Four years have come to this...
It's been at least four years in the making, a game that has followed Batman: Arkham Asylum's example in terms of game mechanics and turned the stealth genre on its head, that's right, Splinter Cell: Conviction is almost here and we got our copy early for review, so I've been hammering at this game in order to give you the lowdown before its Friday release date.
Here's what you need to know: This isn't your old-school Sam Fisher adventure, this is a game that has dynamic stealth and it's a lot of fun. Bottom line - it's worth your hard earned cash if you're a fan or new to the series.
Sam Fisher has been through rough times, since Double Agent and the death of his daughter Sarah, Sam's life has gone through hell and back. He vanished off the map and tried to find a reason to go on living, then someone lets Sam get a whiff that his daughter's death was more than just an accident, gives him a target and he's off again, right back into the fray. The story is told in a very crisp manner through a mix of cut-scenes and top quality narration, projected images on the environment and more. There are no spoilers here, so don't worry.
We're talking single player here at the moment, the multiplayer follows after. Things have changed since Double Agent and you can now no-longer move bodies from where they have fallen, this seems to reflect Sam's new agenda as a faster paced spy, more capable than before and significantly deadlier than he's ever been. He's like a hunting panther stalking his prey this time, no longer do you feel constrained by the shadows, the shadows are your playground and your best friend is the darkness. When you move from light to shadow the whole screen turns black and white to let you know you're hidden, this effect is rather odd to begin with replacing your light meter as it does and takes a little getting used to. To mimic Sam's combat training, traps and enemies remain in colour so that you can see them even in the pitch black.
He has a more acrobatic style of navigation in Conviction, he can get around the areas faster and getting onto a pipe is no longer a laborious rigmarole, a quick tap of the A button and Sam's up on the pipe and rapidly climbing up and over the heads of his enemies. Hit the left trigger and you can drop silently on their heads from above, giving the whole experience a feeling of 'cat and mouse'. Balanced on the edge of a ledge above an enemy, look at them with the crosshair and press B, Sam leaps off and knocks them out cold.
He can also engage in up-close and personal attacks, holding B puts your enemy in a headlock and from there you can use them as a human-shield, soaking bullet damage or dragging them off to dispose of them in a dark corner somewhere. This somewhat gets around the limitation of not being able to carry and move bodies around. Sam can also take cover against most walls and objects in the game world, moving over them, around them, and from cover to cover when the move icon appears against a valid target. Tap A and Sam will automatically run and slide into the next cover. It works really well and makes for a more dynamic use of cover/stealth.
Initially Sam has only a few gadgets at his disposal, a broken mirror allows him to peer under doors and see the enemies beyond them. Later on Sam gets some nicer toys that I won't explain since I always believe in having something to look forwards to in a game. Whilst there's not a whole lot of equipment, some old favourites make a return and have been tweaked suitably to work with Conviction's new mechanics. Talking of new mechanics, there's the much-debated Mark and Execute system. Now let me remind you that you DON'T need to use it if you feel it's too much of a cheat.
The system isn't really a cheat since it actually requires some patience to use; first of all you need to do a stealth takedown on an enemy in hand to hand. Once you have done this you then look at the weapon you're using, it can have 2-4 marks available. A tap of the right bumper marks enemies in the game when you have your cursor set on them. Every weapon has a range too; some are closer than others, so you can't just wait at the edge of a room long distance and hope to catch the marks. The icon is grey if the mark is out of range; it turns red once it's in range. Finally once all those conditions are true, you hit Y and Sam does an auto-kill against the targets. If a target moves into cover then most of the time the system doesn't let you kill them, the odd glitch can happen where they'll still die, it's minor and doesn't really detract.
Weapons and gadgets in Conviction are unlocked through story mode and co-op story play. They are also persistent across all game modes, so once you find a weapon stash, you can upgrade weapons through the Persistent Elite Creation system first seen in Rainbow Six Vegas and Vegas 2. You have PEC challenges across all play modes and those give you XP points, which can be used to purchase weapon upgrades and so forth. Mastery of these vital tactics will reap you the big rewards and allow you to execute your objectives in a much snappier manner. They range from playing cat and mouse with someone, basically doing a stealth takedown from high above them as they investigate a Last Known Position.
