Splinter Cell: Conviction – Final Review

Splinter Cell: Conviction’s narrative shows no innovation, characterized by a dearth of ambition, embracing to the last the tropes of generic, uninspired spy fiction. Some intrigue is admittedly present, but it is fleeting – a few moments of narrative greatness, emotional heft, cannot salvage what is otherwise disastrous, unengaging. The intrigue which is present stems from the relationship existing between the protagonist, Sam Fisher, and his daughter, he being haunted by her supposed death; he cannot shake her image from his mind, the memories they forged together torturous. The narrative even begins with a developing of their relationship, namely through an effective flashback sequence, seeing the pair engaging in a domestic setting, she still a young, plucky child, Sam himself younger, seemingly less rugged, more vulnerable. The child expresses her immense fear of the darkness, and Sam, acting as a father ought, comforts the child – clearly, she is central to his existence, which makes her removal from his life all the more damning. Promptly after delivering his reassurances, the house is set upon by opportunistic burglars, whom Sam swiftly dispatches in a visceral fashion, illustrating his strengths as soldier and killer, illustrating also a certain lacking of morals. Then, the narrative returns to the present day, and the intrigue vanishes, the game settling into the boringness which characterizes almost the entirety of the succeeding narrative, as Sam is dragged into a global conflict, one which would seemingly be narratively engaging, but which in actuality falters, owing to the derivative nature of the plot. Hiding out in Malta for a protracted span, news reaches Sam’s ears surrounding his daughter – there is a fair chance she escaped the death he was certain she met with. Gruff and cynical to the last, this news and this news alone motivates him to return to life as a spy and assassin of sorts.  

Departing from sweet, sunny Malta, Sam crosses the vast azure seas, settling in Washington D.C., where the vast majority of the narrative transpires. From the first, countless names are thrown about, and never having played this series before, I was admittedly awash in confusion, that confusion probably contributing to my disdain for the narrative, difficult to follow as is, but immensely difficult to follow with no prior knowledge of these characters. Alongside these preexisting characters, numerous shady institutions are discussed, Third Echelon among them, that organization serving the role of ultimate antagonist, seizing upon Sam while still in Malta. He is interrogated, but only for a brief span – the torture is interrupted when it is revealed that his torturer is an ally of sorts, an old companion, Grim, who fast grows to become a central character, existing right alongside Sam, himself. Sam is informed of tangible threats against the President, those threats prompting his voyage alongside his desire to learn of his daughter’s fate. Despite narrative potentials, then, the game falters considerably – nothing seems to happen of consequence for hours on end; rare was engagement, the writing rather poor. But while the contents of the narrative are themselves lackluster, a compelling tone is established, the narrative delivery remarkable, adopting an almost mystery-like dimension, intrigues unraveled but at a slower, more calculated pace – it is very much a slow burn. Betrayals abound, supposed allies turned villains, before promptly switching stances again, no character’s allegiance an absolute certainty. These secondary characters, though, are rarely likable and are consequently forgettable. The game makes repeated efforts to link the player with Sam, and all throughout he is portrayed sympathetically, his strength and resolve indeed admirable, but one endearing individual cannot offset the narrative’s genericness, its shallow secondary characters.

The reasons for exploring Washington may be mundane, though the city itself is frequently very beautiful, showing also impressive environmental diversity; some missions transpire in the day, others at night, and this temporal shifting helps differentiate each individual location, the night time missions especially compelling, owing to a certain moodiness, the skies blue and often dotted with stars, the moon large, illuminating. Still, while aesthetically pleasing, many are characterized by linearity – some branching pathways are present, and there are accordingly many approaches to gameplay, but still the player is funneled in essentially one direction. Relying upon the ubiquitous Unreal Engine, environmentally the game is at times too similar to others relying upon that engine – total originality is lacking even here. Despite this, lighting is frequently very beautiful, especially in the day time, where an almost sunbaked aesthetic is achieved; foliage is frequently crisp and vibrant, redness and orangeness abounding as the trees exist in the height of their autumnal glory, inviting and arresting. All of the expected monuments of that city are explored, almost out of expectation – it would be heresy, seemingly, to situate a narrative in Washington and never duplicate for the player the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument, so the developers featured those locations prominently. Even the White House is navigated in the final mission, and it is richly detailed, almost claustrophobic, certainly when considered alongside the openness surrounding Geroge Washington’s striking, towering obelisk. But this tight clinging to reality does diminish more creative, imaginative components of level and world design – the game is perhaps too close to reality. This is not to say creativity is completing lacking, one outlier being a mission which occurs in a makeshift amusement park, deep into the night. Abounding in detail, the grandeur of the place is evident, and it is suitably bustling with people, many NPC’s moving to and fro, partaking of the carnival games, merely enjoying the attractions – it seems filled with life, and is very atmospheric. The vacillation of interior and exterior environments, meanwhile, contributes to a persistent freshness; environmentally the game is never mundane, and the strengths here do compensate for the poor, unengaging narrative, though the game’s age sometimes shows itself, with rather poor textual quality, though only a minor blemish.     

