You are reclining on a sun lounger on the beach of some tropical paradise. A fruity cocktail stands within easy reach of you right hand, whilst a hanging palm shields you from the glare of the midday sun, and a gentle warm breeze snakes between your toes, flushing out a few lingering grains of sand.
Now imagine a huge, sweaty, gorilla of a man, oozing pungent odours from every generous fold of matted skin. He straddles your seat, cutting off the circulation to your feet, and proceeds to punch you repeatedly, square in the face, with all his might.
He's giving you exactly what you want. This is what you want. He knows what's best for you.
Splinter Cell: Conviction is worse than terrible. It's that first girlfriend that sliced your heart in two, and then stole your Mario Kart cartridge because she was under the illusion that it once belonged to her little brother. This game does not love you, it does not want to be your friend. It's just here to give you exactly what you want.
This is what you want. Ubisoft Montreal know what's best for you.
Starting with their ongoing initiative to reduce all gameplay mechanics down to a single, context sensitive button. An initiative that has found a new champion in Sam Fisher, the game's protagonist. Players will stare in awe as he executes a room full of guards with a series of precise bullets to the temple, will be rendered speechless upon witnessing his acrobatic finesse and cat-like agility, will cry inside at the sight of another genre slowly dying. Roll on, Prince-of-Assassins-Brotherhood, may you swallow up anything and everything in your path, bringing elegant homogeny to the cluttered gaming landscape of old. Roll on, roll on, roll on.
Splinter Cell: Conviction wants to make you feel special. Where once you were a vulnerable human being; outnumbered, out gunned. Now you're the bastard offspring of Master Chief and Nathan Drake. Where once you survived on intricate preparation, quick reflexes, and a small toolbox of gadgets. Now you execute everything that stands in your path, albeit using a methodology which bears some semblance to stealth, in the same way that cervical cancer bears some semblance to a rollicking good time.
Indeed, the cancerous way in which the series has been dumbed down has been carved with elegant precision. SC:C is not terrible, it's worse than terrible; it's technically a triumph. The sound design and voice acting rank amongst the best of this generation, with Michael Ironside once again demonstrating his strengths in the role of Fisher. Meanwhile some aspects of the design, such as writing all in-game text (e.g. mission objectives) directly onto the level architecture in bold, 20 foot high lettering, are as stylish as they are immersive. Even the half-baked “interrogation” mini-game, where you drag each end-of-level-antagonist around a small arena like Jason Bourne, smashing over furniture in the process, adds a degree of weight and authenticity to the proceedings. Even if the mini-game itself is rather fruitless.
But all this gloss only serves to disguise the fact that the game underneath is no longer a game at all. At least not the game which has brought the series such popularity in the first place.
Splinter Cell: Conviction does not want you to think. In removing every element that could potentially cause difficulty to Ubisoft Montreal's target audience – apparently some cretinous, lowest common denomination – we are left with a game rather like Pac Man. Or come to think of it, Pac Man for cretins.
The maze has been removed, and you follow a linear path, gobbling up a series of solitary guards with Fisher's trademark creep-and-neck-snap. However upon shattering the third Cervical Vertebrae, you will now encounter a group of three guards standing together – usually smoking, because that's what bad guys do these days. Quite the dilemma, but do not fear dear players because SC:C's new “Mark & Execute” system comes to the rescue. After dispatching a handful of guards in a “stealthy” way, you are granted the ability to mark several targets with your cross-hair, and then execute them instantaneously in one automated flourish. The hunted becomes the hunter, and the ghosts run for the safe house. Only in this case they don't. They just stand around and wait to be shot.
Now before we continue, I would strongly suggest that you re-read the last paragraph, and then re-read it again, because this is the game that you're about to buy. You stalk some solitary guards, you massacre a group. Sometimes the solitary guards are near the group, sometimes you have to go in search of enough solitary guards, to gain enough Fisher price points to execute the group. Snap a neck, tag a group, repeat ad nauseam. Actually, Ubisoft Montreal wouldn't like me using the phrase “ad nauseam”, so perhaps I should write; repeat until chunks of vomit are expelled from your mouth, and drip down the screen of your flat screen television.
