Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction

A choke hold is a great bonding experience. Not between you and the man who’s holding a gun to your head – there’ll always be a tragic, longing awkwardness in that relationship – but between you and your fellow player, the guy flitting from shadow to shadow, circling around to spring up behind your captor and snap his neck like a bony pencil.

Or maybe, if he’s got one of his execution moves prepared, your friend will poke a hole between the eyes of the guard with Bauer-like aloofness. For these situations Splinter Cell Conviction needs a Manly Hug button, because when one spy helps out another, the mutual appreciation for one another’s usefulness is almost tangible.

We’re playing the third map in Conviction’s co-operative campaign, Yastreb Complex, a small part of a five-hour long prologue to the events of the single player game. The two-player campaign is a game in itself, taking in new locations and seen through the luminescent goggles of two new characters. The story goes that Third Echelon notices that three Russian EMP bombs have vanished, and must jump into bed with their Russian-counterpart, Voron, in order to track them down and save the world. It’s James Bond in spandex with big thigh muscles.

Enter Archer, the green-goggled Fisher-lite character, and his soon-to-be best pal Kestrel, who, as a Russian man, has to wear the red goggles. Despite their chromatic differences, the two eventually become the best of friends, crow barring doors open together, planting C-4 charges for simultaneous detonations, and marking and executing entire rooms of people at once.

Gone, as far as the Yastreb Complex level tells, are the vaguely erotic acrobatic moves of Chaos Theory (the phrase “use me as man-rope you mucky cow” may never be heard again) and arriving are the well-phrased mechanics of Conviction we spoke about in our last preview, tuned for two players.

Yastreb Complex, then. Having C-4ed a bit of wall, we slither into a loading bay area shrouded in darkness. The objective is to find and interrogate one Major Rebko, and my partner in this spy thriller is Patrick Redding, game director for Conviction’s multiplayer game and in possession of the kinds of skills that only come of having demonstrated the game a thousand times.

As in the single-player game, “marking and executing” is your most effective means of shoveling out death, and to illustrate Redding effortlessly marks three patrolling guards who immediately appear on my HUD as hovering arrows. In response I clamber up a pipe. Desperate to look like I know what I’m doing up in my lofty perch, I mark three more men. All six are within our collective field of vision, and should we decide to, we may dispatch them with clinical precision.

They’ve called this, simply enough, ‘Dual Mark and Execute’. Executions are rapid-fire, auto aimed fatal shots, available only once you’ve engaged in melee with an enemy (in this way, you’re restricted from using the powerful one-hit-kill move against every guard you encounter). In co-op, executions become grandly choreographed, synchronous events. When one of us triggers an execution, time slows to allow the other player to begin theirs, and the end result is a room of six guards dropping to the floor before they realize what’s happening.

Stylish, efficient, and visually elegant, it’s a spectacle that’s rationed throughout the level, requiring co-ordination and (whaddya know) co-operation to pull off. Lone executions are still an option, naturally, as is the ability to execute targets marked by another player. The potentially intrusive time dilation only comes into effect if both players have the opportunity to simultaneously perform an execution, otherwise it’s carried out on the crack of a whip.

Yastreb Complex, along with every inch of the co-op campaign, is built from the ground up to be tackled by a duo. Multiple routes are nearly always available, and enemies often appear in formations that require they be taken out simultaneously – either hawkishly watching one another’s backs or moving in patterns that can be identified and relayed to your fellow player. As we approach our objective, myself and Redding are made to rely on communication and co-ordination. The complex’s office floor, replete with scalable partition walls and a crawl-space above the ceiling tiles, tests our abilities to work in tandem.

Redding hoists himself up into the maze of asbestos-riddled ceiling tiles and switches to his sonar goggles to highlight enemies below. I creep, otherwise blind to what’s around the next corner, from cubicle to cubicle while my teammate barks warnings and instructions: “Wait at that corner”, “The guards are chatting, move now”, “Quick, vault over that photocopier all awesome-like”. Inside, though you’d never admit it, you feel that maybe this is how real spies talk to one another. On some childish level, Conviction’s co-op is the authentic espionage experience.

When it all goes tits up though, and we’re both unable to carry out our swanky execution moves, Redding starts firing silenced shots through the ceiling tiles, a mysterious deadly hail falling on the unwitting guardians of the office. Taking aim at the light fittings, I plunge the room into darkness and turn the tide of battle back in favor of the men with the sonar-goggles. This is when the choke hold happens, I’m grabbed from behind and my perilous incompetence is flagged up on Redding’s screen. It’s the Splinter Cell equivalent of being Smokered in Left 4 Dead, or incapacitated in Modern Warfare, and Redding’s reaction – to circle around and twist the man’s head off – cements the spirit of the co-operation in a manner familiar to you if you’ve played either of those games.

