Ubisoft Montreal Reworks Another Franchise to Polarizing Effect
Ubisoft Montreal has a knack for working over franchises to a polarizing effect. They did it two years ago with Prince of Persia and again now with Splinter Cell: Conviction. This represents a dramatic diversion for the series that could represent a groundswell of gamers finally able to fully enjoy and live the life of the trained killer known as Sam Fischer.
Splinter Cell: Conviction, for the first time in the series, lets you play stealth or action and not one in spite of the other. Stealth has been streamlined to a point that it is not just for the hardcore. There is no hiding of bodies or dozens of gadgets that you need to use to ensure you remain undetected. There are precautions that you must take and there is most certainly still a risk of being caught, but the experience is much smoother. Combat has been brought to much more amicable terms as well. You are never without a minimum of an infinite ammo pistol and typically you have a second, more powerful, firearm from a total selection of about twenty and an assortment of incendiary devices. That being said, going in guns blazing will almost certainly end poorly. What it does allow for are some bad-ass scenarios enabled through some of the new features like "Mark and Execute".
As you are lurking around, you can mark any bad guy with a push of RB (up to a certain number depending on your weapon). Then once Sam unleashes with some close quarters Krav Maga on a dude, you gain the ability to execute—tapping Y to take out everyone in range that you have tagged. While mark and execute requires some stealth in making your marks and sneaking up unsuspected on a target, your other new tactical combat device revolves around you being spotted. When an enemy lays eyes on you, there is an outline left behind that they will now advance on believing that you must still be very near by. Of course, you will be stealthily moving to another cover position to pick off anyone who runs there, or just to pull them away from the direction you need to be heading. There is something almost comical about the pile of bodies that can amass as you pick off one guy after another when they run in after you. The combination of these mechanics really serve to eliminate the waiting game of traditional stealth play. You can sneak all you want but if you ever get caught in a tight spot you can fight back and, if you have done it well, keep going undetected.
Gameplay changes aside, Ubisoft Montreal did some overhauling of the aesthetics of Splinter Cell with this iteration. One of the bigger undertakings was the removal of as many non-diegetic HUD elements as possible, to varying degrees of success. They eliminated any on screen light meter and now when you are hidden in darkness everything but any enemies turns to black and white, a neat effect that lends nicely to the atmosphere. To guide you on your journey through the world, you are directed by text projected on to wall and various other objects. They very slyly use this same technique to project thoughts, flashbacks, and strong emotions that Sam is feeling, taking what could easliy be viewed as hand holding and making it more of a projection of the thoughts of a man who is on a very serious mission. It's not the objective of a video game, its the objective of Sam Fischer and you need to make sure it happens.
In addition to visual cues, there are also plenty of audible ones. When you are spotted, the score becomes very heightened and does well to set a very tense mood. The enemies also react when you are spotted, but they do so by yelling out to you incessantly. This is vaguely helpful as a device to determine their locations and numbers if you have a Dolby Digital surround setup and occasionally will give you clues on how to proceed (i.e. when they tell you they aren't going in after you and are holding their position, then its time to make a loop around and flank them or just avoid them altogether) but mostly it is an annoyance.
The single player campaign is fairly short, probably taking around six to eight hours, but is an enjoyable experience. Through most of the game there are a handful of ways to approach a level, with there almost always a path you can take that keeps you from having to use your firearms, but near the end they put you into situations that you have no choice but to shoot your way out. The advanced combat makes this not nearly as painful to clear as it could have been, but it comes off as a little lazy compared to the rest of the stages. Co-Op takes all of the mechanics present plus a lot of the things you would expect from a cooperative stealth game, like simultaneous takedowns and entrapping enemies into ambush situations. Overall its a solid package and while it may not get everything right, its an excellent effort in making a fun, easily accessible, Splinter Cell game.