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If you were a fan of the old Splinter Cell games (namely the first three and if you were an uber fan you may have granted some lenience towards the fourth game) you probably had a real foul taste in your mouth after playing Conviction. The Gears of War bodycount-approach turned off a lot of stealth fans. Well, Ubisoft seems to understand where they went wrong and even acknowledge that Conviction wasn't really a classic Splinter Cell game.
While the reviews were mostly favorable and criticism from mainstream gamers was mostly favorable, the niche stealth audience felt like the only series that treated stealth properly had just died. I can't blame them because Chaos Theory was an astoundingly good game and it was the pinnacle of the stealth genre during the last console generation.
For Splinter Cell: Conviction, many gamers were willing to overlook a slightly younger Sam Fisher and some gamers were willing to overlook the massive bodycount the game stacked on players (despite the golden rule in previous Splinter Cell games being that you weren't supposed to kill, especially Government operatives or American citizens or soldiers). Many fans were even willing to overlook the generically bad Hollywood blockbuster storyline that completely went in the opposite direction of the franchise's staple “hidden” threat methodology for villains. What fans weren't willing to overlook was the lack of stealth and the tension that came with it.
Ubisoft's creative director, Maxime Béland for the upcoming action-oriented Splinter Cell: Blacklist, talked to Joystiq recently about why Conviction turned out the way it did, saying...
"I'm not going to go into the whole story,"..."but Conviction was kind of a rescue job for me."... "[I was] brought in because it wasn't going well. We changed the direction and kind of shipped the game in two years. So Conviction is very sweet and sour for me."
It did seem like the game's single-player was rushed and thrown together. The uber-linearity and the sort of run-and-gun, cover-shooter approach lended itself to a closer cousin of Gears of War than Splinter Cell, which isn't too shocking given that the game was running on the Unreal Engine. However, the Conviction that released did seem to be much more polished than the mess that they were building before Béland joined, which seemed kind of aimless and misdirected. Check out the early design footage here.
The thing I found most interesting was that as a third-person shooter Conviction was okay, but as a stealth game it royally sucked. It also carried a very similar gameplay tone to Activision's 007: Blood Stone, which seemed to make better use of the Mark & Execute feature than Conviction did, mainly because when playing Bond it makes sense that he can stealth when he wants to and kill when he needs to.
For Sam Fisher, it never sat well with me that this guy built his career on being a ghost and avoiding killing anyone whenever he could, but was now encouraged to basically kill any and everything that moved, with no remorse. The strange thing about it is that this kind of "kill on sight" mentality seemed to work perfectly for the game's Deniable Ops and excellently structured multiplayer modes.
According to Maxime, though, Blacklist will try to accommodate for the players who don't want to be mean-lean killing machines. Besides, Splinter Cell, the brand, was built on stealth and avoiding kill counts – remember in the old games you used to be penalized for kills, not rewarded for them...
"We have these three player profiles, player archetypes in our heads," ... "We have the ghost player, that doesn't want to kill or get detected. We've got our action/tank/killer player on the other end of the spectrum, that just wants to throw frag grenades, blind fire, shoot people in the head. And then in the middle, we have what we call the panther." ... "clean, tactical"..."So we're building the game with those three archetypes in mind."
Some gamers have questioned why Ubisoft didn't just branch off with a new character with a new story to fit the Gears of War-style approach to Splinter Cell. Maxime defends Ubisoft's approach and explains that the company preferred to keep Sam, despite that he's about 20 years younger in Blacklist and the game is supposed to be a sequel to Conviction.
The really strange part is that Fisher now looks to be just slightly older than his daughter from Conviction, which just doesn't make any sense at all.
I can definitely see why Michael Ironside wanted nothing more to do with the series. The smart, intelligent story and dialogue from the first three games seem to be replaced with Terminator-style OMGIMSUCHABADASSMOFOWITHAUTOKILLSKILL.
While the E3 video basically verified that Splinter Cell: Blacklist will probably be a good action-shooter, Ubisoft is intent on convincing the old fans that stealth will still be an option (even though they haven't yet implemented non-lethal attacks yet.)
Unfortunately, there aren't any indie-game alternatives that I can think of besides Mark of the Ninja. If you're looking for a bigger budget game with good stealth elements, there's still Hitman: Absolution and Dishonored. It remains to be seen if Ubisoft will follow through with making Blacklist a real stealth game or if stealth will just take a backseat to more of the “OMG” gameplay mechanics.
You can check out the rest of the interview with Maxime Béland over at Joystiq.