Talking of Last Known Positions, this is a new mechanic to the series and functions as a way to let you know where your enemies think you are. If you're spotted briefly the HUD will let you know the direction and severity of the danger. It'll either be a quick grey flash with a half circle and a small arrow pointing at your observer, or a full on red version and the word: Detected. Your enemies will then work together to bring you down, you need to vanish and break their line of sight. Either deploy a gadget or just use some acrobatic jiggery-pokery to get the hell out.
Once you break LoS you'll leave a silhouette behind in the game that you can see, your enemies will converge on that because that's where they think you were lastly. You can use this to mess with their heads and flank them, taking them down one by one or setting up a remote trap, triggering it when the saps get too close. It's little touches like this that turn the normally boring stealth genre into something truly dynamic, just like Arkham Asylum did for Batman. You get a real sense of smugness as you outwit your enemies with a carefully planned trap. The d-pad controls weapon and gadget switching and the new sonar goggles are interesting to say the least.
The controls are tweaked from previous Splinter Cells to take advantage of the faster pace, but there's very little to stop an old-school fan trying to finish the game in the old-school way, it's entirely possible to get through many of the levels without firing a shot, without being spotted and using hand to hand to take down your enemies. This is the game that lets you play it how you want to. There are a few sequences where it moves you down a predetermined gameplay path, but these are interesting and weave into the main narrative of the story as well, so it doesn't feel like they were just thrown in for the hell of it.
Lastly in terms of gameplay mechanics, there are the interrogations that are set pieces where you get to pound the living daylights out of the important bad guys and bring on the pain. You can move them around and interact with various objects in the scene, some of them have painful consequences and brutal animations that go with them, this goes a long way to remind you that Sam's now off the leash, he's no longer listening to Third Echelon in his ear, he makes his own direction for the most part. Using waypoints in the game world means that you don't get lost; you're often given projected text that shows the direction you must go, moving into cover in the tutorial or just infiltrating a mansion. The use of these combined with the projected movies and elements, really keeps you in the game and that's what Conviction does really well, immersion.
The game uses a very well crafted check-point save system and the checkpoints are pretty generous, there are 3 levels of difficulty and they change up various things including the ruthlessness of the enemies and their AI becomes sharper once set to Realistic. Sam can't take many bullets even on Rookie so you don't want to try and play it too much like a third person shooter if you can help it. So with the LKP, Mark and Execute, new shadow/stealth mechanics and hand to hand/krav maga action, the game delivers a much sharper stealth experience where you really do feel like a predator or hunter taking down your prey as they bumble about in the dark.
The graphics to Conviction are nice; they do a great job of making this outing appear like a grittier version of the series. It's more Bourne and Bauer than before and with the harder edge to everything. It's not really a beautiful game per-se but the graphics get the job done, they handle light/shadow really well and some of the models don't stand up under close scrutiny. The frame-rate is good and solid and there's no pop-in considering this is an iteration of the latest Unreal engine. The textures are good and there are moments where it really does look like an episode of 24 or Bourne, with the use of camera angles and direction to drive the narrative forwards towards the next part of the story.
It also hides loading screens behind animated videos, so you never really drop out of the game even when enjoying the ride.
Conviction captures Sam's movements beautifully, he is a little more spry and perhaps appears a tad younger in many ways compared to the guy we saw in Double Agent. He can get around his environments at high speed, running, sliding, double rolling with the best of the best and his hand to hand/krav maga moves are all context sensitive and based on the weapon that he's using at the time. If he's bare handed you get a different set of animations for a takedown, compared to if he's using a pistol or not. It's effective, it looks like the kind of thing trained spec ops would use and it works really well in the game.
The rest of the animations are great too, the enemies are well animated and the cut-scenes are excellent.
The AI reacts to getting shot in various ways; the bodies hit the floor based on hit-location and force of impact. There are explosions and cover can be degraded in certain areas. It pushes all the right physics buttons and that's all it needs to do.
AI often makes or breaks a game and the bottom line, the AI makes this game 95% of the time. Sometimes they seem to do really stupid things, like walk past you in the dark and slightly nudge your shoulder, failing to spot the Sig-Int Ninja waiting in the shadows to bust a silent cap in their head. Or they might get caught on their pathfinding and walk into a door repeatedly allowing you to shoot them in the face or break the door on their head. When it works though, the AI in the game is fantastic and has an Arkham Asylum feel to it. They investigate things that they think are suspicious and get spooked if lights blow for no apparent reason. They work together and as they become hostile they'll take cover, flank you, use grenades and jump over obstacles.
