Fans and expectations. Two volatile elements in the ever going struggle between accountants and revenue. While some milk the same cow until nothing sprays out but dust, others take huge leaps of faith in risky experiments, going so far as to defy the very genre a series established itself in.
In this case, we’re talking about stealth games. The art of sneaking around, a habit rooted in such titles as Thief or System Shock and go through some of the more intense premises illustrated in video games – you mustn’t be seen, you can’t kill anyone and/or you’re vastly inferior to your enemies in terms of combat.
But if you would allow me an analogy, when Splinter Cell: Conviction’s daddy went to pick him up from the maternity ward, he was horrified to discover that the offspring was a bit too dark for the typical Caucasian features of the rest of the family. More to the point, while his bigger brothers – Pandora Tomorrow, Chaos Theory and the rest of the gang can climb walls, melt in the shadows and don’t make a single sound when silently snatching the apple jelly from the kitchen, the youngest son, Conviction, kicks their asses and even tortures them in order to get his hands on his favorite toys.
Louder, more violent, more agitated – while still retaining an appearance that’s typical to the family line: the same cinematic approach on a conspiracy against a president about which you couldn’t care less, where the protagonist is a washed-up shark in the game of international espionage and is dragged through the whole affair by the villains’ exploitation of his daughter. Who was assumed dead.
I haven’t heard such a groundbreaking premise since Commando. Or one of the Die Hards. Or any movie in which some bloody, sweaty demigod’s daughter is kidnapped (oh and there are plenty). The storyline, sadly, does not bloom into anything fresh or surprising – too briefly and sketchily exposed. It’s short and bland, like a straight-to-DVD sequel in which you can only recognize the main character’s receding hairline and costume, because some actor beyond his expiry date stars there just to pay off his mortgage.
I say short because not even the “Realistic” difficulty level will manage to stop you from finishing it in under ten hours. The backgrounds and levels won’t hold you back for long either, because they only vary between the classical government serious-business nuance and the less classical industrial-neat gray. Even if it’s in theme with Sam Fisher’s fetish: infiltrating every American statesman’s office, you really won’t waste time admiring the staggering “Office composition. IKEA office” landscapes. To be fair though, it’s convincingly rendered in every mission.
And when you’re not sneaking through cardboard walls, you’re taking part in John Woo moments or platforming for the thick and slow. Let’s take it one at a time – the John Woo moments are, naturally, those scenes in which Chow Yun-Fat stands up, teeth clenched, from behind whatever’s left from a shot off table and shoots twenty-four generic bodyguards in three seconds and a whiff. Except here you replace Chow Yun-Fat with Sam Fisher, generic bodyguards with generic AI and whiff with grenade (EMP or flashbang, to each his own).
The weapons and gadgets can be upgraded by investing points you get through a pretty vast array of activities, from going through an entire level without being detected to neutralizing four enemies at the same time. However, hunting these objectives down is as optional as it gets, since the game can be easily finished even with the pistol.
Let’s get something straight: there’s nothing wrong with a good genocide in the dark. Not even with the cover system, which makes Conviction resemble Uncharted more than Splinter Cell. Not even the arsenal of tricks that Fisher has or the Mark and Execute maneuver, which allows the instant and gratuitous elimination of up to four enemies. Or its recharge through the simple melee neutralization of an unsuspecting adversary.
The bad part is that the stealth system Conviction ran so far away from mutilates an otherwise decent action game. While you wear close to everything you’d need to infiltrate Obama’s wardrobe, your adversaries (even those who have Sonar Goggles) are harshly disadvantaged. They’re as naïve, predictable and lethargic before noticing there’s an armed intruder as they are after he candidly smirks from behind a flying bullet.
Depending on where you were last seen, the mercenaries will investigate the area of your alleged contravention with the tempo and speed of a CSI episode. They’ll surround the entire place, they’ll shoot a few times to make some noise and eventually will grimly realize that you’re actually three corridors down the hall, trying fruitlessly to get a Coke from the soda machine.
Thus, the problem is that Gears of War or Uncharted make you shake in your pants once you were detected, because every second when space hogs or Somali pirates aren’t running towards you, you could be certain that grenade volley is being played and you’re alone in the team. You’d sweat, you’d run, you’d have pretty big odds to even die. By comparison, in Conviction, if your head is seen at a certain point, all you have to do is shoot off a few lights and put on some Isaac Hayes to create such a romantic atmosphere that people forget you were even there.
As you always enjoy the edge of having the element of surprise and considering the completely robotic routes of the few patrols you meet, you can’t really feel a serious stake and the sections of the game, be they mandatory stealth ones, fire at will or at your leisure are seriously crippled by the rusty AI.