Thursday, November 18, 2010

App O' The Mornin': Splinter Cell: Conviction Review

Grade: A
Price: $7

App versions of major console or PC titles always feel a bit like consolation prizes. They'll never be as flashy or as complete as their big brothers, but they can pack a lot of gameplay into a small package while still capturing the flavor of the original.

That's what the app incarnation of Splinter Cell: Conviction manages to do.  The full Splinter Cell: Conviction shattered the Splinter Cell stealth/action formula, and rebuilt it into something completely new. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends upon what you want in a Splinter Cell game, but it’s hard to deny that Conviction is a slick, fresh piece of work. 

Sam Fisher has been prowling the shadows since 2002, doing stealthy missions for Third Echelon, a “black ops” group working under the aegis of the National Security Agency. The game built upon mechanisms developed for Metal Gear Solid and Thief: The Dark Project, requiring players to stay out of sight and complete their mission without using deadly force. This odd inversion of what seemed to be the heart of action gaming (violent confrontation) proved to be an enduring addition, resulting in a new genre: stealth-action.

The key to Splinter Cell’s gameplay was Sam’s careful movement through each environment, using increasingly complex techniques to quietly take down guards, and then hiding the bodies to avoid detection. It required a slower pace and a careful evaluation of each environment, but returned residual benefits with a more enhanced sense of suspense. 

Well, most of that is gone now, and the series is striking out in a bold new direction that may or may not appeal to fans. If Conviction was your standard action movie sequel, the clich├ęd tagline would be “This time, it’s personal.” Fisher is out of Echelon and trying to put that life behind him, but he’s dragged back in by the promise of avenging his daughter’s murder.

Sam can still sneak around, without detection, and disappear in the shadows, but the game no longer provides the sophisticated series of interactions that made those elements so much fun. Lockpicking, split-jumps, moving bodies, and non-lethal takedowns are gone, replaced by a covering fire and movement system that doesn't work as well in the app as it did in the full game.

Once in cover, however, Sam is far more likely to kill an enemy with a single shot to the than he is to sneak around him or knock him unconscious. Each time you take down an enemy with hand to hand combat, you power up a special ability to tag multiple targets, and then execute attacks on those targets automatically, all at once.

The new flanking mechanic is more in keeping with the stealth theme of the prior games in the serious. If you’re spotted by a guard, you can move away, leaving a white silhouette or yourself at your last known location. The guards will move on this location, allowing you to sneak up behind him for a silent takedown. This creates an interesting tactical element, as you deliberately reveal yourself draw an enemy into a trap.

The app version is a seriously scaled-back version of the full game, but still manages to pack many of the features into a small package. Movement is mapped to an onscreen stick, with look-around/aiming mapped controlled by touching anywhere on the screen. This is a little bit better than dual-stick, and frees up the right corner for attack and context-sensitive action icons.

App conversions of major action titles are the dancing dogs of game design: it's enough that the dog can dance at all, even if can't do a pirouette. Splinter Cell: Conviction is a nicely compressed version of the full game, and that's just what it should be.

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