Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TORTURING BAD GUYS, PUNCHING GIRLS, AVENGING MURDERED DAUGHTERS AND OTHER ASSORTED FUN...

Everyone seems to love Splinter Cell: Conviction. Reviews are unanimously positive, awarding the game scores in the low to high nines. Normally I take it upon myself to be a voice of reason in a din of easily fooled, overly enthusiastic gamers and this time...well...this time is unfortunately no different.

Yes it's pompous to consider my voice the only one of reason and yes it's closed-minded to be unable to accept any argument that suggests Splinter Cell: Conviction is a game worthy of a 9/10, but I simply cannot help myself. I don't want to be the overly critical, negative guy that doesn't like anything. But, imagine living in a world where getting punched in the face was the way people greeted each other as opposed to a hug or a handshake. But you are the only person on earth that finds this painful and infuriating. It is so obvious to you that it is wrong to punch someone in the nose that you cannot comprehend why other people aren't similarly bothered by such a greeting. Wouldn't you feel it your responsibility to stand up for yourself and say something? This is how I feel most of the time with regard to video games and the opinions of my fellow gamers.

Bad dialogue doesn't bother you? Bad dialogue you have to hear over and over again due to a bad checkpoint doesn't bother you? Not knowing where to go due to bad level design doesn't bother you? Contradictory artistic philosophies don't bother you? Annoying henchman who don't stop talking don't bother you? Not being able to find "the fun" in the game doesn't bother you? Bad control schemes don't bother you? Juvenile use of "bad language" and superficial attempts to be badass by beating women to earn that M rating doesn't bother you? The lies of game developers don't bother you? I find that most gamers are either after something different than I, don't care about such annoyances, or acknowledge that these things exist but are able to easily overlook them due to a few cool features like mark and execute.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is a game plagued by all of these problems and more.

Let me first say that I have no problem with an opinion that amounts, simply and clearly, to nothing more than "I thought it was fun", and then makes no attempt to convince me of the game's objective artistic or entertainment value. For example, the best explanation I've heard for why Assassin's Creed II is not a mediocre, pretentious bore-fest was "I just really like being Italian and running around rooftops". It's when someone attempts to argue that things like lute players and poor control-schemes and flawed game design aren't actually problems that I find myself in a confused rage, feeling as though I'm the only one that doesn't like being punched in the nose.

While Conviction might alienate many fans of the stealth series I found the game fits nicely in the franchise from a narrative and, in some ways, gameplay structure. The story should be focused simply and clearly on Sam's desire for revenge. Instead the game lumbers around a Tom Clancy-international espionage-heavy tale that gets duller and more convoluted as it goes, until the end when it finally refocuses on what's actually interesting, Sam and his past. It then negates any potential upswing in the story by having a final level that is literally right out of Modern Warfare 2.

The game's creative director stated that it's very much about Sam's quest for avenging the murder of his daughter, but it's a Tom Clancy game so there's got to be some political intrigue. Why? Why does there need to be a long-winded plot most gamers are going to completely ignore even if they are able to understand it? The beauty of a good story is more often than not it's simplicity. Just look at Taken, a fantastic action movie with a premise similar to Conviction's. Imagine an entire game that involved just searching for Sarah's killer, eventually leading you to the interesting revelation that actually is in the game. Also imagine the gruffer, angrier approach Sam adopts permeating every aspect of the game throughout, using improvised gadgets like the rear-view mirror from beginning to end, as opposed to getting all your gadgets back and being virtually no different than the Sam in Double Agent.

Having played every entry I can say that Conviction adheres to many of the series' conventions, but not necessarily the ones UbiSoft wanted to retain. Having watched this game's development since 2006 I've come away from the developer diaries with some basic and logical expectations based on what the developers said and the gameplay footage. The developers longed to create a game where stealth is a weapon, not a defense, where Sam Fisher is a predator. They specifically discussed how the game would not shut down if you were discovered by your enemies as previous entries did, but instead you would have to improvise, using a variety of awesome spy-abilities such as mark and execute and last known position to your advantage. Gone would be the trial and error days of memorizing guard's walking patterns and avoiding security cameras.

There's a point in the game where players infiltrate the Third Echelon Headquarters where Sam was originally trained. The level starts with player's in a garage near a camera that's sweeping left and right. I stared at that camera for a moment and knew the game wanted me to avoid it, and I wanted to avoid it because I thought that if I were spotted a barrage of soldiers would be unleashed and I'd have to deal with their poor AI and cliched one-liners. But the pessimist in me had a slightly darker thought. Were they telling the truth? Will I have to improvise if I'm spotted or will the game simply give me the finger, shut down and force me to start again? I honestly believed the game would not shut down, but I was curious. So I walked right into the camera's line of sight to test the game and the word of the designers. The game promptly shut down and a fail screen appeared, one curiously similar to those I witnessed in Splinter Cell, Pandora Tomorrow, Chaos Theory, and Double Agent. I know why this level has such a structure. It's a nice homage to the previous titles, and there are many such nods in Conviction. But this kind of explanation, "It's an homage!" is a common defense to my kind of gripes that in no way proves it's a good decision on the part of the designers.

Another example of contradictory design and artistic philosophy can be found in the games' visual presentation. Ever since Dead Space every game designer has been trying to figure out a way to integrate the HUD in a natural way that will permit a deeper level of immersion and Conviction is no exception. Light meters have been abandoned for a stylish shift from color to black and white to indicate Sam's visibility and OpSats have been abandoned for sleek flickering objectives projected on walls and other surfaces in the game. The game's shift from color to black and white is, very simply, ugly. It's jarring and removes me from the experience. It completely destroys the quality of the visuals, which is already surprisingly sup-par.

