Splinter Cell: Why is Conviction on the Blacklist?

Splinter Cell ConvictionIf it were up to some stealth purists, all stealth games would be hi-res expansions for the original Thief. The situational awareness afforded by a 3rd person camera is a cop out, Snake’s regenerating health is a betrayal, Agent 47’s ‘instinct mode’ a travesty and Splinter Cell: Conviction? Splinter Cell: Conviction? Splinter Cell Conviction? Don’t get me started on Splinter Cell: Conviction they’d say.

I played through Splinter Cell: Blacklist recently, liked it a fair bit but it got me thinking about its angsty, divisive predecessor. Me? I like Conviction. The 2010 sequel stripped back the famously pernickety series’ sneaking mechanics and turned it into something faster, leaner and more in tune with what modern players expected from a game with a man holding a gun and scowling on the cover. Turns out they do not expect the scowling man to do the splits to avoid a terrorist – they expect him to mash someone’s head in a sink or use the gun or whatever.

Like all Splinter Cell games (and most stealth games), it continues to live in the shadow of 2005’s Chaos Theory but what Conviction lacked in slow burning tension; it made up for in crisp, streamlined mechanics and men that said “Fisher” every 3-4 seconds. (Please take this opportunity to remind yourself why Kirk Hamilton is the best.)

Conviction took a look at the Splinter Cell formula after Double Agent and  decided that things needed mixing up on both a gameplay and story fronts. For a start, the game attempts a more ‘personal’ story. It’s still a video game story – a bad one – but at least one that dispenses with a lot of the usual Clancyverse trappings. Shades of bureaucratic grey, a fetish for jargon, acronyms and a whole lot of inter-agency squabbling are all out. Instead Fisher takes a leaf from Jack Bauer’s book and ‘goes rogue’; his daughter is dead, his muzzle is off and he has swapped the butt-hugging rubber suit for something altogether more combat pants. 

The scowling revenger man angle seeps in to the game mechanics in a few pretty interesting ways. Freed from the confines of a ‘Shadowy Government Agency’, veins coursing with righteous dead-daughter-agony, Fisher has no need for any of that non-lethal pussy footing. He will straight up murderate anyone who so much as looks at him sideways – enter ‘Mark and Execute’ a mechanic that I like so much it makes me want to both mark and execute people despite my longstanding preference for being The Long, Dark Shadow of Nap-Time.

Even more interesting though, is the light/dark hiding mechanic which strips away the literal shades of grey from previous game’s on screen light meter and replaces it with a simple, binary ‘hidden/not hidden‘ system. When you’re hidden, the environment is drained of colour leaving enemies standing out like sore, punchable thumbs – conversely when you’re out of the shadows you feel uncomfortably exposed. For the new angry angry Fisher, things are literally Black and White.

The cover system snaps with a similar binary precision and paired with Mark and Execute, turns Splinter Cell in to a game about timing rather than merely waiting. This all gives Conviction a rhythm that’s unlike any other game. Think of ‘beats’ in the same way you would a film – units of ‘action’, decisions, discoveries that flow at a sustained pace; dash between cover, takedown, mark and execute. Fisher’s need to take down targets by hand to set up the mark and execute move means you’re constantly pushing, bullying through levels, wary of being spotted from a distance. By forcing the player to keep chaining together kills in the Mark and Execute feedback loop, Conviction ensures the next ‘beat’ is never far away.

Gone too is the rhythm-killing trial and error nature of previous titles – when things go wrong and Fisher gets spotted, it’s almost as much fun as when he’s being sneaky. (Even more fitting is to think of actual music, but that’s been done far more eloquently that I could manage.)

Elsewhere gadgets are scaled back, objectives are literally plastered on walls and the player is stripped of any gameplay verbs that aren’t ‘kill’ giving Conviction a relentless, driving sense of pace that stealth games rarely experiment with. Is it revolutionary to put such a focus on killing in a video game? Good Lord, no. But it is curious to watch a video game series plunge so wholeheartedly into its very own version of the Dalton era.

So while you or I might prefer Chaos Theory’s freedom and emphasis on choice; it’s branching pathways, bevvy of gadgets and clusterfuck of options for opening doors at different speeds – you have to admire the thematic consistency in Conviction. And I haven’t even mentioned co-op.

