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Form & Violence in Splinter Cell: Conviction

Franchise reboots are all the rage lately. Apparently Spider-Man is getting one in a couple years after three outings with team Raimi and Macguire. I was originally going to take this paragraph in the direction that “games don’t actually receive the reboot treatment all that often,” and then I wrote the following paragraph and cut all that because, well, you’ll see.

The game industry, up to this point at least, appears to have a keen eye for focusing on what gameplay systems form the foundation for a franchise and dialing those in for the supposed reboots. Far Cry 2 took little more than the notion of being a mercenary amidst beautiful vistas from its forerunner. Red Faction: Guerilla took the free-form destruction from its franchise namesake and ran with it. Resident Evil 4 took the mood, universe and applied to a wholly new game. Team Fortress 2 took the defined roles in a fast-paced multiplayer game. Bionic Commando took, uh, the bionic arm and, well, put it in a game wholly unsuited for it, but it’s the thought that counts. There’s Fallout 3, every subsequent Sonic game in the past five-six years, Grand Theft Auto 4, and so on.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is one such reboot. Ubisoft took Sam Fisher from the sulky, quiet super-spy in Splinter Cell (and its sequels: Pandora Tomorrow, Chaos Theory, and Double Agent) into a Jack Bauer-esque action star. Fisher is now a fleet footed, agile force to be reckoned with as he bounds into a room and instantly executes up to four enemy marks in the span of five seconds with pistols, submachine, and assault rifles. He can dash around the level, jump and slide over obstacles, take cover behind anything with planar surface, and generally move like no “over-the-hill” man should. Not content with solely bolstering his abilities with gymnastic prowess, though, Fisher is also a brutal, violent force who learns what he wants to learn by bashing your criminal head into toilets, mirrors, doors, and electrical equipment until you speak your peace.

And the brutality fits, because Splinter Cell: Conviction took one thing from its predecessors: form.

Prior Splinter Cell games were always known for the flexibility and variety of ways that players could architect their sneaky, violent little activities. Sam Fisher could jump up walls and take down enemies from a barely-elevated position, he could kill someone and hide their body in closets, he could throw an object to distract a guard into exactly the right spot before snapping their neck and tossing their body into the darkness, and one of any other actions. Fisher’s arsenal of moves, gadgets, and tricks grew with every new game in the franchise. He was a swiss army knife of violence, capable of killing a single enemy in a multitude of ways, all of which allowed players to live out the ultimate spy power fantasy.

Despite the depth of the system, Splinter Cell was never able to quite do one thing: make it easy and fluid to be a spy. The series has always been about trial-and-error, frustration, and those moments in gameplay where a player was so close to pulling off an incredible series of actions but slipped up due to some systemic imprecision or a single screw-up. The franchise was and is the greatest, most thorough stealth game design to ever grace the industry, but it was never for the impatient nor was the easily-frustrated. It was a brutal, hardcore, unforgiving game that rewarded only those players willing to sit down, learn the ins and outs of the game systems, and tolerate the tough love the game dished out like it was nothing.

And let’s face it: we, as hardcore gamers, eat that shit up.

As the reboot, Splinter Cell: Conviction changes all of that. Within minutes, the game introduces players to the mark-and-execution system. Hit the right bumper on a target using the third-person camera reticle, mark a few targets, then hit the Y button. The player is then treated to a stylish, slick presentation of Sam Fisher dispatching all of the marked enemies with brutal efficiency and breathless effort. In a similarly changed fashion, interrogations are no longer about grabbing an enemy and slowly choking him to reveal information as Sam Fisher holds a man while he confesses what he knows; no, that would simply not do for Conviction. Sam Fisher now relies on the environment to do his dirty work; urinals are used to brace the impact of heads, doors are used to reinforce Fisher’s menace, and stove tops are used to Gardocki someone’s face with a spiral burn pattern. The relentless violence is cringe-inducing as Sam Fisher conducts these scenes in a cold, detached manner.

It fits, though. The current cultural scene is filled with a new breed of spies. The Ethan Hunt that hung from a ceiling and worried about a drop of sweat triggering an alarm has been replaced by an Ethan Hunt that runs down a bridge from a fighter jet shooting missiles at him. Jason Bourne kills people with dozens upon dozens of stabs with a single pen in a trilogy of movies with a camera that shakes almost by pure force of habit. The new James Bond is cold, unfeeling, and humorless. Jack Bauer practically has a decade of experience in stopping nuclear bombs, using hack saws as interrogational equipment, and throwing suicide bombers in hyperbaric chambers as their payload explodes. Spies aren’t spies anymore, they’re action heroes. The Sam Fisher of yore would probably seem out of place which, really, is a shame.

He’s not the Sam Fisher we’re used to, but that’s okay. Everything about Conviction is about form and fluidity, and it executes these qualities effortlessly and routinely. The incredibly powerful, rewarding mark-and-execute system requires a valid melee kill in order to activate it. These melee kills force players, at times, to rely on something other than a silenced pistol shot from across the room and, instead, enact actions which give glimpses of the Sam Fisher we all grew of age with: the one who shimmies around on pipes and the outside of buildings to pill enemies out of windows. Stealth isn’t dead in Conviction, it’s simply less appealing and not as immediately obviously valid.

The brief co-op campaign reveals the genius of the Conviction encounter structure. Levels in both single-player and co-op are essentially divided into discrete encounters that players move through one-by-one until the level end. There are often a number of different ways to approach encounters in single-player, but in single-player there is, more generally, two valid approaches. Seemingly naturally in my experiences so far, players diverge onto their separate paths leading into each encounter. Marks from both players fill up the screen as each scouts out the area from their positions. The communication comes through the microphone: “Ready?” “No, wait–” but the other player assumed the answer was yes, and the two players go into a dual-execution phase, each taking care of whatever marks are in range. And that probably clears out most of the room, but not all of it. The three enemies remaining, all lethal, probably have about fifteen seconds remaining in their lives, at the most. The two players scramble into new positions as Conviction ghosts their characters on the screen (serving as the “your last known position” indicator) wherever they were last sighted. Communication runs rampant as the pair scramble to improvise in a game where two-three shots generally equates to death. A set of new marks are laid out by the player in a secure position; execution is gone, but the players still have their weapons. One of the players sets off a remote EMP, the other tosses a flash point, the pair roll in to the nearest enemies in range and melee kill two of the three, the other player deals a quick headshot to the remaining enemy just as he comes to. Room secure.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is about those ten-fifteen seconds after a plan goes awry. The mark-and-execute is powerful, but what it really does is impose upon players a harsh limitation: we have this many enemies in the encounter, you have these two-four marks as gimmes, but as soon as they’re dead you’re on your own. As I played through the single-player and co-op campaigns, I came to relish the intensity of these short windows of imminent death following a botched plan because that’s where the fluidity of Conviction‘s game systems really excelled. The compelling player-narrative of the game is not the smooth executed plan, but the response to a poorly-executed one. And that intensity is the mark that the current scope of spy and action movies have left on the venerable Splinter Cell franchise as it gets a reboot in its fifth iteration which, unlike so many of my plans, actually worked out pretty well.