Interrogations appear in co-op too, and much like in the single-player, they employ “contextual bash points” in the environment, that is, you can pin an interrogatee’s hand to a tree with a knife, or smush his face into a photocopier until both are shattered and covered in toner, depending on where you take him. Both players can have a go at hurting a man until he talks, with one doing the grabbing and shaking while the other keeps an eye out for reinforcements.

In its current form, however, the implementation feels odd. On the Yastreb Complex level, Major Rebko flops petulantly to the floor in between snippets of information in order to allow the other player an opportunity to “have a go”. And the role of scouting during the interrogation is pointless, as backup never arrives until you’ve progressed by completing the scene.

Yastreb ends with me lugging Major Rebko to an eye and fingerprint scanner with my teammate providing cover. Gunmen stream onto the mezzanine outside Rebko’s office, while Redding monkeys along balconies, popping up above the railing to grab enemies and throw them down to the floor below. Then there’s a twist, tables are turned dramatically and we find ourselves in the most Mexican of stand-offs. We fade to black. The playthrough is over. Just 20 minutes of a five-hour co-operative campaign, outside of the Fisher-focused single-player adventure. The question is: who would ever want to play single-player after that?

But this is (very almost) 2010. Multiplayer without a World at War-style Siege mode, or a Left 4 Dead-style Survival mode, would cause ladies to faint in the street, and men to start brawling and tumbling through shop windows. With this in mind, on top of a co-op campaign fledged to within an inch of its life, you’ll find, astonishingly, Deniable Ops, a collection of maps playable in four different game types with either one or two players. It’s also designed to be played over and over until our sun explodes, with Ubisoft reckoning that Deniable Ops is where players will clock up most of their playtime.

A quick and humorless rundown of the four game types then. Hunter has you eliminating all enemies on a map as quickly as possible. Infiltration has you doing the same, but forces you to avoid detection. Last Stand is Conviction’s nod to an increasingly popular game mode in which you must defeat increasingly well-equipped waves of enemies. And finally, Face-Off pits two spies against one another in a map populated by AI guards.

I’m shown the Lumber Mill map in Infiltration mode, this time in single-player. The crippling loneliness is made worse by the sense that you’re now half as effective as you were before, and with that comes the burden of having to mark your own enemies and scout your own routes – it’s a remarkably different experience. Lumber Mill is notable for all of its piles of lumber, great big trunks stacked in well-lit rows, forcing you to make daring scoots down between bright wooden corridors and clamber among the rusted machinery.

Unlike the story-led co-op mode, in which enemies’ starting positions are dictated by level designers, Deniable Ops promises “emergent gameplay”. That is, enemies will crop up in different places each time you play. This creates some interesting situations in the Face-Off games, especially when combined with one of the single-player game’s features: last known position.

Successfully breaking line-of-sight with the AI leaves behind a ghostly visage of yourself, indicating where the AI last copped eyes on you. The AI will investigate that area, or simply fire blindly at it while you maneuver yourself to a more advantageous location. In Face-Off, using your last known position to lure guards towards your opponent is also a viable tactic.

Of course, in this mode the game-ending executions are impossible to pull-off against human players. It’s also, you might have noticed, the only non-co-operative part of Conviction’s multiplayer game. Spies vs Mercs won’t appear in Conviction, as Ubisoft focus their efforts on the lengthy co-op campaign.

Tying the whole experience together is P.E.C.S. (the Persistent Elite Creation System): XP that’s earned with everything you do in single and multiplayer. Challenges are set across both single- and multiplayer, requiring you to kill certain numbers of people with certain weapons, or achieve other unlikely feats. With the XP you earn from doing so, you’ll be able to get upgrades, new equipment, and costumes for Archer and Kestrel.

Clearly, Conviction’s multiplayer won’t be a side feature. For many it’ll be the main attraction, a juggernaut of a co-op campaign bolstered by the inclusion of replayable Deniable Ops missions. Splinter Cell seems to have found a new online niche, shedding the Spies vs Mercs (sure to cause some pained howls at first) in favor of the richer co-op experience. From what we’ve seen thus far, the change in focus is paying off.


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