Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: Splinter Cell: Conviction Co-Op Story


He's a tough American ninja spy with a mean attitude and a meaner pistol. He's a stereotyped Russian that is effectively identical to his partner save for red goggles and his accent. They fight terrorists!

Splinter Cell: Conviction delivers a fast, action packed single player campaign that takes you on a rock'n'roll ride through Ubisofts answer to Jack Bauer. But Sam Fishers story is only a portion of the complete story presented on the game disc. Before Fisher, there was Archer and Kestrel.

Archer is an agent of Third Echelon, Sams old unit. Kestrel is Archers Russian double, an agent of Voron. They get thrown together to stop an arms deal going down in Russia in a story taking place just before Sam Fisher is called back into active duty. Their story spreads over four huge chapters, each one divided into three to four large combat areas. Each of the chapters are much larger than the single player campaign chapters, but on top of that, there is now two players trying to bumble their way through the darkness to the checkpoints. Because of this, I have already invested much longer in the co-op story than I did on either of my runs through Sams story, and I've only just finished the third chapter. Chapter two alone took the better part of four hours.

I have an interesting outlook on the co-op story, thanks to the two people I'm playing through the campaign with, and how we play.

Aidonis and I play split-screen. We share a screen, couch, and verbal sparing. When one of us fails, the other sees exactly what we did wrong and can jeer and insult about how they'd never get caught like that. With Rubber Cookie, we play on Xbox Live. We have the full screen to ourselves, and have to rely on much more talking to tell each other who is moving where and what cover is safe.

Aidonis doesn't own the game, so his only practice and experience is playing co-op with me. He doesn't have the best weapons or upgrades, or the experience of the single player game. This made the first chapter particularly eventful, involving lots of running from mobs of guards and restarting over and over. Rubber Cookie owns the game and is going through the single player campaign at the same time as the co-op. He first experienced the trademarked goggles in co-op, but had a fully upgraded Five-Seven from the start. We got through the entire first chapter without a single restart, and the first stage without even being detected.

Of course, it also helps that I'm further on in the story with Aidonis, so we're learning the maps and patrol patterns through trial and error. By the time I get there with Rubber Cookie, I know the place like the back of my hand, pointing out and using all the hidden ledges, convenient shadows and overhead pipes. It helps. A lot. Practice makes perfect, and all that.

The co-op element of Conviction is, in a word, stunning. I could happily leave the review there and hope that you take my word on it. But I won't. To only play Sams story would be criminal. Ubisoft have created a complete set of maps unique to the co-op story, rather than recycling the single player maps. The co-op maps allow for a lot more teamwork, striking from the shadows simultaneously to eliminate hostiles distracted by conversations of their beautiful families and the upcoming vacation time. Foolish guards. Don't they know they can never get a happy ending? We're the heroes here!

Mark and Execute is used to full effect in co-op. A single melee takedown charges both players Execute ability. Two players with two upgraded Five-Sevens can mark eight guards in an area. When one presses Y, time slows to allow the second player to assist in a Dual Execute, taking down any of the eight marks in sight in one flurry of suppressed fire. Even in a situation where one player can see more than just the four marks he has tagged and the second player is not in line of sight to anyone, that one well placed player can execute as many marks as he has sight to by himself. Also, while a single melee kill grants both players their Execute command, using it only exhausts the one belonging to the player that initiated the action, even if the second player joins as part of a Dual Execute. This allows both players to mark four more guards and immediately take out potentially eight more as long as the second player can engage his still active Execute order! In an absolute best case scenario, that's 16 kills in a matter of seconds. But even getting ten kills this way is a rush to the system, and gets the heart pumping with adrenaline.

Along with Mark and Execute, Convictions other new feature gets a vigorous workout in co-op. Last Known Position is in the single player story, but I found it much more important in the co-op. Basically, if you get spotted by the guards, but then duck behind a corner, through a window or into a patch of inky shadow out of sight, a "ghost" image of your character appears where you were last seen, representing the guards belief that you are in that general vicinity. You need to haul ass away from that spot before they descend on you for that time you put a bullet in Kevin's head in the last section, leaving his kid without a father and his wife without a husband, but with an extra ticket to Aruba. With the Last Known Position ghost, you and your counter-terrorist teammate can set up some incredibly fun, clever and hilarious situations making use of Remote Mines and the ragdoll physics engine.

