By Matt Carey
When Hideo Kajima brought the “stealth” genre to the forefront in video games way back in 1998 there was, predictably, a whole slew of games jumping on the band wagon like a randy bijon frise jumps on a leg. Over the years Mr Snake inspired many a rip off, from Tenchu with little stealthy ninjas, to Manhunt and its snuff movie themes, and they all had varying degrees of success. One of the most successful franchises have been the Tom Clancy games developed by Ubisoft.
More-so than Ghost Recon – a squad based shooter with certain stealth mechanics – the Splinter Cell series has been the one that really focuses in on the concept of hiding in shadows and offing bad guys before they can see you. Launching in 2002, Splinter Cell focused itself very much in the real world, ignoring the slightly futuristic leanings of Metal Gear, and defiantly paying no attention to the fantastical that Kojima’s universe explores. Instead, the plots were feasible, the enemies closer to home, and the gamer felt like a cross between James Bond and a ninja. This is, without doubt, a very good thing.
And so we arrive at Splinter Cell Conviction, the second of the series to grace this generation of consoles, and we also find a new direction for Sam Fisher’s espionage exploits.
Now, whether you love it or loathe it, the Metal Gear series manages to at least be somewhat interesting when it comes to spinning a yarn. Sure, it may be a bit too sci-fi, and yes, those cut scenes go on for so long that by the time they have finished you have grown a beard the length of the Thames, but at least it’s all a bit interesting. They take modern day problems and fears, stick them a few years into the future and envelope them in a ton of technology that, if truth be told, will probably never, ever exist. But, because of al l this you end up with an engaging narrative. SC: Conviction, however, is more confusing than the questions on Eggheads.
It becomes apparent that a full and encyclopaedic knowledge of Sam Fisher – you -, Third Echelon – your bosses – and every single nuance of history for the two would be helpful in understanding what is going on. At first it all seems simple enough; a drunk ran over and killed your daughter at the end of the previous game. You go off the grid and want revenge in this one. This seems great, and sets the scene for a stealth game that doesn’t rely as much on the tech you are used to in games of this type. For about five minutes. What follows is one of the most unoriginal conspiracy storylines ever witnessed in video game history. And all of this is compounded by the assumptions that you are not a newcomer to the series. As it is, the game is filled with meaningless waffle that went so far over my head that it ended up in orbit.
Whilst I wholeheartedly applaud Ubisofts approach of placing Fisher in civilian clothing and taking him out of his gimp suit, along with stripping it back down to basics, I also want to clip them round the ears too. Apparently, “back to basics” means “kill a lot of people”. This pretty much spits in the face of ‘stealth’ and defiles the rotting corpse of ‘sneak’ for it seems that Splinter Cell has turned into “Generic 3rd Person Action Game: Conviction”. Yes, the hiding in shadows and shinning up drain pipes is still present, but it isn’t in any way necessary. Instead, the game seems to be more like Gears Of War, what with its reliance on ‘cover and shoot’ with a sprinkling of ‘choke the unsuspecting guard’ thrown in for good measure.
I’ll give you an example. I rounded a corner to find a little office area with about 5 guards dotted around. A quick inspection told me that I could quite easily scoot onto the roof of said office. And there I sat for half an hour because, whilst a couple of guards were wandering around, the others stayed perfectly still, with no way of getting past them without killing them. This would be fine if the act of silently enveloping a bullet with someone’s brain didn’t alert all the other guards instantly. But it does. And they see you immediately. A gun fight ensues, you murder the meat sacks, and you’re left looking around and wondering why you just sat up there for half an hour surveying the scene when you only really need to wander in like the Terminator, guns blazing.
Previous Splinter Cell games were the other way around; stay out of sight as much as possible because if you get spotted, you will be killed. I liked that. A battle of wits between you and the AI. For a while I thought the AI here was pretty decent. There is a nice little system in place whereby a white silhouette of you stays at your last known position, and the guards that haven’t been executed by your good self will trot over and have a nosey for you there. Then you realise this is utterly exploitable as you dangle from a window, kill someone, get spotted, wait for the guard to come to the window, pull him out, wait for the next guard, pull him out too, and so on. Unless someone looks out of the adjoining window, in which case you slide along to him and introduce him to the pavement below. The second you realise you can do this with entire rooms and floors full of bad guys is the second the game becomes a walk in the park.
The game isn’t going to win awards for graphical prowess, but that doesn’t mean it is bad. There are some nice little touches, what with the mission objectives printed on the side of walls and such, and certain scenarios have little video clips popping up on various parts of the environment that show what has happened before, or what is going down in the room you are heading to. This is pretty nifty actually, and I like it, but it does fall flat on its face when, because you have dozed off in the cut-scene nonsense, you press the back button to find out what you are supposed to doing. Then, the objective pops up again. However, instead of it being across a nice flat surface, it warps itself across tables, chairs, bins, pot plants, and anything else that happens to be in your line of sight. The next couple of minutes are spent making sure you have a nice flat surface ahead of you so you can read it. A small annoyance, yes, but still a flaw.
As with pretty much every game being released these days, there is a multiplayer mode bolted on too. However, this time the mode is, whilst again not original, bloody good fun. Played either online or via split-screen, the co-op mode is not just the main story with two people, but is a seperate story and stands on its own with its own slightly more logical story going on. In many ways, it is much more preferential than the single player game as you and a bud stealth your way around levels, employing your own tactics, and generally trying to out-spy and out-assassin each other whilst still heading towards a shared goal. Everything from the single player experience is carried over and just seems to work better here. There is a real sense of camaraderie here as you look to protect each other and help each other along. And once the co-op is finished, there are a bunch of stand-alone multiplayer missions in Deniable Ops, where it is you versus the AI in assorted game modes, each equally as enjoyable as they are tricky.
Not the most positive review in the world so far, I’m sure you will agree. But here is the good news. This is a good game. Ubisoft have a nice little notepad somewhere filled with, well, notes. These notes are taken from their experiences from building their own games; the Ghost Recon’s, the Assassins Creeds and the Prince Of Persias’. They have also paid heavy attention to games like Modern Warfare, Hitman and Batman: Arkham Asylum. All these notes have been used and a great many of the things that made all these games great has been applied to this new, less furrow-browed Splinter Cell. The game is way ,way, way off perfect, despite all the nice bits. But it is good fun. For all my protestations about the dumbed down stealth and the increase in gun-play, it is executed perfectly. I don’t doubt for one second that this is exactly the game Ubisoft wanted to make. Whilst it may veer too much in one direction for my liking, there is no question that this was intentional. The story is shoddy beyond words – probably not intentional – but it doesn’t matter. The game, whilst short, is fun, and more so with a friend. Not quite the amazing game that the critics would have you believe, but it certainly is worthy of your time and money.