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Splinter Cell Conviction

Game: Splinter Cell: Conviction
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Year: 2010
Reviewed: November 2012
Platform: PC
Game Type: Action/Stealth
Reviewer: [VaLkyR]Assassin

DRM Is Evil!!!

How would you like your game sir? With or without DRM?
How would you like your game sir? With or without DRM?


Ubisoft can be a pain sometimes. For a start, they took Double Agent a little away from its Stealth roots, but poorly geared towards the increased action it tried to produce. They then made that game buggy. Then they released this game, the next in the series, and before I started I had already found out it had strayed further from the stealth gaming that made the series popular. Then came the DRM. Oh boy I had issues with the DRM. The game updated patches upon patches. As soon as one finished, the exact same thing patched again, so each thing that needed patching, was patched twice, resulting in several patches. First you had the game itself patch, then the game launcher, and then an annoying application called Uplay which I had a great deal of trouble getting to run, eventually opening up enough through firewall settings to make it work. In total I must have spent a couple of hours trying to get it all to work from install, to update, to fiddling around with firewall settings. This shouldn’t be so hard for a legitimate buyer when some pirate scum would get it working straightaway.


At this stage I was very annoyed, and very late at night, after a PC restart and one final change of unlocking the application through Windows Firewall (I never checked if just the restart solved it), I finally got the game loaded, and played about 15 minutes worth, intending to play the game the following day, hoping all would still work. I found straight away another annoying feature of a lot of games: the checkpoint save. To have to redo things so early in the game also annoyed me. At this stage, I was all set for putting my mad face on, and writing a very critical review. Critical of Ubisoft for making gaming less fun for a legitimate buyer and lover of a successful stealth series.


Now for the actual Game Review

The game actively encourages you to pirate it!
The game actively encourages you to pirate it!

The following day arrived. Around 2pm I continued with the game, and several and a half hours later, I had finished it. Yes a short game too, another thing to add into the critical part of this review. But guess what? With all this annoyance, with all the things I was hating about the game already…. I absolutely bloody loved it!!! Yes, the game-play has gone away from stealth even more so, but what bits of stealth were used, and what gadgets were included generally were used well enough in the context of the environment they were given to use in. The game is mainly action orientated though, and boy was that action good! The plot and story through the game was enough to keep me interested for that whole several (nearing eight) hours of gaming, and I would never play a game that much in one day unless I really really loved it. Am I annoyed that it is short, well, no, not really! The game length felt just right for the story, at no point is there any filler, and at no point did I ever consider quitting through boredom, or through struggling to get through any harder parts, as generally, the game is balanced quite well, and even with the checkpoint saves, I only died less than a dozen times through the whole game, and most of that because I probably played the game too much in the all guns blazing way, when a more cautious approach would have been better.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is not flawless, and there are some game-play mechanics that could have done with more tweaking, particularly moving between, and shooting from behind, cover. These were fairly minor annoyances though, and in general the game-play wasn’t affected too much by the weaker points. Compared to the previous game, the game-play, and story, are an order of magnitude better!

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Sam tries to get the game working, and discovers the root of the UPlay servers issues

Plot/Story

Sam assesses the competition
Sam assesses the competition

The game's story is told from the perspective of one of the characters looking back on what happened, and is voiced like a commentary in some of the cut-scenes. Some cut-scenes delve more into the past, and other times, they serve to simply start you off in a location, usually by showing a bit of the level ahead, and then drifting back to where you’ll start, while a character in the game talks to you about the upcoming objectives.

Sam is presented as a lot darker in this game, not because he’s not washed since the last outing, but in his attitude and persona. The game even starts off by making assumptions about the ‘choices’ you were given in the previous game, painting Sam in a more ‘aggressive’ light. Thankfully, there are no poorly implemented attempts to give a player a feeling of choice, and the game is all the better for it, telling a highly focussed linear story, but one that is engrossing like a quality action film.

When Sam interrogates people, the familiar vice like grip he holds them in is gone, and rather than squeezing their arm or neck to get a little more information out of them, this time he is quite violent, knocking the character around in a brutish manner.

