Sam Fisher doesn't think much about music. Or football. Or poetry. Or films. He don't do small talk over a beer either. He probably thinks about how to get from point A to B without being seen. Or what's the fastest way to kill an armed man with his bare fists.
Sam Fisher is back. And he is badass.
You know what this game reminds me of most? Batman: Arkham Asylum. Strange comparison but both games are about kickass heroes with a specific skillset that must be utilized in the correct manner, in a contained environment. Like that superhero game, Splinter Cell: Conviction is about skulking around in the shadows, dispatching of the bad guys sneakily with well-placed headshots.
Whereas in the original trilogy (I don't include Double Agent, that was shite), the sneaking method was the only method to use, Ubisoft has made this game more short-attention-span-friendly, for those who love their violence explosive and loud, in order to keep them interested in the game. Initially I was, like most hardcore gamers/fans of Splinter Cell, quite disappointed that Ubisoft has sold such a brilliant franchise built upon the stealth element to the noobs. But I was surprise to find a game that is just as challenging and rewarding for those who stick to what Sam Fisher does best, sneaking about.
Without a doubt, Sam Fisher could probably do well in a stand-up fight. He could take down Jason Bourne or James Bond with a snap of his finger and of their neck, but Sam Fisher is best known for remaining hidden. It's what sets him apart as a "secret agent" to the rest of those dudes who make too much noise and with little finesse.
But I digress. As a game, Splinter Cell: Conviction just works. The learning curve is a little more complex than other games, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes the most intuitive of systems. Cover works well, you stick to it when you need to, and come out of it when you don't. Climbing, opening doors, taking enemies down is all context sensitive so there isn't many buttons to learn, but it means that if you have good enough reflexes and are fast-thinking on your feet, you can go from taking down one bad guy to shooting three more and then jumping over a table to hide, in quick succession. It's all about juggling skills and if you can successfully pull off moves like those, the game is just pure fun.
But as I said before, you can also go in guns blazing if your cover is blown. But in my opinion, it's not the way the game is meant to be played and Ubisoft punishes people who think that Splinter Cell: Conviction is Uncharted 2. They throw in more enemies, it's messy, will get you killed more often and also probably won't rack you up enough points to unlock weapon and equipment upgrades. Besides, the shooting mechanics is vague, and mouse sensitivity is constrained so the game can't be played like a twitch shooter, kept deliberately low for those precise headshots.
There are a couple of new features Ubisoft's added to this game; Mark/Execute, and Interrogate. The former allows you to mark several enemies, and with a press of a single button, take them all out at once with some devastatingly accurate automatic headshooting. It sounds pretty overpowered, but the devs have balanced it by requiring you to take down one opponent with a hand to hand kill before you can use the ability once. And then you have to take down someone else to recharge it. It's the perfect ability to complement the new Sam Fisher, who is quick and efficient. It also helps get players out of tight spots, either to clear a room when outnumbered or stop too many enemies from converging on your position.
Interrogate is self-explanatory. It goes hand in hand with the edgy, gritty feel of the new Splinter Cell. What with awesome films like Taken or Law Abiding Citizen, Sam Fisher needs to be just as badass for the modern day. Which means being inappropriately violent to the point it's cool to smash someone's face through a ceramic toilet to get them to talk. The only problem I have with this feature is that it feels quite unnatural; the gameplay sequence of interrogation is the same for every single mission. You have to interrogate all the targets three times before they've sung their songs fully, as if each of them just can't wait for you to destroy their faces even more. It's a little niggle in an otherwise fun-to-watch set of events. At least Ubisoft gives you a choice of dynamic torture tools each time. Like a hot stove, or worst still, a paper shredder. I'll leave it up to your imagination how that one works.
Only wished they kept Fisher's signature "split jump" in narrow spaces. But then again, Fisher is getting on in years. Ain't so flexible no more eh?
Even with all these exciting ways to be cool, the game ain't easy. The enemy AI is generally pretty smart, able to search around dark corners, or take cover against "ninjas" (as they sometimes oddly refer to you as). Their shooting is punishingly accurate and they can see/hear you coming from miles away too, so strategy is of importance. Most of the time, the game respects its audience, giving them freedom to approach situations in any way they see fit. The environments are open enough although ultimately it's still a linear game.
Now for story. Sam Fisher as we last left him was hurting from the loss of his best friend and daughter, as well as disillusioned with Third Echelon, the organization he gave his loyalty and duty to for so many years, only to be ass-f*cked by them later. He's off sulking in a corner when his old handler gets in touch with him, telling him that there is more to his daughter's death than he knows. Fisher is not happy about this, and he is willing to destroy everything and everyone to get to the truth.