One problem I do have with the co-op story is the actual story. I'm hard pressed to tell you anything about it. Why are they in Russia? What type of WMD are they after? Who is the badguy? Mainly, this is because plot and exposition are doled out at the start of each chapter, as in the single player story. But the co-op chapters take much longer to get through, so I've already long since forgotten what I was told in the previous chapters introduction. In the single player story, I could follow the events. I got plot cut-scenes every half hour or so. I knew who or what I was after. In co-op, it can be three hours between these cut-scenes. I have to rely on the projected signposts throughout the maps and the objective marker to tell me where to go.

It doesn't help that I'm also playing a multiplayer experience, and it seems to be human nature to chat with your partner over the bits where we're not actually expected to do anything but sit and watch.

But it is great fun, regardless. I just can't fault it beyond my own inability to pay attention to cut-scenes. Every mode can be played either split-screen or over Live. And besides Story, there is Hunter, Face-Off, Infiltrate and Convictions answer to Gears of War 2's Horde Mode, Last Stand. We haven't even touched these yet. We haven't finished the Story. There is so much gameplay left on the Splinter Cell: Conviction disc. When we get around to trying the other modes, I'll post about them too. But it might be a while. I plan on playing the heck out of Story first.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Review: Splinter Cell: Conviction Single Player Campaign

I never got into the Splinter Cell series before the latest incarnation. Mainly I attribute this slip to not owning an original Xbox, where the series seemed to be most popular, but I also blame a late developing interest in stealth-based gameplay, born mainly out of the excellent and recently mentioned Rainbow Six: Vegas series. In fact, the last Splinter Cell, Double Agent, was released in 2006, the same year as the first R6:Vegas, and Conviction comes two years since the sequel to Vegas was released in early 2008.

The R6:Vegas series drew me into the Tom Clancy shared universe of games, and my game collection now includes EndWar, a Real Time Strategy game played using a capable and enjoyable Voice-Recognition system in conjunction with the controller, and H.A.W.X, a fantastically fun and thrilling arcade-style flight simulator, favouring action and basic controls over a hyper realistic style. So far, I've skipped on the two Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfare games, but the upcoming Future Soldier looks interesting enough for me to look forward to it's release. It didn't take much to pull me into Sam Fishers story as well, and Ubisofts marketing reeled me in, hook, line and sinker.

Because I've never played any SC game previous, I was worried about difficulties following the story. Conviction is strongly tied into the earlier games in the series, and characters and events are key plot points in the newest incarnation. Thankfully, Conviction has a wonderful, visual method of relaying key events, projecting Sams memories onto the surrounding world. It's a neat feature that works really well. This projection system is also used to mark objectives, lighting "Execute These Two Guards" or whatnot onto the nearest building. It is assumed that these projections are a hallucination of Sams aging mind.

The single player experience is accomplished and polished.  Interesting flashforward moments hint at Sams inevitable fate (spoiler alert: it's Alzheimer's). A few levels break from the standard pattern of "1) Infiltrate building, 2) Kill guards, 3) Get to objective". These play out as set pieces, often adding a unique gameplay feature exclusive to that level. The whole experience is cinematic and action packed, and there were times when I really felt like I was playing a summer blockbuster Hollywood movie, in particular, the Bourne Identity.

I loved the twists and turns the plot goes through. The story is engaging, if a little ridiculously over-the-top at times, but I was never lost. In fact, I tore through the eleven chapters in the "Daring Adventures of Sam Fisher, Modern Ninja" in just two days on Normal difficulty. I would have finished it in a single sitting, but at 2am Saturday morning I realized I was a) making stupid mistakes that got me killed time and time again, and b) painfully close to the ending. Saturday morning, I completed the rest of the game in a little over an hour.

Does this mean that the game is short? Well, yes. But is that a negative comment. No. Definitely not. I had a half day from work, collecting the Shadow Edition of Conviction around 2pm and playing it for the entire day. I took a break to head back into town, get some air and enjoy the late afternoon sunshine, and a second break to have dinner and watch Mythbusters. But I did put in probably eight good hours of gameplay, exclusively in the single player campaign. That's a good time for the first playthrough. And it was only the first.

I restarted the campaign on Realistic Sunday, finishing that Monday afternoon. I was going through levels I had seen just 48 hours earlier, but playing them completely differently. Where I had struggled on Normal, I was cruising through on Realistic. I was seeing the ledges I could hang from, the dark shadows I could leap out of, the perfect sport to stand at to Mark and Execute four guys with Sams typical ninja precision. And this time around, I was using my gadgets. During my earlier play, I was sticking to the trusty silenced handgun and brute strength. Head shots and neck snaps were silent, swift, and clean. Loud explosions, regular EMP blasts and the magnesium burn of flash-bangs were the signature of my second run. In general, the bad-guys knew I was coming, but only for the brief few moments they were alive before my silenced automatic rifle perforated their poor, misguided bodies. It was messy, but fun.

