Behind closed doors: Splinter Cell Conviction
Behind closed doors: Splinter Cell Conviction
Splinter Cell Conviction enjoyed a good E3. People enjoyed the the idea of a faster Sam Fisher, and there was obviously a little nostalgia floating about for the series' heyday. We scored a behind closed doors session with Maxime Mercier from the team to discuss how Sam has changed.
Mercier tells me Conviction sets itself apart in three ways. First, the story revolves around Sam Fisher. He's on the warpath trying to find who killed his daughter. Because it's so personal, Sam is more brutal and fired up. Second, the game is a lot faster - even in the shadows. Mercier likens Sam to a panther - fast and deadly. The final difference in Conviction is how the team wanted to break away from convention and find a new way to tell the story. More on this in detail below.
We start off like so many demos from this year's E3 covering the same ground as the associated keynote. Sam's in a men's bathroom roughing up a thug who has information he needs. Mercier puts the guy in a chokehold. He marches the guy at arm's length around the room to demonstrate his control of him. Not getting any answers, we see the more brutal Sam in action. He slams the guy head first into a urinal. Everything, Mercier claims, is breakable.
The urinal is now half broken, and our friend is a little worse for wear, with a nasty looking contusion forming on his face. Fisher then beats the daylights out of the guy - including throwing him into a toilet door and freaking out the inhabitant within - until his prey gives up the information he's after.
As the thug gives up his knowledge, a video sequence and the name of the person he reveals is projected in black and white on the toilet wall. This - a feature we mentioned in our keynote wrap - is one of the ways Ubisoft are telling the story as well as showing Sam where to go next. It's a huge leap from merely hearing some babbling from a game character and your waypoint being updated to the next place to go.
After Sam gets the information he wants, Mercier makes him drive the crim headfirst into a mirror on the wall. He plunges facefirst into the sink - the viewpoint changes to the screen going red, as if its from the viewpoint of the sink drain as it fills with blood. Then the camera blurs as it rushes down the sink, out of a keyhole and into a cutscene. It's a stylish touch and its seamless. While the cinematic plays, the next encounter is loaded.
Mercier has moved on to demonstrating a civilian setting - a cafe area in the evening. Civilians will react in superficial ways when Sam does anything unusual in their vicinity. They can't be used as hostages or beaten up as far as I can tell - they're there mainly to add life to the background.
We're approaching the multi-story building where the killer of Sam's daughter is holed up. Projected in black and white text across the building is your objective. Mercier points out the projected text is usually positioned on the place or zone you need to be in, further reducing aimless wandering. Sam rips off a car's rear vision mirror, something Mercier advises we'll understand the meaning of soon.
Sam traverses a bridge towards the guarded building not by the main thoroughfare, but rather by going hand-over-hand along its outer edge, a drop beneath him. From his hanging position, he reaches up and throws one guard down far below before he can make a sound.
As he infiltrates the building, Mercier expands on the game's "mark and execute" model. By performing hand-to-hand kills, you gain "tokens". We saw a maximum of three in the demo, but it wasn't revealed how many you could store up - we'd assume not too many. From a hidden vantage point, Sam can mark one enemy or object per token so when he attacks the game will automatically shift targetting to each one in succession. Sam marks his targets in this case by using the mirror from the car to peek under the door, allowing him to understand the layout of the room and where the targets are.
This is important to note. Mercier points out that Jason Bourne in the films of the same name and the likes of Jack Bauer in "24" almost always make a point to know where the bad guys are in the room before they leap in guns blazing. In this case, Mercier marked a light (all lights are destructible in the game) and one bad guy, leaving another loose. He only had two tokens.
Action: Fisher bursts through the door, immediately killing the lights, then head tapping his human target. Then Mercier intercepts the unmarked target and takes him down hand-to-hand. It's over in a few seconds but is symptomatic of the direction many games are going - a more meaningful and tense buildup followed by a burst of action. You get the sense many are trying to get away from unrelenting blastathons. Mercier describes the action sequence as being "dynamic stealth" - a lot less ponderous than previous Splinter Cell games.
Fisher then starts trying to position himself to clear a room. Operating now from the shadows, the display will deliberately desaturate the majority of the room to make interactive objects easier to pick up. In this case, a pipe which runs along the length of the ceiling is your best path. Sam scales it, then shoots a chandelier soon after, sending it crashing down on a gaggle of bad guys below.
Pandemonium breaks out, and we get a chance to see how the game's last known position feature works. Here, a white outline of Sam appears. This, Mercier tells me, is where the game AI *thinks* Sam is. They will focus their attempts at suppressing that position and attacking it - even sneaking up to it or holding back if they're in a tactically inferior position. Mercier says it's good for players to get some insight into how the AI is "thinking" - even if it is to demonstrate the game isn't just having them randomly pop up and try to shoot you.
The practical use of last known position is even more handy. By knowing where the enemy is paying attention, you can try to flank or outmanoeuvre the enemy while they assault the spot they think you are. Naturally last known position relies on Sam not being visible to the enemy.
We get a glimpse of the one button cover to cover system. As Sam closes in on his daughter's killer, we see more projected video - black and white glimpses of the killer about to fire and his daughter's terrified face. It's such an effective way to tell a story - and it's something ideal for videogames because we control the pacing of the storyline unlike passive forms of entertainment. It also means you never hunt around the room or just blindly have to charge the guy in the middle of the henchmen because he "must" be the bad guy - you know the face before you hit the firefight. Having a face and witnessing their wrongdoing makes it more "personal" if you're someone who gets into the story.
Just like the keynote, Sam gets to his daughter's slayer only to have a room full of military or SWAT-style gunmen confront him, ordering him to put down his gun. The killer Sam's about to blow away tells him if he wants to know why his daughter died, he better go along with them. The camera view then staggers out in a series of dramatic steps to a very Government operations room where it's made clear Fisher isn't going to have as much independence as he thought. Demo ends.
Splinter Cell Conviction did attract a lot of love this E3 - it seems no shortage of people like the idea of a faster SC game. Mark and execute looks terrific, although we're reserving judgment until we get a solid play session where we can see whether it's as easy as it seems (or too easy). The projected text/video method of telling the story and showing Sam where to go is beyond reproach however. This is something a lot of games could benefit from.
To be candid, we're definitely more interested about the game than we were at first glance. A very solid outing - when we get an extended play session with the game, we'll advise what the lowdown is.
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