Ode to a Camera Animator
Almost every mission in Splinter Cell Conviction begins with a little swooping cinematic of the area Sam Fisher is expected to navigate. Then the game's camera sort of wobbles right behind Sam's right shoulder. A few words will be projected onto some nearby wall or crate - usually some espionage boilerplate along the lines of "PLANT THE C4" or "FIND THE SCIENTIST" - before the game accedes control to the player.
This sequence showcases of some of the coolest, most stylish implementation in a video game of that hyper-kinetic camerawork one will find in a Peter Berg film, and when that camera swoops in on Fisher, I can't help but get me primed up and excited to sneak around and kill some dudes. It works every time, without fail.
I'm sure those intro sequences were the result of iteration and collaboration between the many talented people at Ubisoft's Montreal studio. However, someone had to animate that virtual camera and make sure it worked like they wanted it to in those design documents, and that person needs to be singled out. Looking though the game's credits I'm guessing Juan Esteban Diaz, listed as the "Camera Animator," is the guy who deserves praise. So, Mr. Diaz, you did an excellent job! Let me buy you a drink sometime.
Start moving Fisher around, and witness how Splinter Cell: Conviction sells the game's assured and stylish presentation with all these neat little gimmicks. I don't mean that in a pejorative way, of course; gimmicks are what separate the competent third person action game from the exemplary one. Active reload is a stellar gimmick. Terrain deformation, at least as it was implemented in LucasArt's nearly forgotten Fracture, is not. The freedom to Lara Croft your way about a city during a firefight in Uncharted is a pretty good gimmick. Being an Army of Two in Army of Two is not.
So most of its clever gimmicks work great in Splinter Cell: Conviction. Like the black-and-white projections of mission objectives or brief vignettes of Sam's memories that pop up in the environment. Or a handy silhouette marking Sam's last known position, if one compromises whatever stealthy plans one was foolishly trying to implement and must resort to other improvised plans with a bit of flanking action. Or the brilliant, intuitive, and quite lovely way the environment flips from color to black and white whenever Sam is hidden in the darkness.
The pièce de résistance, however, is the aforementioned virtual camera, wobbling and shaking in response to terrible acts of violence, that really sells the cinematic presentation of this game, especially during the handful of morally dubious "interrogation" sequences that pop up maybe half a dozen times throughout the campaign. These are in essence sequences where one guides Fisher though a series of scripted beat-downs Jack Baur would find excessive to extract perfectly accurate intel from people as varied as scumbag dope dealers to powerful African American politicians. Incidentally, Fisher beats this latter man up in the Lincoln Memorial. Right there, at the feet of the Great Emancipator himself. I found myself wondering if the developers thought they had delivered any of the dramatic irony during this tasteless and insensitive set-piece or if they just thought the Mall was a great place to smash a guy's head though a wall of televisions at.
Still, when that gentleman's head gets smashed into a wall of televisions as the camera circles and vibrates like something out of Children of Men, it looks amazingly painful and very cool. Sam Fisher may not have all the information on how appallingly unreliable information gathered through torture is, but I don't believe he was ever steered wrong by his detainees over the satisfying, if brief, single player campaign.
However, one gimmick felt very pedestrian and flat to me. It was the most highly touted "feature" in all the pre-release coverage of this game, this "Mark & Execute" gimmick. Melee dispatch a dude with the B button, and you're on your way to Mark & Execute somewhere between 2 and 5 other dudes. Press the right bumper when said dudes are in your line of sight to capital M "Mark" them, then slam that X button down with AUTHORITY to capital E "Execute" those suckers.
I may have just played the game wrong, but I only did this between 3 and 6 times during the entire course of the game (if we exclude those moments where the act is mandatory to continue). If one truly embraces this system, it might help them get out of some of the hairy moments the late game can throw Sam's way -- but I found it more trouble than it was worth. I just aimed for a dude's head when no one else was looking.
(FYI: SOME PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD)
There's a plot - sleek techno-thriller stuff very much of a piece with the Tom Clancy brand - and that plot does not seem a bad one, but it may rely somewhat heavily on one having a bit of prior attachment to Mr. Fisher, Grimm, and the organization they work for, Third Echelon. This is the only Splinter Cell game I've ever played, and as charmingly gruff as Michael Ironside's slurred performance is, I could not quite figure out the emotional attachment this man had to this shadowy hyper-covert branch of the US government after all that time. They did not seem to be doing much to protect the United States during the course of the game, and our ultimate (and obvious) villain's hyper-complicated plot to frame Sam Fisher was so preposterously resource intensive and required absolutely so much to go right that I can't imagine he was too surprised when it didn't work out in the end. The thin veneer of credibility that Mr. Clancy's name once lent to his projects is no more, and really never should have been. His stories were always implausible hokem - nearly as bonkers as anything dreamed up by Hideo Kojima - albeit deftly executed hokem.
(SPOILERS NO MORE!)
I'm woefully under-qualified to review a Splinter Cell game in context. I've never played one before this installment. I make no claims for my gaming prowess. I have little of it. I've been stuck at 75% in the XBLA game Limbo for nearly half a year now, and I've played it just about every week since I bought it. I've done everything save watch a Youtube clip explicitly telling me how to solve it.
Still, with this proviso, I'm recommending this game. It's 20 bucks on Games on Demand. I spent about that much on a belt today. I enjoyed the belt far less.