While environmentally the game meets with repeated successes, its gameplay is an even greater achievement. Traditionally, the gameplay is a hybrid of stealth and more conventional third-person shooting, though more often than not it is the stealth which is incentivized and encouraged. I say encouraged because pure stealth is almost never forced upon the player – success is still achievable if the player resorts to all out combat. Both pillars of gameplay are enjoyable, though the stealth systems are far more rewarding – it is immensely satisfying to ghost an area, to move through cautiously and methodically, clinging to the shadows, adopting the role of predator. These systems, together, result in an almost organic approach to gameplay, stealth and combat occurring in turn, matters slow than incredibly bombastic, as gunfire eventually erupts. Despite this emphasis upon stealth, the systems supporting it are not exactly abounding in depth, visibility influenced most strongly by line of sight, lighting being critical to a maintenance of unseen anonymity. Sound design, while often crucial to an effective stealth title, is unremarkable here, the nature of noise produced traditionally unimportant, as enemies are mostly oblivious to all sound that Sam produces – sprinting does attract their attention and ire, but they are relatively unrealistic in the great limits of their auditory registers. But the game cleverly communicates concealment by adopting a monochromatic aesthetic – when in the shadows, the screen is altered, all color draining away, the palette instead dominated by subtle if striking greys, resulting in a highly stylized dimension, imparting cinematic attributes and contributing to aesthetic uniqueness. When the screen is of this discoloration, Sam is essentially invisible, permitted to stalk about with complete impunity. Still, no distraction objects or anything of the sort are present, which only increases the game’s simplicity in stealth – but the systems are enjoyable throughout, even as they are lacking in depth, level design heightening the gameplay strengths which are present, verticality being of immense importance, increasing player flexibility, making more viable a stealthy approach.    

Most central to success in stealth and in combat is the game’s cover system, very intuitive and enjoyable to employ. Freedom of movement here is immense, Sam capable of darting about from cover object to cover object, and the animation quality accompanying these movements is excellent, conveying Sam’s litheness. In addition to concealing Sam, and thus preserving stealth, cover naturally comes into play when gunfire inevitably erupts. Here, the game adheres perhaps too closely to the tropes of the third-person shooter genre, replicating them competently and almost perfectly, though never innovating upon the mechanics of the genre. Sam is capable of blind firing around cover, or peering up and over it for more accurate shooting. Guns feel weighty and impactful, too, with often considerable recoil, preserving a fair degree of challenge, as each shot must be compensated for, the spray resulting in constant vertical motion. When considering challenge broadly, Sam can be devastating in combat, though cautiousness is a necessity, as enemy damage outputs can be immense. Playing on an elevated difficulty setting, Sam is fast torn to ribbons if cautiousness is discarded, if he is exposed for a protracted duration. Sam’s fragility here again encourages stealth, where he truly excels – the game presents Sam as belonging to the shadows, literally shaped by them, and the various takedown animations performable while undetected expertly communicate that strength, being highly violent in nature. Contextual kills are particularly satisfying to execute – if Sam is above an enemy, for instance, he can leap down upon them, immediately incapacitating them in spectacular fashion, while enemies can be grabbed while Sam occupies a ledge below them, pulling them over, prompting them to fall sometimes considerable distances, dying from the fall damage. Gunplay is consistently enjoyable, then, the cover system enhancing that gunplay, which also serves a foundational role in stealth. Despite these successes, the gameplay here sometimes shows its derivativeness, not unlike the narrative.

