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Saturday | December 10, 2016
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Splinter Cell Conviction (X360)

Splinter Cell Conviction (X360)

Splinter Cell Conviction
What a difference a beard makes… Seriously. The promotional material for Splinter Cell: Conviction saw pictures of a bedraggled Sam Fisher plastered everywhere just to let us know that things had changed. It’s the classic movie convention – clean cut equals a by the book good guy, stubble equals either a bad guy or a good guy with a tendency to make up the rules as he goes along but the full beard is the uniform of a broken man. And so it is for our protagonist Sam Fisher. A dead daughter, forced to murder his best friend and now slap bang in a directionless funk as he leaves the agency that trained him and decides to bum around Europe like a student on a gap year. One thing is for certain, as with any long standing hero, if the beard is out then be sure that the gloves are off.
In many ways that cosmetic decision is a good indication of the direction that Conviction has gone in. The latest outing in the Splinter Cell series, which took the Stealth genre staples to unparalleled heights of patience, is very different to what has gone before. No more skulking in the shadows waiting for that one opportunity to catch the prey, the “new stealth” is more about moving so fast that your confused opponent can’t keep track. No more of that over cautious “no fatalities” rule either, something that marred some of the early games. Here Fisher can feel free to kill whoever is in his way and not have to worry about clean-up duties. It has more in common with the TV series 24 than it does with anything Splinter Cell has attempted before.

Such reinvention is always going to be divisive. Certainly Splinter Cell offered players something that no other game did however that doesn’t necessarily mean it is something to be preserved at all costs. For many though, any queries or quibbles should be swept away within a few moments. The game begins in a gloriously cinematic fashion, being told in flashback to a video camera and it doesn’t take long before the high octane pace of the game will blast away any doubts as a plot unfolds that would make even Jack Bauer baulk at the task at hand.

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Gameplay
While previous incarnations have all too often struggled with a cluttered control system, which can lead to hurled controllers as Fisher decides to go into a barrel roll out into the open rather than nestle nicely behind a wall, this is a stripped down affair. Using repeat functionality on buttons depending on the situation makes it a lot easier to focus on what is happening on the screen and it takes no time at all to be dashing and darting from cover to cover, delivering brutal neck breaks and long distance pistol head-shots en route.

Some stealth elements remain in the game with darkness being the most important part of it. While cover is more about protection, the absence of light will see the screen fade out to black and white indicating that the army of hired goons can no longer see their quarry’s position. It’s not traditional stealth by any means but it is food for thought at least and some sections are too overwhelming to be completed without some planning. Shooting out lights or following targets to darkened areas may not be ground breaking stuff but it is still more engaging than a straight shoot-to-kill actioner.

As the levels advance there are also the requisite gadgets that come into play, getting more sophisticated as each mission is cleared. This starts with the simple broken bit of mirror that can be slid under doors for a heads up on the impending action although players won’t have to wait too long before the night vision goggles that we suspect Sam Fisher even wore in his wedding photo are donned once more. Again, by only having what is needed at any one time at Fisher’s disposal it never feels overwhelming and keeps the play streamlined.

To go along with this all-action, no holds barred approach there are several new features as well. One of the most prominent is the “execution” system, which enables Fisher to dispatch enemies in glorious slow motion without fear of reprisal or even the chore of having to use free aim. It does seem odd however that this feature can only be accessed after a close combat kill, as if somehow the rush of murdering someone with your bare hands would suddenly provide the eyes of a hawk and the steady nerves of a skilled surgeon. When enemies are thin on the ground it’s not so big a deal that this strange choice for triggering the feature exists yet in missions with a heavy enemy presence it becomes an annoyance. Having to find a lone enemy and kill him unarmed simply to enable easy and sometimes essential auto-kills does break up the flow of the game.

At the end of each level Fisher will give a run-down of how it went and how well it was tackled. This, along with the raft of usual achievements to be unlocked, would provide enough reason to give it more than one play through. Where the game really encourages replayability is in its P.E.C. points. These are earned for successfully completing in game tasks and can be used to upgrade the weapons and gadgets already at your disposal. Some of the more difficult achievements have to be performed over several levels and can prove to be quite challenging. Something such as this was sorely needed by the franchise and while it might draw immediate comparisons with Modern Warfare or Battlefield: Bad Company, the requirements are so specific and precise in a lot of cases that it goes beyond the realms of the usual experience points system.

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Graphics
The vividness of the visuals is immediate from the opening scene. With fully interactive environments, sweeping camera movements and impressive lighting effects it is clear that they wanted the game to look and feel like a film and it does. The in game objects and people have a real weight to them, something that is hammered home – no pun intended – in the interactive cut scenes, such as an early interrogation that allows the player to smash a villains head into anything at hand in a bid to make him talk. Still, it must be said, that this seems to come at a cost, with the animators seeming to have skimped on a few frames with movements seeming to blur across the screen with little alteration between the start and finishing point. Whether this “overcranking” effect was deliberate or not is hard to say, yet it seems to be a little misjudged, a cinematic device too far.

All of that can be forgiven when the game achieves something special in so many other areas. The reactive palette adds so much to the game as it provides the player with all the information required to make decisions about what to do next through a simple use of colour. The way it moves from black and white, to sepia tones, to lurid colour as the danger passes is so glorious simple yet effective. Slight alterations in palette are also visible again as the game moves between flashbacks and “present day” cut-scenes, again accentuating the game’s cinematic credentials.