5 Amazing Ideas the MGS Series Completely Discarded

Overstuffed’ is a word that often gets tossed around in discussions of the Metal Gear Solid series. The downside of the overstuffing is that the games are usually overstuffed with interminable codec calls, non-interactive cut scenes and superfluous details but on the upside, each MGS game is bursting at the seams with the kind of ideas that most designers would build an entire series around.

Kojima and his team tend to jam every idea they have into whatever game they’re working on even when there’s not really space for it. Ever notice how you can affect enemies emotions with sounds and gadgets in MGS4? No? Probably because there was so much other stuff going on at the same time that it got completely lost in the mix.

So this is a tour of the MGS ideas graveyard – where great gameplay mechanics and Easter eggs go to die. These are the 5 most amazing gameplay ideas that MGS just let go of completely.

Pay no attention to the floating eye patch and body harness…

OctoCamo (MGS4)

After MGS3’s clunky menu-heavy foray into camouflage, Kojima used the near future setting of MGS4 (the then-futuristic 2014) to streamline the system resulting in one of the coolest inventions of the Metal Gear series. Instead of scrolling through lists of camo patters a la MGS3, the player was able to press against any surface and mimic the colour and texture of whatever they touched (like an octopus).  Now everywhere was a potential hiding place and MGS finally had a stealth mechanic to rival Splinter Cell‘s wonderfully crisp light/dark stealth system. The feeling of watching a guard walk past a barely visible bump against a wall remains unmatched by any amount of shadow lurking. There was also the irresistible urge to press Snake against every surface in the world just to see what it looked like and the ability to ‘save’ camo patterns turned OctoCamo hunting into the kind of goofy metagame that feels right at home in a Metal Gear title. But with the subsequent games heading deeper into the Cold War, the high-tech OctoCamo suit is yet to make a reappearance.

Congratulations MGO, you did one thing right…

SOP (Metal Gear Online)

Seeing through walls has been a crutch for the stealth game for years now; Splinter Cell: Conviction, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored all feature the mechanic in some form or other, affording the player precious info on guard positions and thereby reducing the likelihood of the old ‘stumble blindly into the eye-line of gun-toting thug’ moments that made up 95% of stealth experiences before 2008. It works because it removes a lot of the trial and error and patrol memorisation that puts so many people off the sneakier pleasures in gaming. It also feels like cheating. Why can Sam Fisher see through walls? I know why, but why? The fuck awful multiplayer component of MGS4 – Metal Gear Online – offered a brilliant fictional justification for what’s now become a stealth mainstay; team members were linked together through nanomachines in their blood and ‘synching’ at the start of the match allowed them to see each other as glowing blue/red silhouettes. Now, where it gets interesting is that if a player managed to ‘capture’ a member of the other team, they could ‘hack’ their nanomachines and reveal the locations of every player ‘synched’ to the captured player. It was only momentary but it gave the hacker an invaluable head start on their opponents. Most of all though, it felt earned. And while ‘seeing through walls’ looks to be back in MGSV, it seems more like the tagging system found in Far Cry 3/Splinter Cell Conviction than the one from MGO.

A guard’s radio can be shot out in advance too

Radio Man (MGS2)

MGS2 is so full of brilliant stealth game mechanics that it’s all the more upsetting when it crawls all the way up its own ass towards the end of the game. Up until Raiden fights the Harrier Jet, the game is a nail-biting masterclass in stealth gaming that forces the player to pay close attention to their surroundings and enemy behaviour to survive. A great example is the ‘Radio Man’ guards who frequently call in to HQ to report on their current status. Like, really frequently; sometimes as often as every 30 seconds. Take the radio man out and you’ll hear a message from HQ: “Why are you late with your status report?” followed by an order for the backup team to go check out the area. The backup team aren’t following any patrol patterns so their behaviour is a most unwanted unknown quantity in the player’s tightly controlled environment; they can wake up sleeping guards, find dead bodies and call in heavily armed assault troops if they spot the player. With that in mind, it’s often best to leave the Radio man wandering around an area making his regular reports to HQ meaning that no area is ever ‘safe’. When Raiden is searching an area for hidden explosives (another great discarded idea) having to leave one guard patrolling makes for a stomach-knottingly tense experience. Compare that to most modern stealth games, where the player subdues every enemy in sight before looting the room/achieving their goal and you can’t help wish that the ‘Radio Man’ would come back.

