Splinter Cell

Don’t Call It…: Return of the Fisher King

Another piece on comebacks, this time in the world of console-and-televisual games. It’s a bit more tangentially related to the hip-hop orientated posts which will bookend it, but no less violent or sweary. Sam Fisher. Like stealth gaming’s Eminem, every apparent retirement means another inevitable self-reinventing comeback. After a four year hiatus, and at least one return to the drawing board, Conviction brings back everyone’s favourite grumpy killing machine. Except, he’s not so silent these days. Following the apparent death of his daughter, Sam’s not feeling so subtle. As he tracks down whoever is responsible through fairgrounds, industrial warehouses and (in flashback) war-torn Iraq, he leaves a trail of snapped necks and exploded craniums. Oh yes. Out go the extensive gadgets and meticulous planning. In come brutal close-quarter murdering and its reward, the ‘Mark & Kill’ system, which allows Fisher to get off two or three insta-kill shots from the hip faster than the unholy spawn of Clint Eastwood and Sonic the Hedgehog. Everything is designed to streamline your stealth experience. The new ‘last known position’ system, which leaves a white outline in the place enemies makes it easier to keep track of cat-and-mouse chases. It’s also a step towards the removal of the cluttered HUD, as Conviction tries to put everything on screen. This is a double-edged sword. Replacing the increasingly over-complicated feed of information (light meters, noise meters, doing-a-jig meters) of yesteryear by simply jumping into black-and-white when you’re hidden is a neat idea. In theory. In practice, it can be headache-inducing or, worse, just plain unconvincing. Coming back into full-colour mode shows these ‘hidden’ spots to be quite reasonably-illuminated corners. The flashbacks and objectives projected onto walls, however, are a brilliant idea. They’re Conviction at its most beautiful, and should be copied immediately. But this isn’t a particularly beautiful game: it’s too busy with manly grunting for that. The delicate interplay of light and shadow, growing in sophistication with each instalment, is gone. There’s certainly no more gawping at thin slits of light crawling across your body, or the slowly-rotating silhouette of a fan. Without the strength of its convictions to create deep dark shadows, there’s little contrast, and little hiding rough-edges. Meanwhile, the men you’re trying to knock off shout increasingly hyperbolic threats. “We’re gonna find you Fisher!” “You’re supposed to be a soldier, Fisher, not some little girl!” “How about I take your mother out on a date, Fisher?!?” It used to be that the snatches of dialogue you’d catch felt like spying on your enemies. But that little voyeuristic thrill is swept away in the deafening scream. God, I feel like an old man. I know I keep leaning on the it aten’t the way I remember it argument, but this is quite self-consciously a comeback. The weight that carries means you can’t help but compare it to what came before. There’s the scent of a few failed attempts during that time in the wilderness, and of looking over its shoulder at the competition (the looming bat-shaped shadow of Arkham Asylum, the sweat-marks left by Call of Duty). After nearly annual releases, there were four long years between this and the last Splinter Cell game. That can’t help but build expectations: just look back at my 2009 preview for proof of that. In the hip-hop examples I’ve been looking at, the comeback pushes against the tension of all that time away to build tension, raise the stakes. All a long-delayed game has to push against is the fans. And so I end up focusing on how much complexity it has shed, reaching for options that aren’t there anymore like a phantom limb. The myriad of buttons and moves you’d only use twice was part of the joy of Splinter Cell. But, it is a Proper Stealth Game. It’s been a while since we saw one of those, following the death of last decade’s stealth boom. I just wish it would remember that, realise what used to make it so special, and just quiet down a little. But then, isn’t that how it always is when one of your favourites comes back from the dead?

Lara Croft and the art of co-op.

