Friday, March 26, 2010

Man on Fire - Splinter Cell Conviction Demo Impressions

A mission briefing from Third Echelon kicks off moments after I hit start. It introduces Sam Fisher, a man we're well acquainted with, however, something's changed. The brief isn't as much for him as it is against him. It comments on his remarkable ability to eliminate targets. It speaks of how he was affiliated with our government, but has since gone rogue. It tells me that he is dangerous, tactical, resourceful, and most importantly, that I need to fear his presence whether I can or cannot see him.

As a fan of Splinter Cell since the series' inception in 2002, I am unsurprised to hear any of this. This is the Sam Fisher I know.

Then the scene changes to a dingy, filthy bathroom, and I see a man's face collide with a mirror, and subsequently into the sink beneath it. He's begging for mercy, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. It isn't until I'm given control that I realize who his assailant is. Truth be told, I'm a bit shocked.

This is not the Sam Fisher I know.

This brutal interrogation immediately lets me know two things about Splinter Cell: Conviction: That Sam Fisher will literally do anything in pursuit of who was responsible for his daughter's death, and that developer Ubisoft has spent a fair amount of time watching the Bourne and Craig David 007 movies. Far removed from the reluctant, yet patriotic espionage agent from previous games, Sam is not only taking full advantage of the fact that he no longer has to operate within anyone's guidelines, but he is clearly not enjoying it. This isn't a revenge tale where casualties happen for the delight of the protagonist, but because he has no other choice.

It starts with the interrogation. Context sensitive actions near anything in the room allow you to use nearly everything in the room in order to beat information out of the guy, and full motion scenes projected on a nearby wall in real time, no less highlight the points that his disoriented, stuttering delivery can't accomplish. It's a dynamic, innovative way to present things, and it never once takes away from the intensity of the encounter, which climaxes with him snapping the poor guy's neck after he got the info he was looking for.

When things return to a more traditional style of gameplay, it's surprising to find out again, that things have changed. Even though the focus is still on stealth, there's much more emphasis on lethal takedowns. A cover system that resembles last year's Wanted game sees you quickly from point to point, and it's here that the game's new execution system comes into play. Taking enemies down in the classic Splinter Cell way with your bare hands gives you access to executions, which basically give you the ability to take out multiple people at the same time before any of them know what's going on. It throws things into a very satisfying rhythm of finding an enemy to disable, highlighting the next batch you'd like to take out, then with the press of a button, watching Sam shoot all three of them in the head within seconds. There's also a very clever "bait-and-switch" mechanic that activates when Sam is noticed, where a silouhette of him appears where an enemy has seen him last, and it's something you can use to your advantage to flank or even bottleneck enemies into an area of your choosing.

This isn't to say that the experience is filled with insta-kills and relentless action, his usual suite of gadgets and weapons return (thankfuly with the ability to retrieve arms from dead enemies), and the second half of the demo sees a return to form, with me using all manner of flashbangs, sticky cameras, and a new pair of sonar goggles to replace his iconic night vision ones to round out the package. Any concerns I'd had about not being able to sneak my way around ended when I saw myself shooting out lights to lower visibility, setting up small cameras, and (literally) getting the drop on enemies from above. Gently nudging things along through all this is again, the presentation, which is always providing subtle visual feedback to inform the player. It's incredibly immersive, with tricks like color bleeding from the screen in order to indicate that you're undetectable, or displaying your next objective on objects in the environment, keeping the HUD from being obtrusive by overloading you with info. Call me crazy, but there's something very cool about seeing your objective dynamically appear in fron of your eyes, as if you're remembering something important, rather than checking a menu screen.

Overall, I had fun. The demo itself was a bit short, and (literally) ends with a bang, but one thing is certain-- Sam Fisher is indeed back, and it's clear the chip on his shoulder has taken on a life of it's own, and wants to make itself heard.

Pleased to meet you, Sam.

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