Amidst the boisterous salivating from Batman fanboys which resulted from the the teaser for Arkham City going live, came the witty riposte; “why’s Sam Fisher attacking Batman?” How about this: because with Batman’s franchise taking off, Sam realises the sales of new Splinter Cell games are going to head into freefall?
Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. There’s probably plenty of life in the Splinter Cell franchise. It’s just that the snappy combination of action and stealth that Ubisoft tried in this year’s Splinter Cell: Conviction is something that was pulled off with far more aplomb in Batman: Arkham Asylum. But then that’s advantage a brand new video game can have over a franchise warhorse which is trying to change direction in order to expand the size of its audience.
In case you missed Splinter Cell: Conviction this year, here’s the juice: it wasn’t a Splinter Cell game. Oh, it was a very entertaining way to spend 6 or so hours and the multiplayer wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a Splinter Cell game. At least, not the way I understand Splinter Cell games, having been a massive, massive fan of the franchise since the very first installment.
Whereas every single Splinter Cell game before the arrival of Conviction put an emphasis on stealth play, this year’s entry seemed to want to be some sort of action/stealth hybrid. Most of the new aspects of gameplay centred around upping Sam Fisher’s action hero potential. Gone were the lengthy periods spent sneaking through dark corridors, avoiding security cameras and patrolling guards. Conviction wanted the volume turned up; players would now be able to shimmy up drainpipes at ferocious speeds, leap in and out of windows with catlike agility and unleash a world of hurt on opponents in seconds. One level even threw the stealth gameplay in a rubbish skip completely and became a really lousy third-person-shooter.
In Conviction, everything is geared towards portraying Sam Fisher as an action hero. The character’s unnatural agility (at least, for a middle-aged man) isn’t used to avoid detection so much as it is to out-flank enemies and aid in killing them. What would be the point in sneaking Sam past a room full of enemies? He can simply leap onto an outside ledge, shimmy around to the opposite side of the room and either mark-and-execute them or pull them out of the window. There were sections in the previous games where it was actually possible to complete missions without alerting anyone to Sam’s presence. In Conviction, this simply isn’t an option; the level-design ensures that at some point, Fisher is going to have to start shooting.
The thing is, as a longtime fan of the series, I felt kind of alienated by the in-your-face action in Conviction. The series was built on some of the best stealth action on consoles and it’s an aspect sorely lacking in the latest installment. I prefer the silent version of Sam Fisher. The one who lurks about in the dark, inches away from being discovered. The one who can zip in and out of a tanker or military base, steal or secure his objective, and dust-off without his enemies ever realising he was there. I liked Sam Fisher when he was using the shadows to his advantage, not explaining to his daughter how to do so before killing a couple of burglars right in front of her.
You can kind of understand why Ubisoft took Splinter Cell in a more action-packed direction. The series hit as close to a level of perfection as it was ever going to with Chaos Theory – still one of the best stealth games ever made – and once that happened, the developers were faced with a stark choice: they could do something new, or they could re-make Chaos Theory for the rest of the franchise’s lifespan. The obvious option was the one the developer went for; position Sam Fisher as the video game equivalent of 24’s Jack Bauer and ramp up the action. They started down this path with Splinter Cell: Double Agent, which contained more action sequences than previous SC titles, but didn’t eschew the stealth to the degree Conviction does.
And this is the problem. Stealth was the Splinter Cell franchise’s thing. It’s what brought all us fans on board in the first place. We didn’t need Sam Fisher to be able to open up a can of whoop-ass at the drop of a hat. We didn’t need this stealth/combat combo. And if we did, we’d get it from Batman: Arkham Asylum anyway…