You're going to have to play better than that.
You're going to have to play better than that.

This anger comes from a family matter where someone close to him had previously been killed, and the story eventually clears up this aspect when the game starts to reach the crescendo. When things do get to that stage, the finale is fairly grand, and provides a satisfying end to this short game. I don’t really want to delve into the story too much, as a summary would give away too much information, but I can say that the game starts off with Sam no longer being a part of Third Echelon (the secret intelligence agency branch), and being contacted by a familiar character from the previous games to help them.

Game-play

The stealth aspect of the game has changed a lot from when the series was at its peak. Firstly, it is impossible to hide bodies anymore, which by itself is the single biggest driver towards action orientated game-play rather than doing a completely stealth approach, due to bodies being found (so you might as well just wade in there anyway and have a shootout!). There are plenty of stealthy elements to the game that are still intact, though, and it is possible to cling around on pipes or on ledges and either drop down and perform a kill or pull someone out of a window, which can be quite fun. You can also easily shoot from windows while hanging from a ledge, so you aren’t forced into throwing someone into the path of enemy A.I. below. It is quite fun to go out through a window, make your way round on the ledge behind the enemy A.I., and then spring a surprise attack, then disappear, and keep popping up again through other windows as they struggle to work out where you currently are. You can also look underneath doors, using a mirror, or later in the game, a fancy electronic gadget, to see where enemies are in the room ahead. When hidden from enemies, the game goes to black and white, and when all the enemies in a particular section have been finished with, Sam will usually make a comment. In my case, usually frowning and saying "That could have gone better!".

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Either my monitor has issues, or this is a game-play feature

This leads me to another feature of the game, which involves presenting a ghost image of yourself in the last location that you have been spotted, and helps highlight where the enemy A.I. will be focussing on, while you try and find cover again. The cover system itself is less than perfect, though. Early on, in the very first level, it shows you can use the action or use key to move between cover quickly, just like the previous game allowed, but barring some very rare occasions, I found it impossible to do that again, which is a shame. It’s either a fault on my part (me being dopey with control setup), or they just gave up on it knowing you’ll probably be in full fighting mode anyway. There’s no leaning around corners available either, which is a great shame, as this kind of game would benefit from that, although, being in a third person perspective, you get to see enough of round a corner anyway, but it still means you have to break cover a little to reach an enemy target.

Sam takes voyeurism to new levels
Sam takes voyeurism to new levels

At some points in the game, you will get to control cameras and use them to view and listen in on NPC’s engaged in conversation, with one of those occasions being a mission objective. This scene is followed by a dramatic chase on foot, something that hasn’t happened in any of the previous games that I can remember, and was also quite fun. Especially as the game generally looks quite good graphically.

On the other side of the fence, you’ll have to avoid cameras in some scenes, with one level requiring that you must avoid all contact, or it is mission over. This level, late on in the game, feels very old-school, and it is great that soon after, you are doing more old school stuff when you finally get the use of those famous tech goggles that Sam Fisher is famous for. Sam makes do without these for much of the game, but when he does get them, they are put to good use, enabling Sam to see enemies through walls, but more importantly, enabling him to bypass a very advanced security system, with moving laser beams that have to be dodged. It’s a little tricky to get through at first, but once you realise the route, it’s quite easy. The goggles are handy for the final level when enemies throw copious amounts of smoke grenades at you, so they don’t become completely redundant once they have served their primary purpose.

He's very protective over his goggles, now he has them back again.
He's very protective over his goggles, now he has them back again.

There is a new feature of the game called Mark and Execute, and this involves selecting targets first, and then pressing another button to automatically kill them in a cinematic style. This enables multiple targets to be taken down quickly, although the option to use it only appears if you have performed a recent stealth kill, by sneaking up on someone or dropping down on them. It is a handy feature of the game, and while I had my doubts at first, I found it fitted in quite well and worked well enough. It is a shame, though, that you are limited to two people being marked at any one time until you get to upgrade your weapon to three, then finally four marked targets in one go.

