Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction
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THE FAMILIAR SLEEK BLACK CATSUIT and all-purpose vision headgear (with the famous, iconic three glowing green circles) were nowhere to be seen, replaced by a Creamsicle-orange prison jumpsuit and 5 o'clock (plus overtime) shadow--Sam Fisher seemed to be in for a franchise reinvention. After all, you don't show our favorite government secret agent in a mug shot unless you're planning on flipping the script inside out. But Splinter Cell: Double Agent didn't deliver on that unspoken promise. Sure, Fisher spent some time in jail in that fourth chapter of the stealthy series, but it was only for one half-baked level (as a "prisoner," he still had some of his high-tech gadgets, for chrissakes). So Double Agent, despite still being a great game, ended up being more of the same: more hiding in the dark, more climbing up pipes, and more sneaking up on no-do-gooders from behind and putting them down for an extended naptime.
Conviction, however, is running with the idea of a "franchise reinvention" so fast that you may not even recognize it as a Splinter Cell game. Let's look at this new game from the developer's perspective and from a gameplay point of view-then we'll let you know what we think.
The developers say:
"We realized that with the previous Splinter Cells...there was a lack of emotional attachment with the characters," says Senior Producer Mathieu Ferland. "You were given orders, you were told what to do--it was a very cool experience, but this has created a lack of differentiation between each game. We thought that the gameplay was a bit repetitive over time. We decided to change, to renew the brand. For the first time since the original Splinter Cell, we're changing the core mechanics, the core gameplay."
But from a fiction point of view, you can't just muck up the gameplay without good reason. Otherwise, it'll seem forced--or, perhaps, feel like a whole new, different game. "The high-level story after Double Agent," says Ferland, "is two years have passed, and there's something that goes wrong with an old friend of Sam's, and he decides to go back to Third Echelon Splinter Cell's top-secret arm of the National Security Agency. He discovers that everything is dysfunctional--it's not working as it used to--and at some point, Sam will have to do something that will be perceived as very bad, even if it's not. So he'll turn to a fugitive, and he'll be hunted by those who have been betraying him for all these years. At some point, Sam will discover who's chasing him and why--and at this point, he will reverse the situation and be the predator and not the prey."
Well, maybe it is, for all intents and purposes, a whole new game: "As a fugitive, Sam is losing all this comfort," says Ferland. "He has to find new ways of mastering this new situation by himself, to find new gadgets, find new contacts and such. He's always on his toes, watching his back. This is a major difference from previous Splinter Cells, where you could wait in the dark forever and be in a safe zone. Now, you need to move--you need to be more reactive to the environment."
To demonstrate what they're shooting for, the developers showed us a mashup video containing various clips they use as inspiration for Conviction's development: The Bourne Identity, Die Hard, The Fugitivej 24...pretty good source material, if you ask us.
You'll have an easier time dealing with enemy A-I ..if you can work the civilian A.I. You can always blend in with a crowd, but it's not necessarily as simple as walking nonchalantly inside of one. You might try trotting alongside a random Joe to look like you're buddies (thus, eliminating you as that "single male suspect" the cops are looking for). But stick with Joe too long, and he might get a little freaked out, blowing your cover. Or you can try other ways of blending in, such as making a call at a phone booth (wait, people still use those things?) or reading a sign on the wall. "Mimicking [civilian behaviors] will be key to keeping a low profile," says Senior Producer Mathieu Ferland, "but that's if you want to play low profile, of course."
The gameplay says:
So how does all that translate into something you can play with a controller? (Right now, Conviction is an exclusive deal for the 360 and PC... no plans for a Wii or PS3 version.) The developers show us some demonstration target and tech-demo videos of how the gameplay will work: We see Fisher in civilian clothing in a restaurants restroom, with a police officer behind him yelling for him to put his hands on his head. As the cop tries to cuff Fisher's raised arms, Fisher pulls a Jason Bourne and deftly flips around and disarms his would-be captor. A short Casino Royale-style bathroom brawl ensues, with stall doors, mirrors, and sinks meeting the policeman's head at some point, eventually knocking him out. Fisher takes the cuffs, pistol, and radio and leaves the bathroom.
Outside, he notices another cop walking toward him, so he quickly pushes another door open to draw attention to it, then hides underneath a table. Then, as the cop walks past the hiding spot to check out the open door (which leads to a descending stairwell), Fisher sneaks up behind him, cuffs his right wrist to the handrail, slams his hand down to make him let go of his gun, then pushes him down the stairs, knocking him out. Fisher charges through another door to tackle yet another officer to the floor, then gives him a lights-out with a right hook. Before more policemen can join the fray, Fisher pushes a heavy serving station in front of a doorway to block entry.
Fisher then exits the restaurant and is in the middle of a busy street market. Civilians and merchant tents keep him obscured from the half-dozen armed cops looking for him. He's surrounded, but he finds a quiet area where he pulls out the pistol he swiped earlier and fires a couple of harmless shots into some boxes, just to spook the shoppers--and more specifically, to get a hot dog vendor to run away from his stand. Fisher then shoots at the hot dog cart's propane tanks, causing an explosion that disperses the crowd. As people scream and run away, Fisher pulls his hoodie up over his head and blends in with the chaos, escaping capture....
Even though everything we just described came from a prerendered, scripted video, it's supposed to represent Conviction's gameplay, which is to be completely unscripted. The fights, the cops looking for clues (and checking out the opened doorway), the civilian reactions, blending in with the crowd...everything will happen on the fly, according to what the player's doing at the moment and how the artificial intelligence (both enemy and neutral) is evaluating the situation and surroundings. It's a very different formula from past Splinter Cells--it's no longer about hiding in the dark and sneaking past (or up to and knocking out) guards. Now, you're in real-life civilian situations--and wits, not gadgets and guns, will get you out of trouble.
THE MULTPLAYER CROWD
The excellent spies vs. mercenaries multiplayer game from Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow got more hardcore in Chaos Theory, less hardcore in Double Agent, and is now gone completely. We're awfully sad to see it go, but the game of guns vs. gadgets and force vs. stealth doesn't really fit in Conviction's world. "We are going to use as much as possible from what was developed for the single-player experience," says Feriand. "We always felt that the discrepancy in terms of controls and game-play between the single and multi in previous Splinter Cells was a strength for some and a problem for others."
We're not sure yet how Conviction's multiplayer will work, but Feriand hints, "All we can say for now is that Conviction will have an online crowd, and players will be dressed as crowd members.... I am pretty sure you can get where this could lead us--gamers should prepare some paranoia pills."
Will we ever see a return to the spies vs. meres online game-play? "If we realize someday that there is still a lot of fun in creating classic light-and-shad-ow stealth and its multiplayer format, we could revisit it," says Ferland.
Let's face it: Most Tom Clancy games aren't known for their brainy A.I., so this leaves us a little skeptical about how well Conviction will come together. After all, the game's all about improvising in realistic situations, and that realism will only be there if all non-player characters (NPCs) are behaving...well, realistically. But if that A.I. performs like the developers promise, and the NPCs are more human than robotic, then damn, this could be one incredible game. The paranoia of being a fugitive with no one to back you up, having to think on your feet the whole time, a world that reacts to what you're doing--on paper, Conviction sounds amazing. Unless everything we've seen so far is only a small, insignificant part of the game as a whole (see again: the prison stuff from Double Agent), this really is a radically different style for the series. That's fine by us--we were kinda itching to get out of Fisher's supertight black suit and try something new anyway....