Another triumph is the way that the game communicates information to the player. No more clunky objective menus. Instead instructions are projected in huge, white lettering right in the game, detailing exactly what is required to get to the next objective. Think David Fincher’s “Panic Room” title sequence and that’s about right. It is something that is again so straightforward yet executed so well, the lack of need for pause keeping the player locked into the action and engrossed in what comes to pass.

Overall there is more polish in this game than most. It looks not only great but distinctive, even if all the style sometimes seems to hide a lack of solid gaming foundations. The game has Hollywood production values and still finds the time to innovate. It’s not all style and no substance. In this case the style adds substance.

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Audio
It is a shame then that after employing an award winning director, cinematographer and special effects team, they then decided to cut corners when it came to the script. While the voice acting of Michael Ironside is acceptable the same cant be said of the horde of one dimensional characters he encounters. Some of the voice acting is so ropey here its almost as if Ed Wood has turned up to the picnic and hes brought enough ham for everyone. A lot of the time any tension the game builds with a careful set piece is immediately shattered by some goon running around hurling abuse that is more the preserve of school children than international criminals.

The rest of the sound is appropriately executed. The muffled sound of a silencer that echoes like a suppressed sneeze, the slight tinnitus after a nearby explosion, the sound of bones snapping in hand to hand combat. The sound effects are very good and definitely tie in nicely with the games physicality. Its not exceptional by any means but it doesnt make the mistake of overpowering the proceedings, nor is it delivered too weakly. The moments of silence before a strike also add ambience, the background noise from nearby streets drifting into earshot in an eerily authentic manner.

The score is also functionally film-like without ever equalling the excellence of Amon Tobins Chaos Theory soundtrack. It might feel like Stock music at times but that doesnt stop it adding emotional punch when it needs to in the cheap trick manner that has been replicated in a thousand movies gone by.

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Multiplayer & Extras
Let’s keep the film metaphors flying and talk about the raft of “extras” on the disc. There is a co-op mode that can be played in split-screen in a nod to versions past – it even adopts some of the graphical similarities for extra authenticity – that also doubles up as a prequel to the single player game. Added to this is the one or two player “Deniable Ops” missions, which are, in a way, extremely violent puzzles. To complete each map the player has to execute a variety of silent kills and swift execution kills to progress. Each map requires a lot more forethought and timing than anything in the single player campaign, making it a lot closer an experience to the earlier games.

There are also game modes such as Hunter, and one that needs to be unlocked in the form of Infiltration, that put forward a much more difficult set of victory stipulations. In the former all enemies must be eliminated, while the Infiltration mode – as its name suggests – is about avoiding detection. Last Stand has the players defending a bomb against waves of increasingly cunning enemies and is a welcome break from the creeping, letting the player cut loose with a good old fashioned shoot-out. Each of these breaks the game up nicely and provides some fun.

Best of all is the head-to-head mode, destined to become a sure-fire hit online. A modern take on the home computer classic “Spy vs Spy”, and certainly better than the woeful remake of that game, it puts players against each other while surrounded by enemies who don’t care who they shoot at. Smart play is the name of the game, providing options to lure the opponent into dangerous areas while safely hidden away, or to draw attention to their position. There are a lot of tactics that can be employed and if in doubt it can simply be reduced to a good old fashioned dust-up. Top notch entertainment.

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Summary
A game that wants to be a film and delivers on nearly all fronts. Stylistic, engaging, visually stunning and innovative, it is a shame that what could have been flawless is instead let down by some of the fundamentals. The single player campaign is more TV episode in length than feature film and were it not for so many of the extras the package would feel more than a little light. However therein lies the redemption. With so many ways to experience the world of Sam Fisher the game demands and holds a players attention. The inclusion of the P.E.C. points system is another masterstroke that brings the series out of the past and into the present and rewards the time invested.

Overall Conviction couldnt be called a sequel, more of a reboot. The new Sam Fisher is so far removed from the character we first were introduced to it barely feels as if there is any continuity at all. Then again, that is what makes it so exciting; at last the rules can be broken and it feels great. Sure, it takes itself a bit too seriously at times, flashbacks within flashbacks are never a good idea and muddy the narrative slightly however as a piece of pure entertainment this game is already streets ahead of many of the pretenders. It might not be perfect but we can guarantee that gamers will want to see the sequel.

Gameplay 86/100 A simple control system, an innovative interface and lots of mayhem make for a pick up and play experience that is easy to grasp and difficult to put down.
Graphics 90/100 Some real quality on display here, beautiful attention to detail and a true appreciation of what it takes to bring big screen magic to home entertainment.
Sound 76/100 Some genuinely laughable voice acting real spoils the atmosphere at key moments and sadly it is a real weak link in the cinematic chain.
Value 88/100 A short singe player campaign is redeemed by the P.E.C point system and the multiplayer and co-op focused extras bolster a package that really does keep the player coming back for more.
Overall
(Not an Average)
86/100 As close to a cinematic experience as we have seen in gaming. It is a great addition to the franchise and a welcome change to the by the number stealth and action games, existing somewhere in between the two genres and doing so with absolute confidence.

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About Author

Stuart Davidson

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