Oooh, hope you guys like poison…

Supply Stashes (MGS3)

There are more ingenious gameplay touches in one MGS3 boss fight than there are in most games. MGS3 almost suffers from a gaming version of Three Stooges Syndrome with ideas tripping over each other to make it on to the screen. One such mind-blowing idea was that of  food and ammo stashes that the player could rig with TNT and destroy. Why would you want to destroy the food and ammo stashes? The same reason you would in real life. To get the upper hand. In MGS3, the enemies are subject to the same basic human needs as the player which means if they get hungry, they need to eat. Much like the player – if enemies don’t eat, their physical condition deteriorates; their hands begin to shake so they can’t aim as well, they can’t see as far and they’re physically weaker so they do less damage with melee attacks. They’re more easily distracted too, sometimes stopping to search for food or even eating food that someone may have left lying around. And maybe that someone let the food go off before they left it lying around so that whoever eats it is too busy throwing up to notice someone sneaking through the grass near by. Destroy the ammo supplies too and you’ll see shaky looking soldiers empty a clip at Snake before running out of bullets and having to resort to a side arm or even a knife. Here’s hoping MGSV brings back this particular dirty trick.

I remember the first time a doctor prescribed me ‘Surfing Guitar’

Call off the Search (MGS3)

One more stroke of genius from the peerless Snake Eater featured a series mainstay; the radio/codec. What had, up to this point, been a means to contact support teams and get tips, suddenly turned into a fully fledged gadget in MGS3; stations healed the player, called in air strikes and even opened certain doors when called. Players were encouraged to interrogate guards for radio frequencies which meant getting close to enemies rather than picking them off from across the map in one of the series’ many brilliantly balanced risk/reward scenarios. The most cunning use for the radio however, was to call off ‘alerts’ and cautions; Snake would call HQ, impersonate a guard and give the all clear. It gave the player a chance to be Han Solo on the intercom in the Death Star (except y’know… it worked.)

It’s not just those 5, there are countless other nuggets of genius tucked away in the MGS games that might never see the light of day again – things like The Mk II (MGS4), Bomb Disposal (MGS2), Mystery Missions (MGS Integral), Enemy Emotions (MGS4), Heat/Cold Effects on items (MGS1), GPS Scanning for Soldiers (Portable Ops) and the Retinal Scan door in MGS2 to name just a few.

So if you’re making a stealth game, you could do worse than steal a few of Kojima’s cast offs.

I Came, I ‘Blinked’, I Missed It: Dishonored’s Dissatisfying Sneaking etc

20121129-210338.jpg Dishonored lovers, PC gamers and fans of ‘immersive sims’ like Thief and Deus Ex (no, not the last two) have an iron clad put-down to any Dis-sentors; “You are playing Dishonored wrong”. More specifically, you are playing Dishonored wrong because you lack the emergent sim-literacy needed to fully appreciate it; you, having been raised by the narrow corridors, the ‘Follow’ icons and the unambiguous “Blow This Up” mission objectives of your annual Calls to Duty. You, console gamer.

You have gorged on linear games, following superfluous mini maps, glowing mission icons, snap targeting and dispatching foes with one hit melee kills. You have grown soft and fat and are unlikely to appreciate the sprawling multifaceted ‘possibility spaces’ of Dunwall. Only a true gamer could enjoy Dishonored.

At least, that’s the impression I got from the opening of this Rock Paper Shotgun piece. And don’t get me wrong, I am somewhat ‘hip’ to what RPS has to say on the matter of Dishonored’s ‘There if you look for it’ length/value ratio. But the idea that someone fresh from a square eyed, thumb punishing Halo 4 binge is going to mistake Dishonored for their next balls-to-the-wall AAA action epic is a little elitist and a lot misguided. More importantly, it’s hard to see what’s so mind bogglingly deep about Dishonored that your average console gamer couldn’t get it.

