Oh, hi there. Spoilers may occur for all of the Splinter Cell games ahead, so make sure you’ve played them all – or have no plans to.
Let us begin by plugging our brains into our memory machines. Set destination for 2002, the launch of the original Splinter Cell. The stealth genre of video games expected a certain kind of standard, due to Metal Gear Solid having such success a few years prior, setting the groundwork for what makes a stealth game amazing.
Splinter Cell set out to offer something different. As opposed to slipping into an enemy base and using radars to find the bad guys and keep out of their projected line of sight you used the darkness and shadow to remain undetected. For those unfamiliar, so long as you stayed in the dark, the enemy AI couldn’t see you. You were given a light meter on your HUD, and I’ll use Lambert’s explanation here; “when the meters at 0, you’re a ghost. 3, you’re lit up like Time Square”.
And because darkness is the most important mechanic available, you were given several options to create this. Where for example there was only darkness above you, Fisher had the “split jump”.
Which essentially meant you could jump between two narrow walls using the splits to keep you elevated. It brought you above the enemy and they couldn’t see you. It used the psychology of; why would they look up, when there’s only a ceiling up there. When seemingly the only choice was through a group of guards, Splinter Cell offered a secret hidden path. Just head back a few steps and through that unsuspecting door and there’s a vent to crawl through that brings you behind the threats.
One thing that’s important to mention about Splinter Cell is the shooting. It’s a bit rubbish especially in the earlier titles. I say that considering anything before Splinter Cell: Conviction, to have bad shooting. Not that the last two titles had amazing shooting, but it was better. What I mean by that is, you can aim and fire and miss by a mile. Take careful slow movements of your stick to get a precise shot lined up and still miss. Shooting in the earlier games was a gamble. And when you aimed that gun at someone, you were making a gamble. “Will I hit them? If I miss will the raise the alarm? Will they kill me? Is it worth the risk?”.
It posed a very real dilemma whenever you drew your gun to fire on someone. Not to try and pretend I understand how spies and secret agents think while in the field, but I can be pretty confident they ask themselves the same question when they feel the need to draw their gun. Firing your weapon is dangerous, and you ask yourself is it worth it.
Splinter Cell was based around these principles. However, when Conviction was launched, somewhere, someone decided to make it a third person cover shooter. The stealth was removed. The decision to fire a gun was replaced with a need to fire your gun to progress. The fundamental basics that made Splinter Cell what it was were taken away.
Replaced by cover shooting and the only real stealth you could undertake was killing men quietly, Splinter Cell: Conviction was a strange transition for the series. It was pretty much the new game on the new generation (the Xbox 360 and PS3 at the time), I feel like they had more power than they knew what to do with. It was an exclusive to the Xbox 360 a move I find strange. The reason being Blacklist has several mentions to the prior games story, when perhaps only half the people playing it got the chance to play Conviction.
Speaking of Blacklist, it tried to return to form, but couldn’t bring itself to go right back to its roots. You could – for the most part just fight your way through the levels. There were a few mandatory stealth sections which added a challenge (sort of), but when the game allows you to gun your way through at the prior points they seem pointless. You can outfit yourself in an armoured suit which has low stealth use or the exact opposite. The problem is, you can’t just change it on the fly. So you can be an Assualt player who likes to gun down everyone and then you’re screwed when you encounter mandatory stealth. One section – which entails Sam planting a tracker on some terrorist cargo, has the two main things no Assualt style player or even panther style (which is silently killing) can deal with easily, don’t touch anyone, don’t get seen.
That’s a massive issue in the overall games design. They tried offering you options of play, without trying to infringe on the fundamental design they created, over 11 years prior. That’s a noble endeavour, but it’s not one that works well, as I’ve explained. It’s like – the stealth sections in Call Of Duty. They suck, but that’s because it’s a First Person Shooter. You’re playing the game with one main goal – kill everyone. Now when you play Splinter Cell the same way and are then met with, “Don’t touch anyone or get seen”, it makes things fuzzy.