Ah, the Tomoe Nage. Just saying it brings back memories. A summer of Splinter Cell : Chaos Theory co-operative mode with your man Dominic Parsons. Chucking each other: wheee, down corridors; whoosh, across impasses; oof, into bad guy’s stomachs. Being thrown, more than occasionally, heard-first into a wall, all the while announcing: Tomoe … NAGE! That move kept us playing, and kept us giggling while we did. It’s the reason I’ve finally bought Conviction for next time me and Dom have got a chunk of time to kill together. This is what co-op games live and die on. Halo co-op is alright, yeah, but there’s very little that changes on account of there being two of you. It’s essentially two people playing two different synched-up games on the same screen. Shouldn’t a co-op game have a little more … cooperation? It’s this impulse which dissolves every session of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World into me telling everyone hold x! now! NOW! We’ll do some awesome team attack… WHY THE HELL AREN’T YOU HOLDING IT? Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light has tons of cool stuff you can only do with two players. It achieves this by splitting the single-player character (Lara) and her skillset into two: Lara gets the grappling hook, while the the game-defining magic spears (which act as both weapon and throwable platform) go to her 2000-year-old Mayan buddy Totec. The lucky fella also gets a cheeky shield that can block projectiles or give Lara a leg-up, and a truly unconvincing accent. All this adds up to a lot of helping each other over ledges, across crevasses, and through various scrapes. The grappling hook can be used to absail Totec down cliff-faces, or as a tightrope across the traditional Tomb Raider abysses. The shield protects Lara from a rain of arrows as she plants a mine to blow up the traps. Guardian of Light is basically a buddy film. Not in the plot – though it’s certainly in there, with the classic ‘odd couple’ dynamic between the iconic lady adventurer and her reanimated male escort – but in the living room, between you and the bumbling idiot you’re playing with. Because all those cool moves mean you’re relying on someone. When the level’s final big trap comes down on you, and your mate is pulling you up by grappling rope? That’s thrilling. When they forget you have to hold the trigger to keep it extended, and you fall to the bottom? The resulting string of swearwords will cause any Daily Mail readers in a three-mile radius to start twitching involuntarily. But eventually, once you’ve punched their arm into a fitting deadness, you’ll just about squeeze through the traps and trials and tribulations. And as both your scores tick up in front of you (ha! I totally thrashed you!) you’ll bask in shared glory. And, looking back as you laugh and share a couple of post-exploratory cigars, it all suddenly seems like a character-building bonding session. Hey, this rookie ain’t so bad after all.

Like an evil twin…

Welcome to the bi-weekly comeback.I’m posting this from my once-broken laptop. Damn it’s good to have my baby back. As usual, been busy editing the hell out of Britain’s best-looking student paper Redbrick. Still, I’ve had time to write up a fair few things, and now the time has come…to link to them!First up, my visit to Eurogamer Expo ’09 bears further fruit. I equally gush and rant about my look at forthcoming 360 sneaky-shooty-game Splinter Cell Conviction. I’m getting the hang of this preview business… “After a very smooth opening cutscene, showing Sam Fisher interrogating some generic evil-doer by smashing his face into urinals as information gained was projected on the wallls, Fisher runs out into a civilian-packed street. Pulling his gun out causes a panic, people running away and shouting, allowing Fisher in a very Assassin’s Creed-esque moment to slip amongst them unnoticed by guards. The game might have gone “back to the drawing board” a year or so ago, but its certainly kept the initial mission statement, a game about hiding in plain sight.” Spot the internal battle raging, to stop me just constantly repeating the word ‘smooth’ throughout. Read the rest here. Second, a (late, as usual) return to the Moneyless Gamer feature for Gamersyndrome.com. With slightly less immediate enthusiasm than my usual posts, I basically link to experimental weird-out game . The post is probably the most normal thing I’ve ever written, but I’m trying a bit of an experiment (to match the game). Hint: There’s more to come… “Less a game than a mass experiment, Dungeon is nevertheless worth playing. I’m a bit afraid I don’t have the necessary reach here to get discussion rolling the way the game really needs, but there’s no way I can’t talk about it. Created by Swedish one-man prolific indie-game machine Jonathan Söderström (aka Cactus).” If you play it (and I heartily endorse giving it a go), please, post on the article and tell me what you thought of it. Here.Meanwhile, in my other life: The Redbrick Top 40 best albums of the 21st Century (that’s right, the whole damn’ millenium.) It’s starting to get really interesting, as all the classic choices pop up. I’ve even written a few entries for it. Start here, and you should be able to click through to where we are now (#’s 20-16 should be going up in the next day or so).Alternatively, you can pick your starting point by going here. I’ve also argued out the Hot(ish) Topic of band reunions with my co-ed Erica Anne Vernon. She likes ’em, I think they’re a force for evil. FIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT!This post carved out of the very flesh of its brother.