. Definitely not. I had a half day from work, collecting the Shadow Edition of Conviction around 2pm and playing it for the entire day. I took a break to head back into town, get some air and enjoy the late afternoon sunshine, and a second break to have dinner and watch Mythbusters. But I did put in probably eight good hours of gameplay, exclusively in the single player campaign. That's a good time for the first playthrough. And it was only the first.

I restarted the campaign on Realistic Sunday, finishing that Monday afternoon. I was going through levels I had seen just 48 hours earlier, but playing them completely differently. Where I had struggled on Normal, I was cruising through on Realistic. I was seeing the ledges I could hang from, the dark shadows I could leap out of, the perfect sport to stand at to Mark and Execute four guys with Sams typical ninja precision. And this time around, I was using my gadgets. During my earlier play, I was sticking to the trusty silenced handgun and brute strength. Head shots and neck snaps were silent, swift, and clean. Loud explosions, regular EMP blasts and the magnesium burn of flash-bangs were the signature of my second run. In general, the bad-guys knew I was coming, but only for the brief few moments they were alive before my silenced automatic rifle perforated their poor, misguided bodies. It was messy, but fun.

Mark and Execute is a new gameplay feature Conviction brings to the table. After performing a melee kill, Sam gains the ability to mark a number of enemies, from two to four depending on the weapon at hand. Once marked, the chevron above their heads can be seen through walls, regardless of how far away they move. If they are gray they are out of line of sight or range, and red means they can be executed. At any time you can press Y to perform an instant, guaranteed kill on all red marks. During development I thought this sounded stupid. I thought it removed the skill from the player, reducing it to "Press Y now". In reality, it is exhilarating to mark four targets, then hang from a balcony while they walk their routes, finger hovering over the Y for that moment all four are standing in that one sweet spot. Or mark targets through a door before kicking in the door, killing the guard behind it, then slamming Y to cleanly execute the other four without alerting anyone. Instead of removing the skill from the player, it moves it. Should I use my hard-earned skill now, or will I need it later? Can I get past these guys without it? Can I use a gadget? Aw, to hell with this! SLAM, pop, pop, pop!

Speaking of gadgets, Sams new goggles are awesome. The ultra-sonic ping that reveals enemies through walls and floors is beautiful to listen to. I love it so much that it's my new text-message tone. The EMP device is fun to use, as it plunges the area into darkness while disorienting enemies, making them easy targets for a melee kill.

All told, Splinter Cell: Conviction is a thoroughly enjoyable single player experience. The varied methods of moving through a map allow for a surprising level of replayability in what is otherwise a railroaded story. Even twice is not enough to see everything a single map offers. The ability to go back and replay individual maps is much appreciated, and I loved replaying some of the set pieces. The reward quickly stops being about just finishing the level, and becomes finishing it undetected, or in some interesting way.

But all that is just the tutorial for what is arguably the true heart of Conviction. The Co-op story, following "The Adventurers of Intrepid Duo Archer and Kestrel". I'm currently playing through this with Aidonis on split-screen at my place or Rubber Cookie over Live. Keep watching for a future post on what I think of this part of the package (spoiler alert: it's Alzheimer's).

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