The intent of not having a HUD and enhancing immersion is further destroyed by the fact that there are constantly at least two or three different context sensitive icons on-screen telling you where to go, what cover to take, what ledge to jump over, what enemy to attack, and what light switch to press. Am I so stupid that I need a "Press A To Jump" icon to appear every time I approach a ledge or chest-high-wall to know that I can jump over it? Also, if every chest-high-wall, if every pipe, if every ledge is something I can interact with by pressing A, why, after the first level which makes me aware of this fact, do I need to see the icon throughout the entire game?

The practical reason they don't go away is that the context sensitive interactions are really choosy about letting you interact with them. Because of the revamped control scheme players no longer have the ability to jump. To jump, one must walk up to a pipe or wall, arrange Sam in the way the game wants you to so that the little A-icon appears, and then press it. The game could have easily done away with these issues by not stealing a basic action away from players and allowed the Y button to function as both jump and execute. Not only would I have the choice to perform a basic action I've been able to in every Splinter Cell prior, I wouldn't have to rely on and see the game's context sensitive icons that tell me when I can jump. And I wouldn't have to constantly shift Sam left and right until he was aligned perfectly with the object I wanted to jump on. What is immersive about this experience from a visual or interactive perspective?

Furthermore, the way the designers negate their attempt to do away with the HUD is by having a HUD! You're always aware of your ammo and your gadget count via a little HUD on the bottom right of the screen. I don't have a problem with that. In fact I don't have a problem with HUDs at all and it annoys me that designers seem to and end up making stupid choices as a result. Why not allow the actual shadows to show me I'm in shadows? Or, better yet, why not integrate the HUD the way Double Agent did, via a little meter perched on Sam's shoulder that blinked green, yellow, or red to indicate his threat level? That worked just fine. Instead this new team tries to do too much, be a little too artistic for their own good and provide a clunky experience that isn't ever quite sure what it wants to be.

This game would have been better if it had completely abandoned any and all attempts to integrate stealth and any series conventions. By walking a middle-ground, it walks a tightrope and cannot keep its balance. The high points of the game all involved straightforward third person-type shootouts (one being a firefight in Iraq, and another a far-too short sequence where the game gives you infinite mark and executes).

Like Batman:Arkham Asylum the game offers you up a suite of awesome maneuvers and the potential for using them in innovative, strategic ways. The reason Batman succeeds is that the systems in place, from level design to control scheme, are all structured in such a way that gamers have easy, fast access to "the fun", and are able to manipulate the system and experiment with noticeable and awesome results. Splinter Cell offers you the fun, makes you aware of the systems, but doesn't allow you to utilize them in a clear, uninterrupted and enjoyable way. Ironically enough this is the exact same complaint I had with the older Splinter Cell games.

Sam always seemed to have these great abilities but because the game needs you to play it in a specific way and be at specific places at specific times to execute these awesome maneuvers the gamer seldom gets to make use of such abilities. In Conviction you're able to make use of the legitimately good thing in the game "mark and execute" only after you've failed a few times. Only once could I actually improvise on the fly and was rewarded with an awesome series of flashy, fast kills. More often than not, I would have to run around a map, figure out where the desks, pipes and guard were, try something, die, and then go at it again and play it "the right way".

This, in practice, is no different from past entries in this series. It's the same old trial and error gameplay with a new coat of paint. It is possible to have fun in this game and make use of the awesome abilities it offers, but it never feels as though you're able to make use of them on your terms and in your ways on the first try. This is why the stealth in the game is a hindrance, not a weapon and why this game fails where Batman succeeds. There is no right way to play Arkham Asylum. It gives you the gift and lets you play with it. Conviction gives you the gift, but like an older sibling that doesn't want you to figure it out on your own, continually tells you what you're doing wrong.

4 comments:

  1. Good thing I didn't get this game! And did you hear that the supreme ruled that video games are not protected under the freedom of speech act?

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  2. Thanks for reading, dude. And no I didn't hear that until I read your comment. That's terrible and doesn't make any sense. The government, particularly the Dems, have always been really hard on video games to appear socially conservative on at least one issue, which really annoys me because it's disshonest. How many of them actually play video games? So many people formulate opinions on video games based on short clips of gameplay, and they almost always involve someone getting shot in the face or cut to pieces. The term "out of context" never applies so well than in these situations because video games are not a medium that can be judged simply by viewing snippets of footage. Yes, I can have sex with hookers and then stab them to death in GTA...but unless you experience the entire game you cannot comprehend how such an option may actually be a form of social commentary.

    You have to interact with it, for several hours, to be able to comprehend a game's worth or lack of worth. In this way video games are a unique medium of art and entertainment. They're more demanding of their participants than film, music, or literature and as a result can easily be misunderstood and underrated.

    IGN, a website I use every day begrudgingly because it seems to grow more juvenile each day, recently posted an article on a similar subject challenging Ebert's statement that videogames will never be art. Check it out, it's actually good.

    What I read on the court's ruling suggests that games won't be sold to minors...which is good...but it seems a short walk to banning language and violence in games altogether.

    What's ironic is that I've never seen or heard anything in a video game that disturbed me as much as a few hard-R-movies, but many politicians are cozy with and rely on Hollywood.

    I just wish there was consistency. Either ban everything or ban nothing.

    This comment probably should've been a blog haha. Thanks again for letting me know.

    Lost is indeed back on track.

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  3. I'm of the mind that video games don't ruin the kids, the parents do. This ruling won't stand. Most video game developers consider their work as art, so I guarantee this won't stick. And yes, Lost is back in business.

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