(I’m updating early this week while the game is still semi-almost-kinda-new, but I’ll still be posting something else on Friday)
The story in Conviction is very Splinter Cell. You will roughly follow it – Sam Fisher wants the truth about his daughter, and to hurt some bad guys. But you probably won’t comprehend every facet, as it throws forgettable names at you and uses clunky and confusing exposition.
In fact, I’d be surprised if anyone could tell Black Arrow from White Box or Megiddo, never mind telling Tom Reed apart from Prentiss or Robertson or Lucius Galliard or Calvin Sampson or…
All of this leaves you occasionally wondering why you’re there and who you’re even working for.
There’s an interesting framing device used – a character in an interrogation room playing the narrator as he tells an unseen party about Sam’s story. This works well and has a satisfying conclusion. Although there is a slightly jarring design decision in a flashback mission relating to the character. It feels like they could’ve gotten their point across better, but I’m reluctant to criticise since I can’t personally think of a way how.
Despite this reasonable in medias res narrative, the story still begins with a scene “74 hours in the future” and randomly cuts to to this time frame one more time in the middle of the game. It’s just not necessary and pointlessly adds to the confusion in the story.
The ending of the main arc is a little off though. The villain’s motivations are pretty weak, the game tries to give you a small choice at the end, but it doesn’t make a difference, and didn’t make much sense. I’m pretty sure some of the unseen villains got away as well.
The gameplay is where it shines though. The sneaking, shooting and hunting is very fun. It gives you plenty of room for experimentation and alternate strategies.
The PEC challenges encourage variance, even if you, personally, end up relying on your (thankfully) infinite ammo silenced pistol. Moving to cover works very well, the Mark and Execute and Last Known Position systems are brilliance. For the most part, the game also completely does away with the ridiculous trial and error of previous Splinter Cell games, and is all the more playable for it.
The major problem is that there’s very little variation or set pieces. They obviously had trouble finding a balance with this. There are two sequences (Iraq and the footchase) that shake things up, but both manage to drag on too long. The interrogation sequences are good though. They’re entirely formulaic, but you can’t tell me smashing someone’s face into a piano and breaking the keys in glorious detail isn’t fun.
As I played, I couldn’t help but wish for a little more realism. Pistols should kill people faster than that, submachine guns and assault rifles should be more accurate, airstrikes should be bigger and less accurate than that, characters should display trigger discipline and Sam should have a small of back holster – not just mysteriously make handguns disappear in the hammerspace of his waistline. Not to mention that it’s another game that cheaply throws freakish amounts of enemies at you as an excuse for difficulty.
You could balance the additional damage, accuracy and fewer enemies by making them more dangerous and making Sam die faster.
There’s also the occasional bit of psychic guard trouble. Particularly when one guard sees you, you shoot them in the face with a silenced pistol, then suddenly all the enemies in the area have your Last Known Position.
The checkpoints are occasionally too harsh.
The context sensitive A button presses are very fussy and you’ll often hang off a railing or swap a weapon when you wanted to move to cover, activate something or worst of all revive your co-op partner.
As pictured the HUD is fraught with poor design. The whole game seems to communicate with the player as awkwardly as Ricky Gervais sitcom characters.
There’s a weird thing (lampooned by Penny Arcade here) where enemies in the area will constantly shout things. It’s just to let you know that the enemies are still there, and you’ve gotten them all when the shouting stops, but musical cues obviously would’ve worked better and been less repetitive.
The graphics look good, although oddly jagged on my TV, I don’t know if that’s due to upscaled resolution or something. The visuals particularly shine in the bright areas with lots of crowds. There’s a lot of cool details as well, like Sam’s continually changing appearance (this is reminiscent of Batman: Arkham Asylum, as is some of the gameplay) – although that green jumper of his has to be disgusting by the end of the story.
The whole exposition projection aesthetic is pretty cool and a clever way of working story into the gameplay, but at times – watching, reading, listening and paying attention to your HUD is a little too much multitasking.
The music is passable, it seems to be composed well, but used poorly and it’s never remarkable. The voice acting is quality though, Victor and Sam seemed particularly good to me, but maybe I just have a gravel fetish.
The game covers loading times with FMV intros for the missions. When the loading has finished, you can skip the rest of the intro. You can’t skip in-game cutscenes. I just wanted to state that. Because it’s Ubisoft.
Then there’s the co-op. Cleverly, it tells it’s own prequel story to Sam’s. Much like the main game, the story consists of a whole lot of forgettable names and EMPs. Where you’re going and why is, again, difficult to follow. But there’s some interesting links to Sam’s story, and the end is pretty interesting.
The characters Archer and Kestrel are given enough lines and banter to be vaguely likable, but not enough to really give them any characterisation. It’s less than something like Left 4 Dead offers. Although in defence of the writers, it’s hard to give professional spy types much personality on missions.
It plays almost exactly the same as the single player and is some good fun, with clever design use of high/low routes, dual executions, misdirection and taking turns of interrogations.
The four levels are pretty long and co-op feels almost as integral a part of the game as the single player. Although they do tend to get ridiculously (and nonsensically) hard in places and is generally much more difficult than the campaign overall.
Myself and my co-op partner ended up developing an infuriating pattern of getting stuck for half an hour and then just using EMPs and legging it through the seemingly infinitely respawning guards or past the one gunshot=game over segments.
The Xbox Live matchmaking for it is pretty poor though. People don’t like to use mics, you can’t search for a chapter of a mission and there are some connection problems – if a player gets booted, the whole game is over and you lose your place completely.
I had a particularly harrowing time playing through a level with a loud ten year old (he actually told me how old he was) American. He liked to sing. But only knew the words to one song. Well, one line from one song. Yeah.
So, you definitely need to make sure you have or can find someone to play it with.
Overall, Splinter Cell Conviction is a textbook example of both an Ubisoft game and an 8/10 by the average critical standards. Even with it’s flaws the core gameplay is solid and very fun, but that’s all the game has to offer. Given it’s length I’d recommend a rental, if you really want to play it. But you won’t be missing out if you give this one a pass.