By Marty Mulrooney
Splinter Cell Conviction is the fifth instalment in the Splinter Cell series of video games, yet it almost feels like a total reboot. Released in the middle of last month (April 2010) on Xbox 360 to critical acclaim, PC gamers had to wait an extra two weeks to get their hands on the title. Was it worth the wait?
In a nutshell, no. I am pretty appalled that I have to start a review in this manner, but so be it. The PC version of Splinter Cell Conviction as it stands now is a total disgrace. So much so in fact that it heavily delayed my review for AMO.
I recently bought an Xbox 360 Wireless Controller For Windows (reviewed here) in anticipation of Conviction’s release, with our review copy due to land on the earlier American release date courtesy of our friends at Gamersgate.co.uk. I actually thought I might have a bit of an exclusive review on my hands for our UK readers. More fool me.
Upon launching the game and activating my controller (which Ubisoft claimed was supported), I noticed something very odd. The B and A buttons were reversed, with a click of the right stick responding as if I had pressed the Start button. No other buttons worked.
Five days later, after constantly visiting and commenting on a multi-page thread via the official Ubisoft forum which detailed the problem, somebody finally came up with a solution. The pad would work if you forced your computer to install Beta drivers from 2007. Unbelievable. As of yet, there has been no official fix: a patch launched today that seemed to work somewhat for me, yet many are still reporting the game incompatible with the latest drivers.
So five days later and I could finally play the game the way it is meant to be played, albeit with outdated drivers. I had tried playing with the keyboard and mouse, but the sloppy mouse smoothing removed all accuracy. You basically need a pad for this game.
First impressions were good, my new PC could handle the game on nearly full graphical settings. FRAPS sheds no light on performance though: it tells me the game is only running at 15fps regardless of graphical settings. Bizarre.
Certainly, things don’t feel optimised. This game should be smooth as butter on a new computer but it seldom feels that way. Still, I was happy that I could at least play the damn thing and ploughed ahead.
Conviction is all about the mechanics. There was room for a really strong story here, but it never fully comes to fruition. The original Splinter Cell never really grabbed my imagination due to its focus on missions rather than narrative. Conviction does a better job, with some wonderful cinematics. Yet I couldn’t tell you the villain’s name even now (unmemorable characters galore) and the basic plot seems to have taken a few tips from Modern Warfare 2… which I had exactly the same problems with. Emotional involvement is severely limited as a result.
Ahem. Anyway, the mechanics. Splinter Cell Conviction immediately distances itself from previous games in the series by replacing the complex controls and slow pace fans became accustomed to with something altogether much more fluid and streamlined. You still can’t go toe to toe with armed opponents, as the controls are not made for heavy gun fights. However, Sam Fisher is far more aggressive and will be pumping plenty of enemies full of lead before his mission is over.
The name of the game is ‘Mark and Execute’, an ability Sam gains by using a hand to hand takedown. He can then mark several enemies (up to four with some weapons) before unleashing a flurry of automated headshots with a click of a single button. The feature works really well, encouraging players to remain stealthy until they can successfully take down the remaining targets in style. It also looks pretty damn cool. For example, you can mark two enemies before jumping down on a third, executing your marks perfectly afterwards due to the use of a non-weapon takedown.
The game also deviates from past instalments with its use of light and dark. Players will now see the screen drain to black-and-white when in the cover of darkness, an effect I enjoyed at first but found grating by the end as it made moving in and out of shadow difficult to judge. Sometimes cutting off all the fat reduces some of the flavour too.
Another new addition is the much vaunted ‘Interrogation’ mechanic, but I sadly found this to be all smoke and mirrors. The initial use of this new gameplay style is very fun, with one particular bad guy getting his head smashed into various objects in a bathroom during the opening level.
As this device pops back up again level after level however, you soon release that the number of interactive objects in any given interrogation scene is limited and the outcomes are always the same. You are basically just manoeuvring yourself and then pressing a button. Further interactivity and the use of this ability outside of set parameters could have made this an awesome addition to the game: instead it is soon reduced to mere window dressing.
One new feature that never grows stale though is the use of projected video and text. Sure, it breaks the fourth wall in the process but is undeniably cool and perhaps most important of all, functional. Text appears on the walls and floor to tell you your next objectives and guide you throughout your missions. I really loved this effect and thought it was a rather innovative idea that added to the style and presentation substantially.