There are also several grades of AI, from the dumb thugs to elite spec-ops, they all have different styles of attack and weapons they like to use along with some tricks that I won't spoil. They can be tricked and suckered into traps and that's half the fun of the game.
A great sound suite has been put together for the game; it really does work well with the overall package. The weapons, especially the silenced pistols have a low noise signature and the various grunts and groans as you smack people around in an interrogation, followed by screams of searing pain are enough to put your teeth on edge in a good way.
SCC has some of the best voice acting in the series to date, the dialogue is crisp and sharp and the performances are top notch. Michael Ironside is back as Sam Fisher, better than ever.
The score is a little jarring at times and I found myself turning it off after I'd completed the game so I could immerse myself more in the actual game world, it's good but I would have gone for something a little less thumping during a fight and made it a little more context based. What's there is good but it doesn't need to be such a big theme. It also kicks in when things have gone wrong, so it's a musical indicator that you can use to predict trouble.
Before you condemn the game for a lack of Spies vs. Mercenaries mode, that mode just would not work with the new Splinter Cell game mechanics. For a start spies would rip mercenaries to shreds, they are faster, more agile, have goggles that let them see through walls and can mark/execute you in a heartbeat. They have emp gadgets and other tricks as well as the LKP tactic. What's been done instead feeds into the overall story arc and provides a fantastic cooperative game experience that rivals my all time favourite: Chaos Theory for sheer fun and team-work based gaming. Move over Army of Two 1 and 2, this is how it's meant to be done.
You get a 6 hour cooperative story mode that's a prequel to the main story. Two agents, Kestrel (a Russian Voron (Echelon's counterpart) agent and Archer (a Third Echelon agent) are dispatched to deal with a series of problems in several rather expansive maps made up of big levels that will test your teamwork to the maximum as you dispose of the enemy quickly/cleanly, save your downed teammate from certain death and perform dual mark-executes that would make Jack Bauer proud. Once again you can pretty much play how you want, quick/clean spy-like or guns blazing killer style. There are set interrogation moments and some other tricks that I certainly won't spoil which put a big old smile on our faces as me and another member of Games Xtreme battled alongside each other against various foes.
You have all the upgrades and weapons from the main story as well as anything that you might unlock in coop story mode. You have checkpoints at weapon stashes as well as other parts of the level and it all works together nicely. You can use all the tricks that Sam has up his sleeves and basically his whole skill set is replicated between Kestrel and Archer.
Then you have the Deniable Ops modes.
Hunter - you begin with 10 enemies on the map, if you're detected you'll end up bringing in reinforcements, once you eliminate the enemies you move onto the next zone in the map. Rinse and repeat. It's kind of like Vegas 2's Terrorist Hunts except that the bad guys don't just spawn in behind you; they're already on the map and come from places that you'd expect. Each time you begin a match of Hunter you'll find out that enemies are placed differently, guard different areas and provide a challenge even on rookie if you're not careful.
Face Off - 1 v 1 adversarial, kill the other spy and avoid or kill the enemies that are hunting you both.
Infiltration - a nod to the original Splinter Cell, this is a mode similar to Hunter, it has security systems and the proviso, if you're spotted it's back to the last checkpoint for you. It is found in the Collector's Edition of the game or unlocked through the Uplay system.
These modes form the core of the multiplayer game experience and can be played online, you can play Hunter, Last Stand and Infiltration single player or cooperatively. Face Off is the only mode you can't play single player. There's Xbox Live play, split-screen play and system link as you may expect.
Multiplayer is a lot of fun, it's an excellent addition to the robust single player and helps add replay value to the game. There are unlocks to be had through Ubi's Uplay system and you can use points gained from SCC, Ruse (when it releases) or Assassin's Creed 2 to purchase a few little extras. There are also free DLC items being added to the game as a thank you to those who support the franchise by buying it.
Finish your mission Sam
Conviction is the best game in the Splinter Cell series to date, it's taken the genre and turned it on its head, replaced the really old-school slow stealth with something that allows you to adjust your plans on the fly and really feel like a predator in single or multiplayer. It might have a short 8-9 single player but additional to that is the cooperative story and Deniable Ops modes that add immense value to the product. We hope to see more levels and missions for DO mode or perhaps even a few new cooperative story missions, this is one game you can't afford to miss and even though there are a few low poly problems and AI hiccups, the whole thing is produced to a high standard and Ubisoft deserve kudos for trying something new and innovative, this is a direction I hope they keep going with Splinter Cell.