Splinter Cell: Conviction Hands On - Pushing the Sandbox Aspect to its Limits
Written Friday, August 14, 2009 By Dan WebbView author's profile
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Ubisoft had cut out the sandbox aspect of Splinter Cell: Conviction if you’d been watching the E3 coverage closely. 3 times, count it, had we seen the same walkthrough done in exactly the same way in LA, so when Ubisoft invited us over to their UK HQ with free reign over Sam Fisher, we were determined to put the sandbox aspect to the test.
The sandbox element in Splinter Cell: Conviction is not indicative of a traditional sandbox title - a massive open world where you choose what you want to do and when to do it. There is a linear story and the sandbox element is represented in the choices you make in each mission. In other words, here’s your environment, there’s your target ... good luck Sam, get the job done. The stealthy way seems the easiest from what we experienced, but isn’t that always the way? You’re not limited to that approach though, and if you want – like we did on numerous occasions – you can barge in the front door and fight your opponents face-to-face. You’ll still need to be clever though with this approach and use the environment to your advantage, because spend too much time in plain sight and you’ll be ripped to shreds.
You’ll be glad to hear that the controls in Conviction are just as smooth and responsive as they have been in the past, except that Sam now seems to be a lot quicker on his toes. You can essentially get away with just using two buttons; A to jump and X to initiate an authentic Krav Maga takedown, just so long as you stick to the shadows. Of course, you can shoot with the right trigger as well, and my only qualm would be the split second delay that it took between you pressing the trigger and Sam shooting his gun. Hopefully that will be tweaked between now and the launch next year.
A big part of Conviction as Ubisoft has said, is putting the power of Sam Fisher in your hands, which is where the Mark (RB) and Execute (Y) feature comes in. Once you’ve marked your targets or points of interest to shoot (you can cancel them with LB if you’re not happy), you can trigger the automated crushing blow with Y. If you’re feeling fancy as well, you can hold the Y for a slow mo execution for your final target. However, once your execute is gone, you have to earn it back with a close-quarters takedown. Admittedly, I did find myself almost pandering to the mechanic, looking to use it at every turn, but that’s up to the player, and you can approach the game as if it didn’t exist if you so wish. That goes for the rest of the game as well; at its heart, Conviction is still a Splinter Cell title and if you want to hide in the shadows, turn off lights or shoot them out to cloak your arrival, you can do just that. That being said, there is no doubting that this new gameplay mechanic is pure unadulterated fun.
A question so many people have been asking since the E3 unveiling is, “can you play it through totally stealthy?” Without being seen and without some sort of conflict – I’d say no, well not the Malta level anyway. But you can stay in the shadows and take down your foes without alerting the rest of the crew. The real fun comes through the simple task of choosing which way to tackle the situation. As it stood, there were two entrances into the King George mansion – the main door and the side window, but how you get past the guards on the front and side gate is entirely up to you ... and this is where the sandbox element comes into its own.
Having a pretty extensive hands on allowed me to run through the E3 level around 8 times or so; attempting a new route each time, all successfully may I add. I started trying to recreate the E3 attempt, but failed on numerous occasions – they definitely made it look easy, but the real fun started when I experimented on how to distract the guards outside the mansion. On one attempt I found that throwing an EMP grenade into a market stall managed to cause a bit of a fuss with the locals and as the crowd vacated the scene, the guards came to investigate. It was at that point I was able to sneak past them and get inside the building with no alerts. Similarly on my next playthrough, I pulled a gun out in the crowd which also caused a bit of a panic. This time, I took a different approach though and as the crowd ran past the King George mansion, I decided to run with them, effectively disguising myself in the crowd and running straight past the guards as if I was a local. It was serious poetry in motion and when the game ships next year, it is something that everyone must try. You can’t help but look smug. However that smug look was quickly wiped from my face when I was seen entering the mansion. The ploy would have been a successful one as well if I just taken care after the cunning diversion ... no problems there though, a quick Mark and Execute later and I’m in the building.
After travelling through the mansion interior numerous times, the AI on the guards seemed to be responsive and intuitive enough. The new Last Known Position mechanic – which indicates Fisher’s last position with a translucent outline – made it a little too easy to outsmart them though. There seemed to be no set patrol patterns when they were on to you and the only thing that seemed scripted was where they started. The guards even have contextual responses; you’ll find some call you out acting the big man, some calling for backup and some even fearing the impending confrontation with the mighty Sam Fisher whose reputation precedes him.
As far as gadgets goes, whilst Fisher is effectively rogue now, you don’t start off with a huge range of fancy gadgets. In the build we went hands on with however, we were equipped with portable EMP devices (a device which powers down any electronic device in a certain range), sticky cameras (although I never found myself using them) and EMP grenades which are as they sound. All of these are easily selected with the d-pad and deployed with the B button. Pretty damn simple. I have a feeling that these may not be used in the Malta level in the final build because being so early on, how does Sam have access to these gadgets? We’re still praying for night vision and thermal vision at some point or another in Conviction because let’s be honest, it wouldn’t quite feel like Splinter Cell without them. It’s like Halo without Sticky Grenades, or Gears of War without Lancers.
Any sort of doubts that we had for Splinter Cell: Conviction after E3’s rather samey showing of the title, were put to rest with this hands on. It’s clear after 8 playthroughs of the same level, that the game does give you plenty of choice and has an immense amount of replayability – if I can do the same level so many times in a row, and still want to do it again after, then you know something is right. The Mark and Execute feature does make for an easier game at times as does the Last Known Position, but it also makes for a more tactical game, and it doesn’t seem to get stale. We’d like to think that as we get further in, the challenge will ramp up ten-fold anyway and they won’t seem too overpowering. It will be interesting to see the game’s direction in more open and expansive environments and it definitely feels more Chaos Theory-esque than Double Agent which frankly, is just what the doctor ordered.
Splinter Cell Conviction is now scheduled for a 2010 release on PC and Xbox 360.