Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Who Does Number Two Work For?

By Kirk Hamilton

I'm a few hours into Splinter Cell: Conviction, and although I'm enjoying the gameplay quite a bit, one thing is bugging the shit out of me. It's something that I've seen mentioned only casually in the reviews I've read, but it's enough of a detractor for me that I hope to see it talked about more.

Basically, Splinter Cell: Conviction features a bunch of intensely violent, unskippable interactive torture sequences. It's far and away the most torturing I've ever seen in a game, let alone performed myself. Good Lord! I know that Ubisoft wanted to change things up, but when the hell did we ask for this?

Roughly every hour or so, Sam will grab some new dude (or woman, and wait 'till you see how the game handles that) by the throat and proceed to beat the everloving shit out of him. The sequences are stripped of any possible nuance - you just press B to bash the dude into the environment. Each bash will make him share some new info, then he'll clam up, at which point... bash again! It's like watching someone knock candy out of the world's most horrifying vending machine.

For me, one of the best things about past Splinter Cell games has always been Fisher's dark sense of humor. He's the only character in the Tom Clancy universe that's more than a gun and a heads-up display, and Michael Ironside has always done really well with Fisher's quips and radio banter. So hearing him deliver his lines as super-angsty Conviction-Sam just doesn't work; it's almost like he has a split personality.

The rest of the writing isn't much better - the foul-mouthed enemies are particularly egregious. In the middle of a recent firefight, a guy yelled, apropos nothing, "Hey Fisher, your daughter was a slut!" Sigh.

But still, the torture scenes stand apart. They are just the worst. Who the hell are these guys I'm torturing, and what did they ever do to Sam? Why do they always tell me the truth, and why does it always take three go-rounds to get there? How didn't that guy die when Sam broke a sink with his face? And didn't Sam just find out like five minutes ago that his daughter might still be alive? Is all of this forced edginess and foul temper necessary?

One would hope that Ubisoft might take an opportunity to explore the consequences of torture, that making the scenes interactive could've allowed for a subversive statement about the toll this quest will take on Sam's soul. And for all I know, the game might still go down that road - after all, I haven't finished it yet, and they did mess around a bit with that sort of thing in Double Agent.

But even if they do, some ham-fisted "what have I become" moment won't undo the fact that in order to get to the good bits, Splinter Cell: Conviction made me play through meticulously re-created, lovingly framed scenes of intense torture. To my eye, the sequences are nothing more than the blandest sort of provocation, as unimaginative and gratuitous as they are vile.


Jay said...

OK, I played Double Agent (or tried to), but the controls were just too wonky for me. Navigating Sam through the environment felt like a clunky mess. Am I way off base here?

Granted, I never made it past the first level cos the controls bothered me so much, but I was still excited for Conviction. They took so much time with it I figured Ubisoft would have managed to make the movement smoother, sleeker and overall more espionage-er, or something. Then I played the demo and, aside from the contextual beat-the-info-out-of-the-baddie QTEs, it felt like more of the same (even if it looked a whole lot better).

I mostly play games like these for the narrative elements, so I'm used to getting past the mechanics in order to enjoy a good story (like enjoying Bioshock even though I'm *REALLY* not a fan of FPSs). Unfortunately in this case, I don't think I can handle it. And after your impressions of the torture sequences, I'm not sure I even care to try.

Alex said...

All the torture stuff was bothering me in the previews last year, and I'm sorry to hear my first impressions weren't harsh enough. Ugh. All the glowing reviews remind me slightly of when GTA IV came out... both cases make me wonder when reviewers will care as much about what the game is saying as how "fun" it is.

I was thinking about writing about Conviction in relation to this post about TV and public acceptance of torture: But it's probably not going to happen, 'cause that would mean actually having to play Conviction >.>;

Rhygadon said...

Nice analysis. And "It's like watching someone knock candy out of the world's most horrifying vending machine" got you bookmarked for Excellent Use of Language. ;)

Kirk Hamilton said...

Alex - don't know how I missed that link when you posted it. The TV Tropes page "Torture Always Works" that the article links to is totally right on, too. God, I wonder how long it will take for the stain of "24" to be truly scrubbed from the public consciousness.

Rhygadon - Thanks! That really is what it feels like, ya know?

*BAM* - Pulverized Candy Bar!
*CRUNCH* - Bloody Bag of Chips!

Ian Cheong said...

I haven't played the latest Splinter Cell, but like you, I'm intrigued about whether they'll take the opportunity to have it carry a message.

Ubisoft seems to be riding off the popularity of 24's Jack Bauer in the show's latest season, in which he kills dudes left and right without the slightest moral qualm. Perhaps it draws inspiration from the Liam Neeson movie, Taken. It's the same theme, after all.

Either way, it doesn't sound very Splinter Cell-ish. Issues with torture aside, a story like that would better fit a completely different franchise. There's no reason for Sam Fisher to turn into Jack Bauer.

Kirk Hamilton said...

I got the same sense, Ian - it was as though Ubi got down with the whole torture/revenge in the name of justice thing that got so popular after 9/11 (24, Man on Fire, Taken, etc). The problem was that the game was in development for so long that by the time they finished it, it seems out of touch.

Not that that crap ever felt particularly in touch to me, but all the same, it seems particularly strange to have it in a game in 2010.

What particularly bummed me out (and this is a slight spoiler, but it's in the post too) was that the motivation for Sam's anger is largely removed a few hours into the game, so he keeps on torturing away even though he kind of has no reason to be so mad.

Anyhow. It's weak. Maybe even weaker in co-op. At one point Dan and I were taking turns running this poor Russian dude's face through a paper-shredder and I was like "wait, what the eff game am I even playing here?"