One feature I did miss a little was the ability to whistle to get the attention of enemies and lure them away from their set guarding paths, I guess it is a little artificial anyway, and most real people would be extremely suspicious if they heard someone whistle, but it was a handy feature of the previous games regardless.



Face to face with a fan. Luckily this one hasn't played the earlier Splinter Cell games. Plus it's behind bars.
Face to face with a fan. Luckily this one hasn't played the earlier Splinter Cell games. Plus it's behind bars.

All weapons have a standard and zoomed fire mode, zoomed being more accurate for headshots (which are better for taking down the multiple enemies quickly). The standard pistol options you use (there are six to choose from at various weapon load-out areas throughout the game) are plenty good enough for most combat, and also have the bonus of being very quick and having infinite ammo, which is handy, as you’d soon run out! The alternate weapons, all machine gun based, and picked up from dead bodies, have limited ammo though, which is only found by picking it up from more dead bodies. At the start of certain sections, you’ll be given fresh amounts of frag grenades, flash grenades, remote detonation grenades, EMP grenades, and a couple of others I can’t think of right now, and they are all quite handy and used throughout the game. The only one I didn’t really use again (only by accident) was the sticky cam, so this makes two games in a row now where it has been practically useless. Although, to be honest, even at the series most stealth like point, I barely used it either. It’s just there. Probably because it’s sticky.

Going back to the pistols, they can be upgraded at various points after you earn money for doing things, but I never quite found out or noticed where this came from. It just appeared at certain points, and when it was available, I used it at weapon load-out/upgrade areas.

Graphics/Art Style

Call of Splinter Cell
Call of Splinter Cell


Graphically, the game is quite impressive, particularly the character models and animations used, which I thought were quite ‘human’ for the most part. There are some levels which are less suited to the game engine, particularly a Call Of Duty style level taking place in a memory recall. Most levels though, particularly ones taking place in the streets of various towns and cities, look quite sharp and detailed, filled with many day to day things such as filing racks, phones (particularly Cisco, must be an advert!) and other ornaments. They all help make the game world more lifelike. It is also true, though, that the game destroys this illusion by presenting hints for what to do or where to go next on walls or the floor of the game world. Before playing the game, I wasn’t too happy with his feature, but on seeing it up close, and from a game-play perspective, it actually works quite well, and I ended up kind of liking it.




Now where is that satellite dish?
Now where is that satellite dish?

The lighting in the game is decent for the most part, and a big improvement on the previous game, but being a stealth game, I wish there was more use made of shadows, i.e. enemies seeing your own shadow and reacting to it, or vice versa. I guess that if they could see your shadows they can usually see you anyway. There is one occasion where it works in your favour slightly, when you see an enemies shadow in a doorway, but I already knew they were there anyway as they were talking. Lights can be shot and thus that helps with darkness, but for the most part, if you shoot too many lights at once, you’ll give away your position anyway, so you have to be careful otherwise the darkness you create won’t help you as much as you’d hope. I did encounter one mission where you take the power down, and after taking out all the enemies and reaching a target point, it comes back on again – and if I ever replayed it again, I’d make sure I damaged all the lights, as a stealthy escape was impossible. Perhaps with more thinking, I would have taken that precaution.

Most locations are nice to explore, and there is one that is very fun to go around as it takes place in a fairground! It is nice to see a game level full of colour and bright lights. That level is not alone, as most are appropriately coloured. There is one brief scene late on where things are reaching climax to one level where the game-world takes on a sepia tone for ‘artistic’ effect, but this is only short anyway, and its also where the game allow you use the Mark and Execute feature multiple times in a fast flowing sequence.


Summary

I think we could do with more pipes in this scene
I think we could do with more pipes in this scene

Generally, the game feels nothing like the previous instalment in any way. The game-play has been overhauled a lot, and while being more action-orientated, it contained a fair bit of stealthy parts too. The stealthy parts are not long and drawn out though, and the action is enjoyable, with the shooting and movement feeling fluid. At no point in the game was I bored, or lost interest, as the pacing is just right. When the game does go in the stealth direction completely, it does it well enough, and while I would have liked more of those complete stealth bits, I do remember how much of a pain they could be when forced in some previous games in the series, so maybe it is for the best they did away with some of it.

