Five Things We Learned from the Splinter Cell: Conviction Demo

This week saw the release of a demo for Ubisoft’s upcoming Splinter Cell: Conviction. The game, slated to hit the market on April 13th, was originally supposed to be in gamers’ hands in February but was bumped back because Ubisoft wanted to wait until its new fiscal year, which starts just before April 13th. Nevertheless, anticipation is high for the latest installment in the Sam Fisher spy series, especially that now Sam is outcast and on his own, searching for vengeance after his daughter was killed. The demo is very short but it does allow gamers to get a feel for the interrogation sequences as well as a short romp through one of the infiltration missions. While the demo was brief, there was plenty to see, hear, and kill; and here are the five things we learned.

Sam Fisher wears Batman pajamas. At night when all is quiet and the terrorists have been silenced, Sam Fisher lays himself down to sleep, wearing his favorite flannel Batman pajamas. Of this, I am certain. While Sam has always had a penchant for hanging around (sometimes literally) in the dark, Splinter Cell: Conviction continues to push the “Dark Knight” motif expanding on Sam’s arsenal of gadgets and the way lighting works. Sam even has a pair of sonar goggles, which operate pretty much exactly like Batman’s “Investigation Mode” did in Arkham Asylum. Combine that with the darkness/lighting game play stealth elements and the ability to climb and hang all around the environment and even the most ardent Batman fans can find something to love in Conviction. Plus, it may help give us something to do while we wait for Arkham Asylum 2.

Interrogations are supposed to be fun right? One of the bigger features that has been lauded in publications and other media as part of the Conviction coverage is the use of interrogations by Sam throughout the story. In the demo we get our first taste of one and well…it’s a little boring. The interrogation consists of nothing more than pressing the “b button” once during certain situations. Sam’s actions are contextual based on what objects in the environment he and his potential informant are near. For example, if you are near a sink and mirror, expect Sam to make judicious use of both those items to smash the enemies head in. However if you are near a wall you might just see Sam push, punch and kick his victim in order to exact information. Once the necessary info has been obtained, one last push of the button finishes off the guy. I thought this was supposed to be fun? Hopefully the demo interrogation isn’t indicative of the entire game, but if it isn’t then why didn’t Ubisoft let us try our hand at something with a little more substance to it. What basically boils down to a glorified interactive cut scene doesn’t exactly inspire excitement. This wasn’t any better than those “interactive” cut scenes in Assassin’s Creed that simply allowed us to change the camera angle. It brings up other questions too, like if we actually can have any impact on the conversations. If you remember the black hand controls from the Godfather game or even the Punisher game for the original Xbox, there were degrees of interrogation and depending on the character you were attacking it would have certain effects. However, if you were too intense you might just knock out or kill the guy (by dunking his head too far into a tank of piranhas, like in the Punisher) before getting the info needed, creating a problem. Not sure if Conviction has that layer of interactivity with its interrogations, but if it doesn’t then this could be the biggest letdown of the game. Here’s to hoping that I’m wrong.

Time well spent. We’ve been waiting quite a while for Conviction to be released, so long that the game has gone through one complete redesign and a host of other tweaks and changes. For a while, it almost dropped completely off the gaming map, leaving some to wonder whether it was dead in the water. Luckily, the demo shows that the guys at Ubisoft weren’t just playing around with night vision goggles during that time. The game is super slick, runs beautifully and oozes quality at every turn. The lighting and sound look better than ever (important given their use as game play and stealth elements) and Sam’s moves are fluid and blend seamlessly into each other. Previously I mentioned how a game like Just Cause 2 seemed to have a lot going for it but was a little muddled because there was just a certain fluidity lacking from the movements and controls of the character. That is not the case with Sam Fisher, which is important for more than just aesthetic reasons. It’s massively important considering that elements of the game involve short strikes and the ability to move around the environment quickly to avoid detection. It would ruin the game and create frustration in players if Sam didn’t move well and pulling off his assortment of tricks and abilities wasn’t fluid.

A more user friendly Sam. Complete disclosure time, I’ve never been a Splinter Cell fan and actually have not owned one of the games since the original garnered some of the highest review scores ever on the original Xbox, at the time defeating even the mighty Halo. To be quite honest, I got through about two levels of the first game, got frustrated, then put it on my shelf and forgot about it for six months until I traded it in. The reason? Well, aside from the fact that I thought the first couple games were just too reliant on stealth and punished you severely if Sam was ever seen (very little ammo and Sam couldn’t really take more than one bullet) it just was not a very user friendly game. There were so many controls and moves that could be pulled off and utilizing the various equipment in the game was sluggish and forced you into a really plodding pace. While hardcore stealth fans might just call me a n00b, Conviction does seem to be playing to a different crowd. Those with Splinter Cell experience will probably have no problem picking up the controls and dominating like the days of old, but fans who’ve shyed away from the games in the past now can enjoy the games and even tailor their style of play a bit more toward the open attack strategy. Sam Fisher isn’t Marcus Fenix or anything, so running headlong into battle will probably still get you killed, but don’t be discouraged because you will actually survive a few shots on the lower difficulties. Certain new features like the ability for Sam to mark multiple targets and then automatically dispose of them with one button press should also help more novice players who find themselves stuck trying to clear a certain room and progress through the game. Since it can only be activated after completing a melee kill, there shouldn’t be too many issues with it being an uber-ability.

Crowd control. Way back when it was first announced, Conviction starred a scraggly hobo-Sam and centered its game play around the use of crowd control and blending in. That, and Sam was really good at throwing chairs at people, apparently. This was right around the time that Assassin’s Creed was taking off, which also utilized blending in and using the crowd for stealth purposes. Whether that caused the change or not (both games are made by Ubisoft) that idea was eventually disposed of and the game was redesigned. Gone was the beard and gone are the crowds, at least for now. No word on whether Sam is still really good at throwing chairs at people, but I wouldn’t bet against it. The demo, being very short and focused, does not give us a picture of the entire game, so its hard to make a judgment, but I have to wonder if the crowd gameplay is gone completely. The game did go through a thorough re-design, but all the cover stories and press seemed to indicate that the game was pretty far along before that happened. It seems hard to imagine that all that work would just be thrown out and that not even remnants of it would remain. We’ve seen some screen shots of Sam in more populated areas (see the “infiltrate the mansion” mission) so perhaps we will get the chance to utilize crowds to our advantage and disappear in a sea of people ala Altair or Ezio while Echelon III agents are hot on our tail.

As always with demos I caution everyone that we have not seen the full game and that gameplay elements and other features may change before the ship date, but everyone knows that so it’s not a big deal. While I haven’t been a major supporter of the franchise in the past, Conviction might just have the stuff to convince me, and other holdouts out there to give Sam Fisher a try and leave The Bat behind for a little while. Or maybe I’ll just sit on my couch playing the game dressed as Batman, you know…just to hedge everything.

Like the demo? Hate the demo? Did we miss something really important? Sound off with your comments.