On the one hand all I need to do is avoid being seen and don’t kill the men, that’s fine. But when you’ve played a certain way up to that point, you then on the fly need to learn a new gameplay style, right away? It’s asking a lot of the player who’s fobbed off your stealth mechanics for the last 6 hours to just forget what they’ve played like and learn new gameplay techniques on the spot. I’m not saying it’s not possible, I’m saying it’s not acceptable. Imagine playing COD and half way through the game instead of being a soldier man – you’re not a U.N peace keeper and you don’t shoot men for the rest of the game instead you deliver aid to Africa. You’d be pretty pissed.
Do I think the prior games were flawless? No. The stealth mechanics they used were at times flawed, and a required a heavy suspension of disbelief. It takes a lot to just go with “stand in a shadow and no one can see you”. But it worked. I’ve been playing through the series the last few weeks. I’m not playing it in order, and I feel I can therefore see what works and what isn’t so great. Hands down, Choas Theory is the best I’ve played thus far. The mechanics are fantastic, the stealth is next to none and overall it’s a great instalment. Had the rest of the games after used Chaos Theory as a reference on how to make Splinter Cell great, we’d be in a better position overall.
I don’t want this to come across as me being a negative nancy, but I just can’t shake the feeling that they could be doing better. I feel like games these days are taking a certain path – afraid to go too far from conventional thinking and they are all starting to feel the same. I’m a games journalist and it’s a part of my job to play games with a critical mind – it’s not something I like but when I play games I actively search for the flaws. Ask me a few years ago I’d have told you I loved all of the Splinter Cell games and I still do, don’t get me wrong. But since taking on this career I’ve noticed my brain jumps to critical mode whenever I play a game. So, I notice myself picking up on the flaws that make games not as great as I used to think they were.
But anyone can see that games are taking a certain path these days. They are developed based on what focus groups tell executives because they’re afraid to put money into something that might not sell well. And of course, game development is expensive, millions of dollars get poured into games and you want to see profit at the other side, but it means risks are highly unlikely to be taken.
Battlefied 1 was almost never going to exist because EA thought no one would like Trench Warfare. That’s just one example of the countless projects that wouldn’t have – or didn’t get the Greenlight because they were too different. Banjo Kazooie is a great game from the N64 but did you play Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts on the Xbox 360? It’s loath by Banjo Kazooie fans for the shambles it is. A sparse open world, bad characters and cars. At no point did I ever hear anyone say that’s what Banjo Kazooie needs to be better. An empty world and cars. But that’s what was assumed to be the thing people wanted. The LEGO games success made the idea that building was fun. P.S: it’s not.
But I’ve strayed from the topic a bit. There’s a very real problem with games being developed to suit the mass audience or rather, what it perceived to be the mass audience. And it’s not evenbetter hardware that lead to Splinter Cell evolving into the game it is today. The Ubisoft Shangai version of Double Agent showed the game can look amazing while still be the experience we are used to. Not that change is bad all the time, but it just didn’t work for Splinter Cell when the changes resulted in it becoming a cover shooter.
Now, Blacklist did a lot to try and return it to form. Had it not carried on the story from Conviction, in the later game I’d almost call that a spin off. Considering the Xbox Exclusivity and what not. It’s also something that boggles my mind; why was it only on Xbox 360? But anyway never mind that.
As I tap away almost at 1700 words, I still can’t seem to figure out how to explain what the issues are with their change, without feeling like I should be adding a review score at the end. I’m trying to get across the problems – without this literally becoming a review. I genuinely think – if they changed some of the design points in SC: Blacklist, brining it back a little, they’d have the best SC game they’ve ever made. As you make Sam jump around and climb along obstacles it gives you an feeling of Athleticism we’ve never seen before. But, there’s a reason for that. Sam Fisher – believe it or not – is almost 60 years old. How many people in their late 50’s do you know who can freerun?
And isn’t that what happened here? They used mechanics from Assassin’s Creed, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell to make this game. It wasn’t good enough to create a game based on the template that they’d used over the years – they needed to mash together all their popular franchises to make – what they obviously assumed would be one giant super game. And you know what, they would have gotten away with it. Had it not been for that meddling name. By calling it Splinter Cell, they stopped their ability to create a game such as this and have it free from people like me criticising it.
Don’t get me wrong, Conviction and Blacklist are amazing games. But they aren’t amazing Splinter Cell games. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play Pandora Tomorrow and be a little upset, for a while.