For a long time, I’ve been a fan of the Splinter Cell franchise. I remember opening a copy of Xbox Magazine and playing the exclusive demo for the original Splinter Cell on my Xbox and immediately hating it because I couldn’t run around, guns -a-blazing, like I originally thought. Then, slowly but surely, after many replays of that same demo, I warmed up to the stealth aspects of the game. I began to enjoy moving through the shadows, stalking my prey silently before moving in for the kill. I began to relish that moment of conquest when I’d lured a hapless soldier into the darkness and grabbed him, placing him into a tight chokehold and interrogating him, later knocking him out and moving on, either to my next objective or, to the next target as I slowly and methodically eliminated my adversaries one by one until a room was cleared. I received the original Splinter Cell game for Christmas and because of my time with the demo; I was instantly a fan, eventually buying every successive Splinter Cell game in the series and being increasingly impressed by each one.
That was until Double Agent came out. It was still entertaining but it lacked that special something that Splinter Cell had delivered before. The missions didn’t really grab me like I had expected them to and the mini-missions in between operations in which you skulk around the JBA complex performing tasks for the JBA and building dossiers for the NSA were often quite boring. Still, it was a good game that, for the most part, allowed Sam to do what he does best, stick to the shadows and take out his targets stealthily or merely avoid them entirely. Now the demo for Splinter Cell: Conviction has been released and I don’t know how to properly express myself except by asking…what the hell has Ubisoft done to Splinter Cell?
The demo starts nicely enough. Sam bursts into a dingy public bathroom, the kind of place that rarely sees a janitor, and grabs his target, disarms him and beats him to the ground, grabbing him by the throat and lifting him back up to eye level. At this point, you’ll have to interrogate this unfortunate man, mostly by beating him senseless using your fists or the environment itself. This is rather entertaining, as the projected image method of storytelling in which text and images are projected onto the walls around you is unveiled and looks very nice. After you’ve finished interrogating the man, you’ll be treated to a short cutscene and then, the demo proper begins.
You’re dropped outside of a dilapidated warehouse with a number of armed guards between you and your objective of infiltrating the warehouse and disabling the EMP bomb that lies inside. You are introduced to the “Mark and Execute” feature, which requires you to kill someone from behind with a melee attack by pressing the B button before you can use it. Conveniently, there is a guard standing alone, right in front of you, so this is quite easy to perform. Once this is done, now you have the chance to use the Mark and Execute feature for the first time and once again, for your convenience, there are two targets standing a few feet away from you. By aiming at each target from a conveniently placed chest high wall and pressing the right bumper, they will be marked and all you have to do is press the Y button to execute them in a flashy slow motion shooting sequence.
Things started going downhill from here.
As I infiltrated the warehouse, I quickly discovered that stealth, the cornerstone of the entire series was now, more or less, an afterthought. Sure, you could go the stealthy route and attempt to take down your foes with melee attacks and the Mark and Execute feature but why bother? Now, you can pick up the weapons dropped by your fallen foes so, if you choose, you can literally run in to the building, guns blazing and clear rooms, one by one, Rainbow Six Vegas style. Heck, even Sam’s trademark tri-focal goggles are gone, replaced by a pair of “sonar goggles” and a few gadgets such as flashbang and EMP grenades which were thoroughly useless to me in my time with the demo.
There is practically no incentive in not picking up the nearest SMG and shooting everyone with a pulse until they no longer have one. Sam’s pistol even has unlimited ammo for Pete’s sake! The shooting mechanics themselves are merely decent in regards to the average shooter. I will say that it’s mighty satisfying to pop a guy in the forehead with a well-placed bullet but that’s not what this is supposed to be about. Not really.
I would excuse this heavy emphasis on shooting if the AI actually made things difficult for you to do so but, unfortunately, they don’t. Even on the highest difficulty, the AI is about as smart as a brick wall and just as accurate with a gun. The soldiers in this game are apparently deaf, as they can’t seem to hear one of their comrades being noisily gunned down ten feet away from them. I ran up to an enemy who had his back to a door I’d just opened and proceeded to perform a close range execution on him in which Sam shot the guard in the back, causing him to scream out in pain before dropping to the ground and his buddies in the next room didn’t notice me the entire time. I’ve even been able to walk out in the open less than ten feet away from someone and still manage to slip by undetected.
The “last known position” system, which shows a clear silhouette of Sam in the last place he was spotted, makes them incredibly easy to exploit as oftentimes, they’ll stand out in the open, shooting at the location they last spotted you instead of conserving ammunition and attempting to flank you or draw you out of hiding. Using this system, I was able to shuffle back and forth between two positions, both of which were no less than three feet away from one another and was able to easily pick off the five or so AI soldiers with just my pistol without getting hit while they brainlessly continued to fire, alternating between the two last known positions they continuously spotted me.
If there’s one thing I can say that’s positive about the experience is that it’s very pretty. The environments were very highly detailed, the lighting was fantastic, and the character models were excellent. The animations as well deserved a nod, as they seemed quite organic and lifelike.
Overall, it should be quite clear by now that I was very disappointed in this demo. I viewed Splinter Cell: Conviction as a return to form for the series after the step backward that was taken in the form of Double Agent but now, it seems Chaos Theory will remain the best Splinter Cell title in the series and that’s a real shame. The original concept of Conviction was very interesting in which Sam no longer had to sneak around in the shadows and would instead have to hide in plain sight, blending into crowds of people while slowly stalking his targets. Sure, it was a departure from the established Splinter Cell formula but it was still a stealth game underneath it all and I wish Ubisoft hadn’t strayed from that. Unless the demo level isn’t indicative of the final game, I can’t imagine I’ll be terribly impressed with the finished product come April. I wanted Splinter Cell. What I got was a Gears of War or Uncharted-esque action-oriented experience that’s trying to be Splinter Cell and I’m not happy with that at all.