Likewise, when interrogating an enemy, images would often play out on the surrounding walls like an old fashioned movie projector, allowing a flashback to be seen without cutting away from the present moment. Again, visually this is a wonderful addition to the Splinter Cell series.
Sadly, this is where the visual impact ends. Although by no means an ugly looking game, Conviction is running on the LEAD engine, which is basically a heavily modified version of the Unreal 2.5 engine. This is dated tech and it shows: environments are nowhere near as expansive as they could have been and invisible walls will often herd you back on course. Texture work is perfunctory at best.
The levels offer very little variation, with the gameplay mechanics only just about managing to stay fun enough to carry a relatively short single player campaign (6 hours tops) through to its conclusion. There is one wonderful moment where you are chasing a man through a crowded area, yet this is an isolated, scripted incident. Usually, you will just be sneaking around a bit before using the ‘Mark and Execute’ command and moving on to another area. Rinse and repeat.
The use of environmental weapons (such as dangling chandeliers) is emphasised heavily initially before soon becoming almost totally forgotten. Enemies are reasonably smart but are slaves to the game’s set mechanics. Moving Sam from cover unseen leaves an outline of his last known position which enemies will then mindlessly blast away at, allowing you to circle behind them and take them out. It works well but soon becomes rather formulaic.
Sadly, gadgets are few and far between too. Sticky cams are rather fun, but serve little purpose when you can just as easily issue a well placed headshot. I got this far without mentioning Metal Gear Solid, but that series honestly does stealth and action far better than anything we have seen here. Even Sam’s trademark goggles have been replaced with a headset that can see through walls (sounds cooler than it actually is), making it very difficult to play for any period of time with them turned on. I missed the old fashioned night vision mode.
Thankfully, the game’s saving grace is its cover system, which is quite frankly the best cover system I have ever seen in a game. Once Sam is in cover, you can aim your crosshairs at any nearby walls or objects. If they can provide cover, a little trio of arrows will show up, allowing Sam to automatically scurry there with the click of a button. It is such an effective system that I am frankly amazed nobody else thought of it first.
In short, the single played campaign is fun while it lasts, but will never blow you away. Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher sounds phenomenal, yet all this achieves is a deep feeling of regret that the script doesn’t match his professionalism and vocal talent. Enemies sound far worse in comparison, repeating set phrases and coming across as rather cheesy caricatures. The music is a highlight, matching any Hollywood action score even if you won’t be humming it afterwards. (This series really needs a memorable theme tune.)
So, onto the multiplayer aspect of the game, right? Wrong. As of yet, I am still unable to connect to a single online game. I have tried every day since release. Apparently there is a whole separate game with its own story to play online with a buddy. Yet I doubt I will ever experience it. Clicking matchmaking just endlessly loads with no end in sight… try 20 minutes waiting before you give up and see how you feel! Another quick glance at the official forums hints that I am not the only one with this problem either. Matchmaking is broken.
Players who have played online also report the complete omission of voice chat. I find this difficult to comprehend… what where Ubisoft thinking? This is the single most botched PC port of a game I have ever seen in my entire life. Even the frankly rubbish Iraq level is made worse by a glitch in the PC version of the game where your gun’s scope makes everything seem stretched and distorted. Really?!
Then there is Ubisoft’s DRM scheme, whereby you have to be connected to the internet even to play the single player portion of the game. If you are playing and your connection drops out, the game pauses and you will be locked out. Funnily enough this aspect is something I hated in principle, but had no real problems with personally. However, other gamers have apparently had frequent problems with this new DRM. I have no doubt that pirates will have already cracked the game, so all this is doing is punishing paying customers.
Even worse, the launcher connects to Ubisoft… yet I had to go and download the 1.02 patch today myself, buried deep within the official forum, before installing it manually. What a joke. Splinter Cell Conviction’s single player campaign is a short, fun blast with some cool new ideas, that sadly never quite reaches its full potential. The other half of the game is of course the multiplayer, yet I couldn’t even play this mode. Perhaps as a whole, the game could have been worth a solid 8 OUT OF 10 if the multiplayer had worked, making up for a short single player campaign in the process. As it stands, the PC version of this game is a tragic letdown, hardly earning its final score.
6 OUT OF 10