All the same, on finishing Dishonored, I have to admit I felt like I’d missed something that other players seemed to have “got”. I felt the same way I felt after playing Hitman 2 back in the early 00s, wondering why each mission descended into a bloody, unsatisfying trudge through an environment not made for bloody, unsatisfying (or satisfying) trudges. Except, I’d made sure to play Dishonored like I have played all such games since I caught the sneaky bastard bug; sneakily.

Somehow the experience was similarly unsatisfying. I peeked round corners, blinked between streetlights and exposed vents (so many exposed vents, thank god for the Half Life 2 guy’s art direction eh?) took side missions, read letters, listened to audiologs and sought out alternate methods for disposing targets.

And it kind of sucked.

Sucked’s maybe a bit strong, but it left me severely underwhelmed. Maybe it was because I’d seen Viktor Antonov’s “Put Blue Metal In It” art style put to more eerie use in Half Life 2? Maybe I’m sick of stumbling across ‘tragic’ scenes of environmental storytelling where a couple has, like, died in each others arms because of plague or something sad? Maybe I’m done with this increasingly ridiculous obsession game designers have with audiologs (the old “I have taken to recording my every thought on this anachronistic steam powered gramophone” trick) as if that’s better than cutscenes because you can walk away from audiologs when you get bored.

The fiction just doesn’t grab me, the more pleased the writers seem with their ‘Whalepunk’ universe, the less appealing I find it. The entire world feels unfinished, like there’s another draft of the story somewhere in which the Whale-Oil/Rat Plague/Talking Heart/Outsider/Olden-times-London-with-American-Accents stuff might come together in a more satisfying way. At the moment it seems like a number of ‘cool’ ideas thrown together with a thin “Your Princess is in another Brothel” type plot that doesn’t do the best job of wrapping itself up.

The mission objectives too (outside of “Kill This Guy!”) seem like placeholders. On capturing Sokolov, I was given the choice to torture him or try to persuade him to join the Loyalists – he mumbles something like “Maybe a thing would persuade me wink wink” [citation needed] and then an objective is added: “Get Sokolov a Bribe”. Where could this hilariously vague objective possibly lead our hero? Walk outside to Piero. He tells you Sokolov likes rum. Piero has rum, would you like to buy rum? Buy rum. Return to Sokolov. Give him rum. He is your friend now. But should you trust him? (Yes.)

It was at this point I started contacting anyone I knew with the slightest interest in games to bitch about Dishonored in long-winded text messages.

In another mission – one praised for its openness by critics – Corvo visits “The Golden Cat” to assassinate the Pendleton Brothers. As with most of the game’s objectives, there’s a welcome non-lethal option that involves doing a side mission for a crime lord named Slackjaw who asks the player to torture an art dealer for his safe combination (Dishonored seems to like torture). On recovering the safe combination, I trotted back to Slackjaw, eager to find out what clever non-stabby scheme I was to become a part of, only to find out that I didn’t need to do anything. Slackjaw was going to shave their heads, cut out their tongues and put them in their own mines. “You want me to-?” No thanks buddy, but here have a bone charm and head back to the Hound Pits for some lacklustre environmental storytelling and overheard conversations. Gee whiz, thanks Dishonored.

“Dumbed Down!” was the cry when Deus Ex Human Revolution stripped back some of the original title’s complicated skill trees and systems, but Dishonored’s Runes & Bonecharm system of character progression has had a pretty easy ride from critics so far, featuring 10 powers and abilities (5 active, 5 passive) with 2 levels of upgrade each. (And is it just me, or are ‘Blink’ and ‘Stop Time’ basically the same thing? At least to the guard watching they are. Should that bother me? It feels like one is an evolution of the other anyway.) I ended the game with 14 unspent runes because I simply didn’t want to spend them on swarms of rats or blood lusts or deadly gusts of wind because they didn’t suit my play style. In Eric Swain’s recent critique of the game on Gamasutra, he notes that the game seems to be missing some of the tools that you’d expect in a stealth game, but I’d add that it offers a buttload of tools that are useless to the stealth player as well.

