Uncorrupted, please

I like to come to games pristine. Especially if I’m excited about them. I don’t know exactly why this is. Maybe I like to experience something in an innocent way, a way that addresses the game as it is and isn’t spoiled by marketing and the incessant chatter of the internet videogame hive mind. But let’s be honest, it doesn’t work that way very often. If you’re at all interested in gaming and what’s going on in the industry then you’ve more than likely been exposed to the maddening glut of gaming news, rumor, and innuendo that surrounds the hobby.  And that makes an uncorrupted approach to any game as difficult as landing a 757 in a hurricane.

Splinter Cell: Conviction arrives loaded with roughly the amount of baggage that would fit in that 757, so there’s no way that I could possibly pretend to be innocent here. Troubled development? Check. Massive course correction in design? Check. Add to that list the difficulties of changing the basic identity of a franchise that comes pre-loaded with a storied history and you have all the cliches of gaming car crash.

Even after knowing all this, watching trailers, and playing the demo, I still didn’t feel like I really knew what Splinter Cell: Conviction was about. Was it about making the stealth experience of Splinter Cell more fast-paced and deadly? Or was this not really a game in the stealth genre anymore? I wasn’t sure if there was really any reason to call this Splinter Cell. That may seem academic, but with the multi-throated outcry from the old guard regarding the rebooting of the X-Com franchise, it seems clear that people take the history and legacy of a franchise very seriously. So the question arises: Is Splinter Cell still Splinter Cell? My answer: I don’t know.

I would say I’m about two and a half hours in at this point, certainly not a place to make any snap judgements. But I’m already surprised by how much Conviction doesn’t feel like a typical Splinter Cell game. I think a lot of this comes down to basics. For one, Sam runs much faster than he used to. Or at least it feels like that. You push the left stick and if you’re not sneaking, he takes off like a lightning bolt. It’s a basic thing but it underscores the differences in the most basic mechanics. In addition, the whole world is filled with context sensitive actions you can take, mostly based around the cover system: things like jumping over crates, opening windows and doors, etc. Using the cover system becomes second nature quickly, but the wide-open interactivity of the environment somehow makes it all seem… less interactive?

Okay that doesn’t make sense. But the environment does seem less alive to me somehow than in the last games. I miss being able to use computers and throw bottles and all that slightly tangential gameplay stuff. (What a terrible outcome for a developer, by the way. They spent all this time making the environment respond to the cover system, and then some jerk like me comes along and says that all that work somehow makes the game feel “less alive”. Thanks a lot, buddy.)

This version of Splinter Cell is more bloodthirsty than any either. This is the biggest change, for me. One thing that I have always enjoyed about the series is that, even though it is unquestionably a violent game about what amounts to a paramilitary thug running around and stealing things, I’ve always appreciated that the game allowed you to act in slightly less violent ways. In the old games you could knock people out instead of murdering them. (Have you noticed how many reviews of the game mention murder? I think this is a result of the fact that in a stealth game, enemies often rarely get a chance to threaten you before you dispense with them. Running up behind someone, putting your hand over their mouth, and then putting two silenced pistol shots into their back has a much different effect on the player than returning fire from an enemy that already attacked you.) In Conviction, murder is the only option unless you want to completely avoid your foes. I get that Sam is “avenging” the murder of his daughter (play game to understand quotes), but none the less it is a significant change for the franchise.

So the original question: Is it Splinter Cell? So far, I’d have to say no.

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