Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Splinter Cell: Conviction review

    With the advent of backwards compatibility for the Xbox One, a lot of old games are about to become new again. One of the series which I hope not only makes the jump to the next generation consoles but also will, hopefully, receive a sequel made with present-day levels of technology. Despite this enthusiasm, I've got to say I've always had a love-hate relationship with the Splinter Cell series.

    On one hand, I really like the series in terms of gameplay as well as the premise. You're always going to find me enthusiastic about stealth action adventure stories. Splinter Cell is about halfway between Hitman and Deus Ex, which makes it a pretty awesome place to be. I also love spy fiction both in terms of reading as well as gameplay.

    However, the politics are terrible.

Sam Fisher is Batman in many places.
    It's part of the reason why I could never get into 24 as the show's lack of self-awareness until later seasons was always a sticking point with me. It's the same issue I have with a lot of Tom Clancy's work as it's entertaining as hell but you have to well and truly shut your brain off about the story being anything other than good-guys doing what it takes to take down the EVIL bad guys. Which is appropriate since the concept for Sam Fisher and his organization came from Clancy originally. God rest your soul, you techno-thriller crazy man.

    So with that lengthy intro, I have to say something which will invalidate almost everything I've just said: Conviction is really-really good both in plot as well as examining the setting's implications. Okay, not really. It's the EVIL bad guys who are being controlled by a mysterious EVIL group but it takes the premise Sam Fisher's ruthless "ends justify the means" organization can and does do some horrible stuff both to other people as well as Sam himself.

Sam kills a LOT of people in this game. No disable for you!
    The premise is Sam Fischer is retired from Third Echelon, the NSA-based secret organization of secretiveness which Sam has been serving for all of the previous games, in large part due to the death of his daughter. When Anna Grimsdottir, his handler, contacts him about a plot against the United States by the now-treasonous Third Echelon, he is uninterested in helping until it is revealed they have his still-living daughter. It's the kind of situation where, for fans of the series, it feels like Moneypenny is holding Bond's wife Tracy hostage.

    And yet it works somehow.

    The graphics are beautiful in Conviction, being one of the best-looking games of the Xbox 360. Everything is gorgeous and I loved the character design. It really does capture the Nineties techno-thriller atmosphere and looks like a movie. Even sets which shouldn't be interesting like a dingy locker-room are full of little tidbits that make it look more lived in. An immense amount of attention was put into making the game leap off the screen and you can see it everywhere.

Anna's redesign is amusing. Did she get some work done?
    Michael Ironside's acting is very well good and he maintains the high quality of the series throughout the game but he's a little too long-in-the-tooth for the character onscreen. It would have been a good idea to recast the character, I think for this game just as they did for Splinter Cell: Blacklist. I know I've attracted the ire of many purists with this statement but it's only my opinion. Still, he manages to convey the gruff weary old soldier thing very well and really makes you believe he's well and truly done with Third Echelon's bullshit.

    The gameplay continues to emphasize stealth but ramps up the action considerably, which I didn't mind but some players might find off-putting. Sam also abandons his willingness to take his opponents down non-lethally and becomes a human Terminator. I didn't mind this but this makes the story significantly darker and edgier for no-reason since, really, the non-lethal takedowns of previous games were part of the appeal. One element I did enjoy, however, was the "tagging" system which allows you to do bullet-time executions of your opponents that are always fun to watch.

The use of shadows and lighting in the game is great.
    There's a lot of really good levels in the game such as an escape from a United States Air Force base, an infiltration mission in a carnival, a couple of levels in Iraq which switch genre from stealth to action, and a mission where you invade Third Echelon. You even get to invade the White House and that's just awesome. There's none of he typical underground bases and crumbling buildings which make up most games.

    Sam Fisher is a great character with a lot of grizzled toughness and sly sardonic humor. He's a pretty generic in the context that he's a distillation of every single rugged American soldier type since Rambo wandered onto the stage but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The fact Michael Ironside's performance, too old for the role or not, conveys how thoroughly DONE with all this crap really amps up the emotional investment I had in the story. I may not feel for the guy quite the same way I do as Solid Snake but he's still a very enjoyable on-screen presence.

Feeling betrayed is a good reaction to betrayal.
    I could describe the plot but it is a nonsensical yet fun collection of various modern spy fiction tropes: EMPs, a plot to kill the President, evil PMCs, faked terrorist attacks, rogue government agencies, and secret conspiracies in the highest levels of government.

    It's funny because most of this is the exact opposite of Tom Clancy who tended to lionize the US government no matter what (unless they'd been taken over by naive-bordering-on-stupid liberals). Still, it's closer to my kind of politics and I won't lie to you by saying that didn't improve my opinion of the game.

    I think my favorite part of the game was the complicated and devastated relationship between Sam Fisher and Anna Grimsdottir. Sam has treated her like a daughter/potential love interest for much of the game series so watching her violate his trust so completely (by hiding his daughter's survival from him) is horrifying. However, it fits strongly with the themes that Third Echelon was never as heroic or noble an organization as Sam believed it to be and they would do anything to get their job done. It's just Sam never believed that would fall on him.

    In conclusion, this is a really fun game and one I have very few complaints about. There's an exceptionally frustrating and unpleasant section involving evading laser beam trip-wires but, otherwise, I can't say I didn't enjoy any element of this game.


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