None of which would be a problem if the game didn’t seem to want you to be the silent wind of ‘sleepy times’. The world reacts impressively to your actions, with guard patrols, rat infestations and hoards of ‘Weepers’ all affected by your actions in previous levels – but things are objectively “better” for you as a player and for the inhabitants of the city, if you keep your blade clean. Sneakier Corvos might feel like maybe they’d have had more fun if they’d just gone around cutting people up.

MGS Peace Walker, Facebook Games and ‘The War Economy’

In the run up to the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Hideo Kojima promised many things; shifting battlefields, NPCs with emotions, the ability to play the entire game in first person – anyone who followed the game’s development, gobbling up every morsel of info on the ‘Final Entry in the Metal Gear Solid Saga’ (cough)  will have gotten a serious case of “the Molineuxs” when they got their paws on the finished article. I sure did. I even came up with the phrase “A Serious Case of The Molineuxs” to describe how I felt.

I’m not here to rag on MGS4 but one particular unfulfilled promise must have bugged Kojima enough to make him explore it further, and on the PSP of all places. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker delves deep into one of MGS4’s more intriguing unfinished thoughts – the war economy. In doing so Peace Walker adds further depth to Big Boss and the hitherto slightly ridiculous concept of ‘Outer Heaven’ – the MGS series’ Valhalla-ish mercenary state that so many of the series villains seem to want to create or destroy or fund or something.

MGS4 depicts a world in which Private Military Companies (or PMCs) keep the world in a state of constant conflict buoyed by the War Economy…  and Liquid was there… and he still has Ocelot’s arm, no wait it’s the other way round. Anyway, in gameplay terms this War Economy translates into Snake picking up weapons from fallen enemies, selling them and buying various items from a weapons dealer named Drebin. The prices apparently fluctuate slightly, depending on how heated battle is in a particular area (there’s also a sale on Sundays) but it’s not enough to really impact on gameplay. The trouble is, it’s pretty easy to pick up weapons, buy ammo and unlock ID tagged guns (did I mention guns are all ID tagged now?)  and even when you do, there’s not much need to use any weapons other than the tranq gun and the multi purpose assault rifle that Snake gets as a freebie early on. Outside of the tortuous, muddled main story, The War Economy has little impact on anything in MGS4, it’s not until Peace Walker that Kojima and his team fully explore the idea in a satisfying way.

And boy do they. Pinching liberally from sources as diverse as Monster Hunter, Pokemon and Facebook games, Peace Walker creates an almost Farmville-esque Feedback Loop that describes the war economy better than 2 hours of Cutscenes ever could. And fittingly, it does so in a game that tells the story of Big Boss creating the mercenary business/state that may or may not be ‘a bit evil‘. Every character he meets is recruited (with the best intentions) into his rag-tag army without much care for their wellbeing. (Interesting contrast; Solid Snake spends most of MGS1 and 2 telling people they shouldn’t be fighting… Big Boss doesn’t feel quite the same way)

The way Peace Walker creates this loop is deserving of a Flow Chart far more resplendent that I could ever muster with MS Paint. All the games modes and side quests and RTS-lite minigames feed back into each other in the most engrossing, but never confusing way. By the time the story has wrapped up (no less than twice) some strange compulsion keeps the player replaying missions, sending squads out on ‘Outer-Ops’, upgrading weapons and using salvaged machine parts to make thier own ‘Metal Gear ZEKE’. It’s the same compulsion that keeps people clicking on cows, checking on crops and clogging up people’s social media feeds with updates about ‘Mob Strength’.

But where Facebook games use this sort of feedback-loop compulsion for nefarious purposes (microtransactions, advertising and the aforementioned updates/requests) Peace Walker weaves this cycle into the fiction of the game and in doing so, casts the rest of the series into a different light. It’s something that could only be accomplished on a portable system, where the ability to send out a few squads on a morning commute made the PSP my travelling companion for the first time since I bought it.  By the end of Peace Walker, Big Boss has resigned himself to a life of constant war, a swirling vortex of conflict that drags in everyone that comes near – be that 12-year old Boys, Bird Watching pants-less French Chicks or the player, firing up their handheld to scan Wifi access points for new recruits (and if you’re me – ruining a holiday by playing every spare minute of every day).

And they say Kojima can only tell stories in Cut-Scenes.