But the game displays bold, repeated innovation with its progression systems. The arsenal of available weaponry is immense, and once a weapon has been found in the environment, it is equipable at any of the resupplying stations which are distributed generously throughout the environments. Each weapon has a selection of predetermined upgrades, some having mountable lights which increase accuracy, facilitating more accurate aiming, while other weapons may have attachments which increase magazine capacity, and so on. More dramatic upgrades are also accessible with some weapons, an attachable suppressor being especially notable, immensely useful and empowering, increasing the viability of a stealthy approach, in that all noise upon firing vanishes. Similarly, some weapons can be affixed with scopes, increasing zoom or even permitting aiming in a first-person perspective. But it is how these upgrades are purchased that is most novel. The game possesses an abundance of challenges, the completion of which award in-game currency, which is expended on these upgrades. Score so many undetected headshots, and points are distributed; dispatch enough enemies with silent takedowns, and similar are the rewards. The amount awarded is proportionate to the theoretical difficulty of the challenge. The end result is a sense of constant progress, even as the span existing between challenge completions can at times be protracted. This long temporal gap only makes more satisfying eventual success. These challenges are viewable at any moment in the pause screen, and while it is possible to grind for points, I deliberately avoided this action, instead earning the points organically. Fortunately with this approach, I still had ample access to the currency – the game is very fair in its distribution, challenges completed in the normal process of gameplay; knowing the precise nature of the challenges would have influenced by play style, something undesirable, though I can understand the appeal of this knowledge for completionists. The progression systems, collectively, are exciting and rewarding, the challenge system robust and carefully constructed, and nearly any weapon can be viable, owing to the plurality of upgrades, only heightening the flexibility which must be reckoned the game’s excellent trademark.   

Further innovations characterize the game’s mark ability, which sees Sam target a specific number of enemies, who are then made executable with the press of a button. An immensely empowering ability, a certain reassurance accompanies its possession, as it allows Sam to overcome almost insurmountable odds. It is a well-implemented ability, and is impeccably designed, owing to the nature of its acquisition – rather than operating on a cooldown, the ability must be obtained by execution of a close-range takedown maneuver, which encourages boldness of approach; a high risk / reward system is in place. While playing stealthily, it is easy to exclusively rely upon silenced weaponry for success, as those weapons allow target dispatch from some distance away. But if the mark ability is desired, the player must forgo that safety, must close the distance between Sam and whomever the selected target is, resulting in a great deal of tenseness. Given the strengths of this ability, this approach was a common occurrence, and despite that commonness the tension was never lessened. The animation accompanying the ability’s execution is often graceful, seeing Sam aim his weapon at the foes, firing at each one in turn, while they collapse on the instant – it is almost symphonic, and it is difficult to overstate how enjoyable the system is, truly livening up the gameplay, heightening its originality. Even the progression systems influence this ability, in that certain weapons can have the maximum number of marked targets increased by the affixing of a red-dot sight attachment. Some weapons can target but two enemies for execution; others, when upgraded, can mark up to four. This fact does make some weapons more useful than others, and does influence the nature of weaponry selected, though again all guns are viable. And the game shows fairness, too, in that these mark-expanding upgrades are not barred by an extravagant degree of currency, being roughly the same cost as a magazine extension or laser attachment.    

Splinter Cell: Conviction’s narrative may be incredibly lackluster, but it is carried by the strengths of its gameplay systems. Part of the narrative failings are attributable to the lack of ambition. True, there is a gradual escalation of stakes, matters culminating in the White House, but narratively the game shows no desire for greatness, content instead to be mediocre, to be like so many others of its genre. The human dimension offsets certain of these failings, but only just. Still, gameplay is frequently profound, particularly when a more organic approach is adopted, the seamless shifting from combat to stealth as the situation dictates; rather than being a pure, punishing stealth experience, the game can be at times forgiving – Sam is frail but he can endure some gunfire, is not confined always to the shadows; he is a talented, calculated killer, with no scruples towards violence, if violence allows him to satisfy his objective, whatever it may be. His violent inclinations are most observable in the game’s many interrogation sequences, he literally beating information out of his target, this violence resulting in a mature tone, almost bleak at times. Gunplay is satisfying, while progression systems are characterized by genre departures, points distributed in accordance to achievement, rather than distributed arbitrarily. Environmental diversity and occasional creative artistry elevate presentation, while the frequent appearances of the monochromatic impart a certain stylishness. If a complaint could be leveled at the game outside of its narrative genericness it is within the sequences which mandate one specific playstyle, as with those which demand stealth, detection resulting in an instant failure of the mission; the game’s organic nature is discarded, and the scenarios are comparatively unfun, though this restrictiveness is a minor blemish, owing to the relative scarcity of these engagements. No narrative mastery is present, though the game maintains a cerebral component in its gameplay, abounding in tactical, moment-to-moment complexity, and is accordingly very rewarding; rewarding if unoriginal, the game’s derivativeness barring it from true, lasting greatness.

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