The story and plot, while not being anything you haven’t seen before, is decent and I felt much more a part of the game than I did compared to Double Agent. I’d say in quality, and enjoyment, the game is definitely back to Chaos Theory levels, but it does this at the expense of some stealth and at between seven and eight hours, the game is quite short, although pretty much par for the course for a lot of FPS titles these days.

Late in the game, at least there's no advertising this time... just unbranded cola
Late in the game, at least there's no advertising this time... just unbranded cola


Compared to Double Agent, it is half the length. But I actually feel like there was more content, more happening, more of interest in Conviction than what Double Agent managed in its double length. Having zero filler, and being action packed, does offset that a little, especially when I compare it to the previous two game I have played, Dead Space, and Red Faction: Armageddon. Both of those are quite a bit longer too, but I get nowhere near the same satisfaction from them that I did with this game. Dead Space, for example, took me another 4-5 hours to complete, but the central character in that is lumbering around like an aging pensioner, whereas Sam Fisher is quite often literally running through the levels. Perhaps if I had a little more patience and tried to force stealth bit more, I might have made the game last longer, but the game invites gun-play, so that is what I did.



Conclusions

So then, how do I rate a game that annoyed me so much during installation, is short in length, and takes Sam into new action-orientated territory? Well, before I played the game, I was intending to be quite negative due to my frustrations, but now, having played it, I’m going to be more lenient. The previous game had game-breaking bugs to deal with, and this one had game-breaking DRM, although, on reflection it was my own firewall settings blocking it. But that shouldn’t excuse the fact that installing and configuring the game to work requires a Degree in Computing if you are unlucky enough not to get it working first time. Putting those issues aside and comparing it like for like with its predecessor, I have to say the game is infinitely better, as it is much more engaging, fun, graphically better, and does away with the stupid game-play elements the previous game had, like making components for bombs and doing a dull stealth-course.

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Bah, so much for no hidden adverts... hey wait a sec, lets look closer.... I use that phone at work!!!

The Splinter Cell series seems to be heading more towards a compendium of stories based on Sam Fisher, and if taken from that perspective, I suppose it isn’t quite as bad that the series has focussed more on action. You also have to consider that they wanted to make the game-play more fun, and being stealth orientated, but limited by the context of a game-world based on real life, rather than one of pure science fiction or fantasy, where stealth elements can be given a little more freedom. It is true that the series had gone quite stale, and they had obviously run out of ideas in the short term.

It is doubtful we’ll see a return to the style of Splinter Cell that Chaos Theory presented, particularly now games are built around consoles and casual gamers that can earn the developers more money. But I’ll end on this: If you are going to make a Splinter Cell game like Conviction, one that is probably more geared towards the masses that want plenty of action, rather than a relative minority of stealth fans, then please please don’t force us to use that horrid DRM. To paraphrase a quote from a well known film: You can take our stealth, but you can’t take our freeeeeedom!!!

Gordan Freeman makes a cameo, minus beard
Gordan Freeman makes a cameo, minus beard


Game pluses:

+ Very enjoyable action-packed game-play
+ Great plot/story
+ Decent quality graphics for the most part.
+ Focussed with no filler
+ No bugs worth mentioning here!
+ Good system performance
+ Good voice work again.


Game minuses:

- Horrid DRM
- Quite short, but still twice as long as a Call of Duty game! However, less than 10 hours means a minus half a star penalty.


Neither positive or negative:

-/+ Moves away from traditional stealth style that Splinter Cell was known for, although it does this in a good way.
-/|+ Checkpoint saves, but they are fairly often, and on the lowest difficulty, I didn’t find myself dying too much anyway.

Arbitrary Final Score: 3.5 stars

If you like this, you might also like: An action game with very little stealth, but pretending it is still a true stealth game

Does Sam Fisher still have what it takes? Let us know in the forum!