Gaming: Review – Splinter Cell: Conviction (Xbox360)

Stealth isn’t the peak of cool it once was. Only a few years ago (well I say that, maybe a decade…) in doom-ridden blockbuster Independence Day we saw a fleet of stealth bombers tactically nuking an entire city, and who can forget the thrilling climax to James Bond’s journalism-ridden (…?) flick Tomorrow Never Dies, which saw the nations favourite spy at odds with generic German #57013 Mr Stamper on a stealth boat in the South China Sea.

Now in 2010 we’re in a world dominated by gritty, down-to-earth action heroes like Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer and Bond’s latest incarnation played by Daniel Craig. Hard-as-nails heroes who use magazines as close combat weapons, there’s only one word for that: ‘bad-ass’.

So where does this leave poor old protagonist Sam Fischer and the Splinter Cell series? Other franchises, namely the Resident Evil series, have faced criticism for increasing the level of action in their games, raising fears up to Conviction’s release that it would be too watered down and a far cry from the highs of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

As it turns out the game has been watered down, there’s no ignoring that. Recently OXM went into detail about the for and against of the “Is it dumbed down?!” argument (which you can read for yourself right here), but for my personally, I was approaching the Splinter Cell series almost fresh, having only briefly played one of the titles previously, but I found this game very easy to pick up.

Being based around the much-used ‘Unreal’ engine (think Unreal Tournament, Gears of War, Bioshock) gives the game a certain familiarity from the off, but it would be a mistake to think the engine is out of date because it’s so often used, take Batman Arkham Asylum which astounded critics last year.

A game mechanic which was unveiled early on was that mission objectives are projected onto the background of levels, not only giving information but an indication of which way to go next. This is the first of many touches which give the game a very distinct dynamic feel, it brings you into the character and avoids to many obvious game-isms, often making it feel more like an interactive movie.

Shadows are an infiltrators best friend, making pinpointing light sources and quietly taking them out a priority, as well as knowing when you are hidden, and when you are in serious trouble. The game helps you out a lot with this, making the screen greyscale when you are in shadow, and flagging up a warning when you might be detected by guards and what direction they are seeing you from.

If the worst should happen and you are spotted, a translucent outline will appear where you were seen and so if you slip away into the nearby shadows you can ambush whoever it is who comes to investigate. The main trouble with being hidden, is that often it’s too dark to see what’s going on, leading you to unwittingly drag an enemy over a balcony, only to have him land on a parked car and start a car alarm blaring.

The ‘Mark and Execute’ (MEX) system, is a major part of this game – essentially the ability to highlight targets with a simple button press and then eliminate them without aiming, after performing a hand-to-hand takedown on an enemy. At times the system is extremely generous with line of sight, meaning you often take out enemies through walls and obstructions from sheer luck, but generally as a mechanic it means that taking down a room-full of enemies doesn’t mean weeding them down, one-by-one.

The game tends to play into your hands, leaving a lone enemy slightly ahead of the rest to give you that all important MEX opportunity. This emphasis on direct assault does tend to take away from the merits of the arsenal of gadgets at Sam’s disposal.

Aside from standard frag grenades, which are more than capable of taking out half a dozen tightly-packed enemies at once, there are EMP grenades too, which make short work of any lights and electronics in the area, giving you time to escape, or strike.

The more unusual of gadgets include sticky cameras, which can be attached to surfaces and remotely controlled to distract guards – or even detonated to silence them – but sadly can’t be retrieved again afterwards.

One of the most commonly used gadgets is the snake cam, allowing you to sneakily peek under doors, unless you can’t get the camera angle right and the floating in-game actions force you to open the door of course.

The story itself would probably mean more to a seasoned Splinter Cell player, but from what I could work out it seemed much like any given series of 24, a missing daughter, terrorists, threats to the president etc.

The few missions which mix up the relentless killing work well. The occasional flashback sequences aren’t as effective as those in Batman: AA, but the war mission – a strong nod to the Modern Warfare generation – is too early on before the momentum of the story gets going, making it an abrupt change instead of a welcome break after an intense mission.

Multiplayer pushes this game to the top, the cooperative prequel missions in particular are a triumph in two-player constructive, strategic play, often forcing players to work together to get every move precisely right in order for them to move forward, and, if my own playtime is anything to go by, make up the shorter main story time for Splinter Cell veterans.

Verdict: An excellent entrance to the series for those with their wits about them, while it may not be what fans had hoped for, it’s quirks make it a definite progression for the series and there is still plenty of opportunity for clever stealth moves amid the flurry of bullets.

: 4/5

James Michael Parry

Live Music:Renegades (of Feeder) at The Electric Ballroom, Camden 22/04/10

Old bands ‘going back to their roots’ is nothing new, but when Feeder completely regenerated as Renegades, something changed significantly. Gone were the slow and thoughtful songs of old which dwelled on the untimely death of original drummer Jon Lee and in their place fans found the energy and simplicity of a fresh new band, as if the group had been transported back to their formation in 1992.

In the transition drummer Mark Richardson was replaced with Karl Brazil, from the relatively unknown band Ben’s Brother, who encapsulates the bands new-found new energy with furious and relentless drumbeats.

