Thursday, June 03, 2010

Banned in Boston: The Splinter Cell Conviction review

For reasons that weren't adequately explained, a review of Splinter Cell: Conviction that I filed about six weeks ago never ran. Either there was a space crunch, or no one wanted to waste ink on a bad game, or Third Echelon has a highly placed mole in the paper's hierarchy. Another, less likely explanation is that the review itself wasn't very good. But that couldn't be, could it? You tell me.




Stealth bomb

Splinter Cell lacks conviction

“Stealth action” has always been an oxymoron. Satisfying though it may be, there’s not much action in crouching behind a crate for five minutes, waiting for an enemy guard to turn around so you can snap his neck. The Metal Gear Solid series has attempted to solve this problem, with varying success, by including slam-bang boss battles alongside the main course. The Splinter Cell series, by contrast, has always been more about diversionary tactics, creative use of the environment, and those breathless moments when its outnumbered protagonist waits silently for armed bad guys to pass him by.

Yet the problem with the newest Splinter Cell game, subtitled “Conviction,” isn’t that it paints a more overtly violent veneer on the robust stealth mechanics that have distinguished past entries. In Conviction, Sam Fisher has turned into a man with no allegiances and nothing to lose, and little reason not to kill everyone in his way. This time, stealth is a survival tactic, not a mandate. Sam can blast his way from one end of a map to another if the player chooses. This is a little harder than using tried-and-true stealth tactics, but that’s as it should be. Of course you’re more likely to die if you charge your enemies with guns blazing.

No, the problem here is all on the surface. Not to put too fine a point on it, playing Splinter Cell: Conviction is a pain in the ass. For some reason, the designers decided to ignore every other action game ever made, and come up with their own creative button mapping scheme. Look, every game needs to tweak its control system to fit its mechanics, but standards have evolved over the decades for a reason. This must be the only game in history in which you reload your weapon by clicking the left analog stick. Good luck remembering that in the heat of a firefight.

Not only unpredictable, the controls are inconsistent. One of Sam’s most effective attacks is “death from above,” whereby he drops onto an unsuspecting enemy and kills him instantly. When Sam is dangling from a high spot, the left trigger performs the move. When he is standing on an upper level, the B button does it. This is horrible interface design.

Some of the annoyances are even more rudimentary than that. Sam’s opponents are motormouths, to a man. Each one spouts inane babble that is apparently supposed to provoke the player into giving away Sam’s position, but more likely will provoke the player into giving away his copy of the game. Kirk Hamilton, of the Gamer Melodico blog, bravely catalogued over 100 lines of taunting enemy dialogue, including gems like, “Fisher? That guy's harder to kill than a cockroach with an Uzi.” God help him.

It’s probably not worth mentioning how stupid the story is, except to say that the harder you try to understand what the hell is going on, the less sense it all makes. But the conspiracy goes to the highest levels! This, too, would be fine if checkpoints were placed after cinematic sequences, and not before them. Dying in this game often means watching the same idiotic and unskippable cutscenes over and over.

A mode called “Deniable Ops” cuts the story almost entirely and lays out challenge maps. This is a little better, but gets at another of the conceptual problems: when your character is in shadow, he’s invisible to enemies, which is represented by the screen turning black and white. This makes it impossible to see anything. You can also use special sonar goggles, which illuminate enemies quite well, but obscure everything in the environment. Then again, with a game this irritating, maybe blindness is a plus.


Greg Sanders said...

Sam’s opponents are motormouths, to a man. Each one spouts inane babble that is apparently supposed to provoke the player into giving away Sam’s position, but more likely will provoke the player into giving away his copy of the game.

Since you asked, a review consistently written with lines like the one above certainly wasn't cut for quality reasons.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you really didn't like this game, did you, Mitch? :P

As Greg's pointed it out, I'm having difficulty understanding what you meant with "Sam’s opponents are motormouths, to a man." (The "to a man" bit.)

Otherwise, I thought the review was fine. None of the flaws you pointed out are invalid, though you obviously place more significance on them than I would. You didn't like the game; that's your honest opinion, and, as a reader, that's the only thing I care about.

The review is consistent in its tone and matches the score, so I don't see that as an issue. If it's the case that it's because your score is in contradiction with the broad general consensus that's caused them to not publish the review, then I think that's appalling.

Greg Sanders said...


I actually hadn't meant that to be a critique. "To a man" means that every single one of them talked a lot. It's a bit of an idiom, perhaps one not used in your area.

Anonymous said...

I could not disagree with this review more!

Kirk Hamilton said...

Ha, nice bile! I might reference Rule #5 of The Universe: Any review in which I get a shout-out can never be said to contain bad writing.

Seriously, though, good to read your take. I'd been curious, since you'd mentioned that you were kinda hating the game.

I liked the control scheme, though only when I was being stealthy. The minute the lights came up... different story. The less said about that Iraq mission, the better. But I've actually found myself coming back to Deniable Ops to finish those missions off, even with so many other games on my plate.

I guess it's the fluidity; I think that the arrows that light up cover transitions work well and I really liked the cover mechanic, since I've never been able to get sticky cover to work like I want it to.

But yeah, the flipside is that the minute they dedicate the left trigger to cover, everything else gets displaced. Which can lead to... well, this, actually.

Mitch Krpata said...

Fun fact: that active cover system with the arrows was identical to the one in Wanted: Weapons of Fate, a game I don't think anybody played besides me and the Splinter Cell designers.

Anonymous said...

I played Wanted and Terminator Salvation (just for the points on the latter, mind you). Not a new idea, but it worked quite nicely in Conviction. And I also remember naively, though semi-facetiously, commenting somewhere that this would lead to a one button press future, where you'd literally hit the 'A' button and the game would play itself.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Hey, that's right! I remember reading that about Wanted, though I never played the game. Didn't hopping from cover to cover also recharge your bullet-time meter or something?

Conviction's cover system of course is of course straight out of Rainbow Six: Vegas, which also had Maxime BĂ©land as lead designer. I thought it was really effective in that game, too.

Oozo said...

I agree; it's certainly not the quality that made the review never see the light of publication.
It is (hey, after all, we're talking conspiracy theories) far more likely that it is another sad case of a review considered to be dangerous for the almighty Metacritic score and thus was terminated preemptively.
(It would just be interesting to know the powers behind that decision...)

Anyway, I wonder if the interface was less counter-intuitive on PC, because the reviewers whose texts I read played it there, and nobody mentioned the issue...

Robyrt said...

Splinter Cell Conviction is fun only in co-op, where you and a partner can berate each other for setting off alarms, forgetting the abstruse control scheme, getting taken hostage yet again, etc. And in the epilogue (spoiler!) you are forced to hunt each other down, with only the victor getting an achievement. Sadly, those are the highest stakes the story ever reaches.

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