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of War, Bioshock) gives the game a certain familiarity from the off, but it would be a mistake to think the engine is out of date because it’s so often used, take Batman Arkham Asylum which astounded critics last year.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.
James Michael Parry