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TVG goes hands-on with Ubisoft's much fumbled follow-up to Splinter Cell: Double Agent...
Originally scheduled for release in November 2007, Splinter Cell Conviction has gone through a torrid series of delays ever since. The latest delay moved the game from a Christmas 2009 launch window into the first quarter of next year, with Ubisoft then confirming a February 26th 2010 release date yesterday. Although Ubisoft has never really confirmed or denied the rumours, some commentators have indicated that Conviction has gone through many changes in style and content since its inception, which is a question we put to the game's Executive Producer, Alex Parizeau.
"On the gameplay side, after two years in we had a lot of very interesting things but it felt as though we had strayed away from what Sam Fisher was and where the brand was, so we thought we had to refocus it," Alex told us. "An anchor point for the refocus was Sam Fisher, where he was after Double Agent; in his career; his life; after loosing Sarah his daughter; not having his job anymore. That inspired all of the new elements. If he's not working for Third Echelon, how's he going to deal with the situation? Everything came together from that realisation."
One thing's for certain, Sam won't be running through annoying crowds of people like Altair (as initial hearsay had alleged), although the classic Splinter Cell gameplay style has been changed and tinkered with irrevocably in Conviction. It is no longer a pure stealth experience by any stretch of the imagination, but then what game is these days? Metal Gear Solid 4 changed the series' outlook considerably with a large dose of action alongside the traditional foundation of subterfuge, while Splinter Cell: Double Agent was arguably the last pure stealth game to be released into the mass market. With the two grandmasters of stealth both turning to action in order to entertain gamers' ever diminishing attention spans, it seems the days of pure stealth are dead, my friends. Long live loud explosions and AK47s!
"In a way, MGS4 did it so it's either pure stealth or almost like a first-person-shooter, whereas what we're trying to do is embed the stealth into the new way of playing the game," Alex explained. "...It's a different kind of stealth that, in a way, is much more satisfying. You control the pace much better. If you want to wait, you can wait, but if you want to attack and jump in, you can too. There are ways to remain concealed while doing that, so you don't have to expose yourself. You can use your gadgets, the roof, etc... So that was really our goal."
Like most triple-A sequels, Conviction comes with a list of new features and gameplay concepts. At the top of this list is the new 'mark' feature, which allows players to tag enemies in their line-of-sight using the shoulder buttons. Once marked, Sam will then kill-off these bad guys automatically without any interaction from the player, although there is one condition to this: players have to perform an action move before the 'mark' on each enemy turns red, which is when the one-hit kill spree can be initiated. These action moves might include, for example, getting in behind one of the marked enemies and taking them hostage to use as a meat shield. The icons above marked enemies will then turn red and clearing the room becomes the simple job of a button press, almost like a quick-time event without the blatant prompting.
It's certainly a solution to inject more pace and action into the stealth and, to this extent, it works for the most part. Conversely though, the feature does feel a little jarring at times. We understand why Ubisoft Montreal has made the action move a necessity before marked enemies can be dispatched (otherwise it would be far too easy) but the pacing is a touch schizophrenic as a result. On the one hand you're experiencing traditional stealth gameplay to hide in cover until an enemy comes around for you to take them hostage, but this is then immediately followed by all-out action. The blend is a touch awkward and we fear that the old fashioned action styling won't impress fans of run and gun gameplay, while the break in stealth tactics will annoy the purists as well. Even though it's attempting to please everyone, Conviction could end up annoying most.
This is similarly the case with Ubisoft Montreal's decision to place objectives and video footage up in the environment. Where there's the side of a building, you'll usually find bold, white lettering projected onto it indicating what you should do next, or a short clip providing background on a mission. It's certainly unique in a videogame but is it a step too far away from realism that could break gamers' immersion in the experience? "For me it's better this way than an objective in the HUD," Alex told us. "You want the player to know what to do because there's nothing more that breaks the immersion than getting lost and not knowing what to do."
Gadgets also take on a new role in Conviction. With Sam out on the lam from the conspiratorial Third Echelon, he doesn't have many gadgets to play with at the start of Conviction. The build we played through included EMP grenades to take out lighting as well as the all-important flash bangs, while Sam's goggles came with the usual seeing through walls perks. Sticky cams have taken on a new role in Conviction as players can not only throw them into heavily guarded rooms, but also detonate them or make them emit sounds that attract enemies to the camera, which opens up a wide variety of stealth options.
We didn't see any examples of Sam using the environment instead of gadgets in the TGS build that we played through. Ubisoft has peddled features such as using shards of glass instead of keyhole cameras to look underneath doors, but we saw no evidence of this during our hands-on with the 'EMP Staging Grounds' level (although that's by no means an indication that these features are now being downplayed). One thing we were told, however, is that Sam will gradually reacquire his arsenal of gadgets as Conviction progresses, while there will also be some form of weapon customisation in the final game as well (much like with Conviction's multiplayer game, Ubisoft wouldn't detail more on customisation than the fact that it's in the game).
Conviction's interrogation sequences, like the approach with makeshift gadgets, are also an area where Sam interacts "dynamically" with his environment. The interrogation we played through included flanking a target, getting in a short Jason Bourne style fight with him, before Sam took him by the scruff of the neck. Players can then push the target up against solid objects (e.g. strategically placed fridges and tables etc.), which prompts Sam to unleash a brutal attack before interrogating him more. These sections are dynamic as much as they are canned animations that adapt to different areas of the environment, which is good but certainly nothing to write home about. It's all a bit Jack Bauer to be honest, which is a point not lost on Ubisoft Montreal.
"Obviously we looked at Bourne, the new James Bond, and 24. It's all about giving the proper level of violence," Alex commented. "Make it on par with other entertainment experiences that you see on TV or at the movies. We really wanted to make it cinematic, mature and relevant. That was really the goal."
One problem that Splinter Cell Conviction may encounter when it comes to market later this year is that, by aiming to please both stealth enthusiasts and action fans in equal measure, it might end up diluting the experience for both factions. The option of choosing between action and stealth in a videogame is always a welcome one, but when the dynamics of both overlap and compromise each other, the result is rarely pretty.