Mark and Execute is a new gameplay feature Conviction brings to the table. After performing a melee kill, Sam gains the ability to mark a number of enemies, from two to four depending on the weapon at hand. Once marked, the chevron above their heads can be seen through walls, regardless of how far away they move. If they are gray they are out of line of sight or range, and red means they can be executed. At any time you can press Y to perform an instant, guaranteed kill on all red marks. During development I thought this sounded stupid. I thought it removed the skill from the player, reducing it to "Press Y now". In reality, it is exhilarating to mark four targets, then hang from a balcony while they walk their routes, finger hovering over the Y for that moment all four are standing in that one sweet spot. Or mark targets through a door before kicking in the door, killing the guard behind it, then slamming Y to cleanly execute the other four without alerting anyone. Instead of removing the skill from the player, it moves it. Should I use my hard-earned skill now, or will I need it later? Can I get past these guys without it? Can I use a gadget? Aw, to hell with this! SLAM, pop, pop, pop!

Speaking of gadgets, Sams new goggles are awesome. The ultra-sonic ping that reveals enemies through walls and floors is beautiful to listen to. I love it so much that it's my new text-message tone. The EMP device is fun to use, as it plunges the area into darkness while disorienting enemies, making them easy targets for a melee kill.

All told, Splinter Cell: Conviction is a thoroughly enjoyable single player experience. The varied methods of moving through a map allow for a surprising level of replayability in what is otherwise a railroaded story. Even twice is not enough to see everything a single map offers. The ability to go back and replay individual maps is much appreciated, and I loved replaying some of the set pieces. The reward quickly stops being about just finishing the level, and becomes finishing it undetected, or in some interesting way.

But all that is just the tutorial for what is arguably the true heart of Conviction. The Co-op story, following "The Adventurers of Intrepid Duo Archer and Kestrel". I'm currently playing through this with Aidonis on split-screen at my place or Rubber Cookie over Live. Keep watching for a future post on what I think of this part of the package (spoiler alert: it's Alzheimer's).

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Formating Issues

I just spent the last few hours formatting my last post so that the text would have the same spacing as every other post I've ever made in this blog! When I first published it earlier today it was all squashed together. It was still legible and all, just not very clean looking. Most annoying. I seem to have finally done something to put it back the way I want it, but I'm not sure what that was, or how I could do it again.

Most annoying.

Edit: I've just realised that the vast majority of you read my blog through Google Reader and wouldn't have noticed the change, as Reader uses it's own formatting for text! Hah! Still, at least it looks nice on the page now.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

20,000G

In just ten months my Xbox GamerScore has double in size, from 10,000G last May to 20,000G today, just a few moments ago. It was reached while playing the astonishingly fun Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, more specifically, the Spec Ops missions that encourage co-operative play. I admit, I worked to get the nice even number, ending in 000, picking three easy Achievements that brought me up from 19,970 in increments of 10. I'd have been annoyed if I had accidentally overshot it and failed to get the image that accompanies this post.

As well as CoD:MW2, new games such as Lego Rock Band and Left 4 Dead 2 have helped push my GamerScore toward this new milestone. Apart from new releases, I recently went back to Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, the sequel to the game that got me Xboxing in the first place! I had loads of fun getting back into the co-operative terrorist killing with my good friend Rubber Cookie, who himself recently hit the 10,000G milestone. We found ourselves running the Terrorist Hunt missions on Realistic difficulty and having great fun dieing and dieing again. All that planning, all that running variations, learning where the enemies spawn, where to hide, when to run. All leading to eventually taking that number in the top corner of the screen down to the last five, then three, then one. At which point, the tension reaches fever pitch, the movements become erratic, someone rounds a corner, there is a burst of fire, "Mission Failed" comes up on screen and we start all over again. Every time we finally cracked a level, we roared and shouted in joy, sharing in the mutual success!

While the sequel to Rainbow Six: Vegas has taken up the bulk of my multiplayer experiences recently, my single player time has been almost exclusively spent on the sequel to the other game that made me need an Xbox 360, Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2 has fixed most of the problems associated with the first game, while introducing a few new ones. Thankfully, the fixes outweigh the new issues. The story feels much more epic and galactic in scale, the support characters are fantastic, the Achievements don't restrict your gameplay experience, and they thankfully removed the Mako. On that final subject, ME2 has a wonderful ongoing support through DLC, primarily through the Cerberus Network which has given us a new support character, armour, weapons, and most recently, a hover tank to replace the Mako, the Firewalker. All in all, a highly recommended game.

And thus concludes my post about my GamerScore milestones that rambled off onto a short game review. More to come!