Simple enough right? No. If there's one thing Ubisoft needs to learn, is that flashbacks do NOT make for good storytelling. The plot may be water-tight, but for the audience to make sense of it, they have to be put through an extremely convoluted narrative where the game cuts back and forth in time, name-dropping with little care for whether the audience remembers who they are referring to, and just plain being confusing. I don't appreciate this kind of storytelling because I could see it as Ubisoft trying to plump an already lean story. The game is 7 hours or so, but heck, if they removed all the extra nonsense, it could very well be 4 hours.
Sam Fisher meets guy, beats his face. Meets new guy, beats his face. Meets new guy, beats his face. That's the story if the narrative were straightforward. But they interject that with, Sam Fisher-friendship story, Sam Fisher-held-at-gunpoint story. So story is the game's weakest point. Sure, it's got the whole 24-style political-web-of-conspiracy thang that I was hoping for some post earlier but it wasn't compelling enough, like I've seen it all before.
Although there were some glimmers of brilliance like how the game keeps you guessing about the loyalties of certain characters. And when the story's major reward is bestowed upon you after your hard work ploughing through the bad guys, it's quite a touching moment. It certainly puts Sam Fisher in a good light, because as cool as he is, he sure isn't the most charismatic. He growls, scowls and beats your face in. Sounds like Kratos really.
If story is bad, then graphics is a redeeming plus point for Ubisoft. I'm currently playing Assassin's Creed 2 and that game is average in the graphics department. But SC:C can hold its head up to some of the newer games out there. Kudos to the environments designer, because that's the best thing about the visuals.
For those who don't know, SC:C was originally planned as a sandbox title before they scrapped that for its similarities to Assassin's Creed 2. But what they kept were the well-designed open environments, from the fairground to the park/monument building, to the city streets. Amazingly detailed, the places that seem most real are the public spaces with the hustle and bustle of innocent civilians. It makes you wonder about the sandbox game that SC could've been, that I have no doubt would be just as fun. The colors visually pop, the environments drip with atmosphere, and civilians go about their lives, oblivious to the world of pain Sam Fisher is about to bring down on some bad guys. Ubisoft does good crowds, as Assassin's Creed 2 is also testament to.
Ubisoft also made a good choice in going with the raw-realistic-shaky-cam-Jason-Bourne cinematic style. It makes you feel a part of the action, and holds your attention well.
Sound is great. Of definite importance to this game in so many ways. Not only for its heart-pumping soundtrack but also as indicators when enemies are near. Though Ubisoft probably overdid it in the enemy chatter department. All of the bad guys, random dude 1, random dude 2, etc. seem to have a close relationship with Sam Fisher because they love to go "Come on out Fisher, don't play games", "I'm not scared of you, Fisher" amongst other bad lines. They all refer to Fisher as if they know him personally, even though I'm pretty sure Fisher doesn't feel the same way when he breaks their necks. They talk too much for bad guys and if they talked less, maybe it would make it harder for them to be spotted by him. Just read here to see what I mean.
Finally, multiplayer. Although it's no surprise this was implemented what with people's love for cooperative gameplay nowadays, Ubisoft has done something really special with theirs. Cooperative mode is a series of story missions that is two-thirds as long as the main game, set as a prequel to the main story. It's a brilliant idea, giving people more of the Splinter Cell legacy, as well throw cooperative play into the stealth-action mix.
Cooperative works well; coordinating kills, sneaking around together, one interrogating the witness whilst the other watches his back, etc. There's not much more to say than that two players sharing in the tense fun of being splinter cells is awesome. If that's not enough, there are other modes like Face Off which sees you compete against the other player, hunt or be hunted. And Infiltration which is a bigger scale sneak-fest where both players must avoid detection from enemy AI entirely.
And if you don't have friends, there's always Deniable Ops which lets you play smaller contained levels solo, hunting the bad guys or holding out against waves of enemies. Whatever it is, Ubisoft has plenty of post-campaign content to keep gamers happy.
Splinter Cell: Conviction is not a mind-blowing game. But neither is it nothing special. In fact, it is very special for those who understand Sam Fisher, and the Splinter Cell franchise. Ubisoft has appealed to this crowd but also made it accessible for a new generation of gamers. The story is nothing to shout about but then again so isn't a lot of Hollywood blockbusters today. They are mindless fun and SC:C flits between that and a hardcore playground for fans of sneak-em-ups. Sam Fisher isn't an entertaining guy, but we aren't here for him. We're here for his job, and that Ubisoft does very well.