Although before drowning in carrot flecked tedium, you might want to sample the other 'game changer' that SC:C brings to the table; “Last Known Position”. Understanding that some players may struggle to grasp the basic principles of stealth, this technique creates a ghost of Sam whenever he is spotted by a guard, allowing our protagonist to slip away and covertly flank his enemies whilst they focus their attention on his previous position. In principle it's an intelligent system, allowing the player to visualize a concept that is usually only vaguely implied through the behaviour of the NPCs, and I imagine that it could flourish within the confines of a taxing stealth simulator like Pyro Studios' Commandos series. But here, in this this game, when combined with questionable AI routines and a super-spy who could probably repel the raging hordes of Mongolia if provided with enough pistol ammunition and a low wall to crouch behind, it all seems rather superfluous. And to make matters worse, the feature heralds an unwelcome return to the classic sound bytes of yesteryear; “He's there!”, “Where is he?”, “He must have escaped!”, “He's there!”, “I know he's around here somewhere!”, “Where is he?”, “He must have escaped!”, “He's there!”, “God Help Us!”. God help us.
In fact you will often find yourself engaged in, what I like to call, the “Last Known Position Merry-Go-Round”, where a piece of waist-height furniture is endlessly circled, spamming “ghost” Fishers with reckless abandon until a neck-snapping opportunity presents itself. It is in these giddy moments that the Pac Man influences really shine through, and you may even find yourself humming a little 8-bit ditty, in spite of the obligatory “action music” that rages whenever the AI grows antsy. It is also in these moments that you will ask yourself, why?
Why was it necessary to extensively fix something that was not broken? Why is it so oft assumed that the average gamer cannot comprehend a deeper, more engaging gameplay experience? Why is “dumbing down” directly equated to progress? It is true that the previous games in the series were occasionally inaccessible brutes. But instead of helping mainstream gamers enter into the experience, Ubisoft Montreal have elected to remove the experience altogether, replacing it with something tepid, repetitive, and ultimately hollow. Instead of building a wheelchair ramp down to the park, they have just covered the grass with decorative concrete to bring it level with the street.
Sure, there's still the classic neo-political Tom Clancy caper (http://tcpgen.tripod.com) dictating the action, there's still the stalwart Unreal engine beating at the game's heart, and there's even a passable co-op experience featuring a unique mission set – although at the expense of the acclaimed "Spies Vs Mercenaries" online mode.
But this is not what I want.
No, instead what I want is a rich gaming experience that combines action and puzzle solving. I want that beating-heart terror when I pick my moment and creep from cover, praying that I've scouted the patrol routes correctly. I want those seat-of-my-pants engagements when I turn a corner and come face to face with an unexpected guard. I want to fail. I want to restart. I want to fail. I want to restart. I want to sit under a staircase for an hour and a half, trying to figure out whether the bearded guard goes around the greenhouse before the bespectacled guard crosses the patio, or after. Above all, I want Splinter Cell back, because when the masses grow tired of this new formula - and they will undoubtedly grow tired of it - what are we, the “hardcore” faithful, left with? The memory of a genre, the memory of something beautiful, the memory of something that is unlikely ever to return.
And with this fleeting memory in my heart, he finally takes up position. One grotesque leg planted either side of my reclining posture, my bruised and blackened cheeks gripped firmly between 10 gnarled digits, my face bespattered with congealing saliva. And his lips contort into a smug, self-satisfied smirk, as his grotesque tongue wriggles over a mouthful of encrusted gold crowns.
Oh yes, he has won. Undoubtedly, he has won, and he will always win. But he has no fucking clue what is best for me, nor what is best for you, and he never will.