Front-man Grant Nicholas, who you imagine came up with the ‘back to basics’ concept, continues to impress on stage at The Electric Ballroom, a venue far smaller than the likes of the Hammersmith Apollo which they played on the Silent Cry tour only a few years ago.

Nicholas admitted he had a soft spot for the Ballroom, saying: “I love this venue. We haven’t played here for about 12 years, but even now I remember the great atmosphere it always has.”

Posters on the front doors warn Feeder fans expecting the likes of ‘Buck Rogers’ and ‘Just A Day’ that the band will be playing ‘predominantly new material’, and sure enough they don’t disappoint, the most recent, and debatably well-known, of the tracks played is 2006’s ‘Lost and Found’.

“We know you all want to hear the hits”, Nicholas cries across a crowd spanning decades, “but this is really about the new material and moving forward.”

Luckily the new material delivers the sort of quality we’ve come to expect from Feeder over the years, albeit a bit more gritty, new band anthem ‘Renegades’ has even the most lost-looking fans singing along and ‘Home’ and ‘Down By The River’, a nod to the bands native Wales, stand up well on stage.

Free with the gig comes Renegades EP2, complete with four tracks: ‘Home’, ‘Goodhead’, ‘In Times Of Crisis’ and ‘All I Ever Wanted’, making a perfect souvenir for fans who are now left salivating expectantly for the bands new(/debut?) album.

For those feeling out-of-step with the Renegades there were a few ‘covers’ of Feeder tunes including ‘Tangerine’, ‘Godzilla’, ‘Sweet 16’ and grungy set-closer ‘Descend’.

While many may have been disappointed with the lack of hits – the crowd broke into ‘Just A Day”s infectious main riff more than once – the band is doing what it wants to do, from the plain but bold style of the merchandise to downsizing to smaller venues, and it feels a lot more personal and as though they are more connected with their fans than ever before.

Verdict: Possibly too much for the Feeder pop fans, but for those longing for some dynamic and striking music from fantastic musicians the night was nothing short of amazing.

Rating: 5/5

Gaming: The Rise of Online Gaming

It’s no secret that the internet, as well as consuming many people’s lives, has revolutionised the way we play games together thanks to online multiplayer.

It all began back in 1973 with a little game called Maze War (well, it did if the internet is to be believed, check out the evidence) created by interns at NASA, which allowed players on local networked computers to chase each other around a virtual maze trying to kill each other. Today it’s an idea we might call a first-person shooter, making Maze War the creator of an entire genre.

Since then the game has been ported numerous times and is the reason why no one can copyright a multi-user 3D cyberspace, a principle which all modern online games use. The technology has moved on tremendously since then, of course, with simple ethernet computer linking to a worldwide web of computers all communicating across thousands of miles in an instant.

During the 1980s the home computer was born in the UK in the form of the Sinclair ZX80 (and later the ZX81 and Spectrum), making computer games more popular than ever and accessible to the masses.

It was 10 years before another major game brought us closer to online gaming as we know it today. In 1983 SGI Dogfight, a flight simulator, was created for Silicon Graphics workstation computers and networking was added the following year, allowing multiple stations to play over ethernet just as later versions of Maze War had done, but in 1986 support was added for UDP (User Datagram Protocol), which allowed the game to use the internet protocol suite.

However, since the data was sent in broadcast packets, it could not be played across the internet (which itself was in its infancy at the time). It wasn’t until 1989, when IP multicast capabilities were available, that it was possible for the game to be played online in the way we know it today, though due to hardware constraints the capability was seldom used.

Meanwhile, other companies were trying to get their head around this new technology, which led to the use of the X Window System, which meant a game could be ‘hosted’ on one computer and the screen transmitted through X Window, to the other players playing the game.

Xtrek, the first remote display game based vaguely in the Star Trek universe, and later Netrek (or Xtrek II) used this technology and the latter even combined the use of UDP and TCP (Transmission Control Protocol – a system still used today) to allow users to play online on servers.

Since then online gaming has become the norm, rendering the split-screen multiplayer classics of the late 1990s, such as Rare’s Goldeneye, almost obsolete, though it has taken some time for consoles to get internet gaming just right. While they were trying to find their feet, games such as Total Annihilation, Counter-Strike and Command & Conquer: Red Alert were being played at LAN (Local Area Network) ‘parties’ in wire-infested living rooms across the country.

But do we really miss the days of split-screen being cutting-edge? Mark Fletcher, an English Student at Leicester University, said: “Definitely. Nothing like cheering on Perfect Dark 64 by looking at your friend’s section of the screen!”

Online gaming’s dominance has also caused developers to put a greater emphasis on cooperative play, which isn’t well-received by everyone. Graduate Andrew Baker said: “As much as I enjoy online multiplayer I do still want a little one on one split-screen every now and then. it anoys me how a lot of things these days are co-op! What if I want to shoot my friend rather than work with him!?”

So, times have changed as they often do, but the next time you load up a game like Battlefield: Bad Company II to get virtually slaughtered for the 10,000th time, remember it’s because of games like Maze War that you have to do it alone in a dark room rather than in a room surrounded by people who laugh evilly when you accidentally blow yourself up.