Monday, May 3, 2010

Man of Conviction

By Kirk Hamilton

My review of Splinter Cell: Conviction is now online at Paste Magazine. For all the crap I've given the game about its ridiculous dialogue, hackneyed story and forced edginess, I really did enjoy it.

One of the more interesting things about reviewing a game like Conviction is the behind-the-scenes stuff that one must take into account when writing about the finished product. That is to say, a huge part of the game Conviction is is due to the game it never was. The long long road from there to here informs the finished product, and interestingly, the game works best when Ubisoft Montreal innovates within their existing formula rather than attempting to reinvent it.

And you know what? Rockstar and Valve are great, but Ubisoft Montreal is kinda my favorite AAA development studio right now. A few thoughts on why after the break.

One certainly can't say that conventionality is one of Ubisoft Montreal's shortcomings. The studio regularly takes established intellectual properties (Prince of Persia, Rainbow Six, Naruto, Far Cry) and freely twists them into exceptionally well-designed and innovative games. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, Rainbow Six: Vegas, and Far Cry 2 are all smartly made, innovative titles. Hell, a couple of those are up there with my all-time favorites.

I get the sense that a large part of the problem with Conviction's initial development was that it happened concurrently with the development of the first Assassin's Creed. Creed was basically the studio's first (or at least highest-profile) original IP, and they were stuffing it chock-full of new ideas and technology.

It seemed like Conviction wound up getting a lot of the same design and tech more by association than anything else.  "Next-gen" was the big buzzphrase in 2005/2006 and everyone was making sandbox games with integrated HUDs and emergent gameplay. So in Conviction, Sam was walking about in daylight, blending with a crowd, using a contextual notoriety system and free-flowing combat... all elements shared with Assassin's Creed.

I get the sense that when Creed was finished, the Conviction team looked at what their game was becoming and stepped back, evaluated, then quickly and authoritatively changed tack. I think it was the right call. It takes guts to scrap something that isn't working and go back to basics, and I applaud Ubisoft for doing just that.

And while many other studios would've just gone back and released a by-the-numbers rehash of Double Agent, BĂ©land's team actually went and reinvented the series a second time, this time staying a bit closer to the franchise's roots. The resulting game, while far from perfect, is smoother, faster, and generally more fun (yep, I said it) than any of the previous Splinter Cell games.

With Assassin's Creed 2, Ubisoft Montreal demonstrated an uncommon commitment to addressing and correcting problems identified in the first game in order to release a superior sequel. The more I play Conviction's Deniable Ops and Co-Op modes, the more I can see just how strong the engine, control scheme, and overall design of Splinter Cell: Conviction is. If Ubisoft Montreal's track record is anything to go by, I'll be very much looking forward to Splinter Cell: Acquittal.


Kirk Hamilton said...

And wouldn't you know it, the day I write this, creative director Clint Hocking announces that he is leaving Ubisoft.

Well, can't say that's not a blow to the company - after all, this is the designer behind Far Cry 2. Of course, there are tons of other incredibly talented people there, and I'm sure that Clint will go and do something amazing elsewhere.

Anyway, I highly recommend checking out his post - that's the kind of boldness the world needs more of.

Annie Wright said...

His thing about good traits morphing into bad habits is particularly resonant. I think referring to the concept of becoming complacent about one's work as being "unsustainable" is pretty awesome. It takes away the idea that it's his fault for not just shutting the hell up and maintaining the status quo. I think I got a little too emotionally involved in that post, actually... ;)