REVIEW: Dragon Age 2

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just gonna go ahead and say it:

Dragon Age 2 is the most disappointing thing I’ve played in a long time.

If you’ve been at least nominally cognizant of the discussions about this game going on across the internet over the last few weeks then you’re likely well-acquainted with the skepticism, complaints, and outright rage that has been directed towards BioWare’s recent sequel to Dragon Age: Origins. And while I certainly wasn’t pleased with the final product either, I’m going to try to present as balanced a review as I can to offset the paid magazine columnists and the nerd berserkers that have been waging guerrilla warfare against the game over on Metacritic.

Let’s start with the good, since it will probably be a shorter list than the bad and will keep me from spiraling into rambling anger right off the bat.

First of all, the game is greatly improved graphically. Those of you who played Origins will remember how… sub-par a great many of the visuals were. Textures were grainy, object clipping was abundant, and most environments suffered from that single color palette syndrome we’ve seen so much of in recent years. Dragon Age 2 fixes a great many of these problems. Character models and environments are more stylized this time around, textures are crisper (though admittedly not by much) and the game appears to have more vibrant colors that are more varied throughout the game world. And as an added bonus, we also get drastically reduced load times compared to Origins. From a technical standpoint, the game is improved on just about every level.

The audio is also fantastic, as is usual for BioWare. The soundtrack, composed by Inon Zur, is wonderfully put together and is implemented perfectly. The music varies from dark and foreboding to inspiring to downright touching. You’ll get a few instances where the background music seems to swell a little too loudly while you’re in conversation but for the most part the sound is spot on. Voicework is also phenomenal. The elves have been completely re-worked to have Irish accents in order to make them feel like a more distinct culture, though the Dwarves still maintain their American accents from the first game. The dialogue is as good as ever, managing to pull off the fantasy vibe without feeling like a walk down stereotype lane, which is no easy task. At the very least, we can say that this game sounds excellent.

Sadly, that’s about the only thing I can praise with complete enthusiasm. Everything else is a mix of “didn’t care for it much” and “outright bad”.

First of all, there’s the combat system. Out of all the grousing you may have heard about the game, this is probably the single biggest point of contention. While Origins used an older-style real time tactical system which had a heavy emphasis on pausing battle to line up attacks and spells, Dragon Age 2 uses a more direct, action-oriented system more akin to Dynasty Warriors than Baldur’s Gate. Some people loved it, and some people hated it. I’m pretty much torn.

See, I played Origins initially on the Xbox 360, and the combat interface there was… unfriendly, to put it mildly. Using an over-the-shoulder view to play a game that was intended for a rotating isometric camera view can be a hair-pullingly frustrating venture. I later purchased the game for my PC (yes, I owned two copies of the same game at one point), and while my pathetic graphics card did not always like to cooperate with some of the higher-energy segments, the interface was far and away an improved experience. Combat balancing was still an issue, but hey, I could actually survey the battlefield now.

Dragon Age 2 acknowledged the problems the game had on consoles and so was tailored a bit more favorably towards those who prefer an ergonomic controller over a keyboard. This is what created the more reactive combat environment of the game, spawning the idea of “press a button and something awesome happens” as touted by the lead designer Mike Laidlaw. In a lot of ways this rocks. Your characters move faster and you don’t have to wait for them to awkwardly shuffle into position before they can start attacking. Characters no longer take damage if they disengage a target a microsecond after the enemy began their “I’m going to hit you” animation, which is an incredibly welcome improvement for me (nothing sucks more than being 20 feet away from an enemy and still taking damage from their melee attack just because their animation for it started five seconds ago when you were still right next to them). You also feel like a slightly more active participant in battles, as you’re sometimes literally leaping sword-first into crowds of enemies.

But then after you’ve played the game for a while this starts to get old. While in Origins you were always surveying the entirety of the battlefield trying to best figure out where to have your mage place a cone of cold so your rogue doesn’t get ganked by that Arcane Horror that’s been harassing her, in Dragon Age 2 you come to the conclusion that you’re simply pressing the A button… a lot. Yes, you’ve got more abilities that you can break out every once in a while and you can still order your companions to deliver certain attacks, but at the end of the day you often feel like you’re just spamming the basic attack button over and over again.

Also lending to the idea that your game is now less tactical is the fact that enemies now spawn apparently from right out of the damn void every time you turn your back. Origins generally allowed you to see all of your enemy combatants at the outset of a skirmish, meaning that you could position your long-range characters just so to best set up a proper kill zone while still keeping them safe. You can’t really do that this time around because as you continue to kill enemies more will show up to take their place. More often than not these enemies will spawn behind you and before you know it, your vulnerable elven spellcaster has three giant spiders and a walking corpse slashing at her fragile, unarmored body until her minimal amount of hitpoints disappear faster than a sorority girl’s self-respect at a frat party.

This is not a fun game mechanic.

When enemies literally start falling out of the sky (I know it’s supposed to look like they’re jumping down from rooftops but I’m on a rant here so just go with it) and slashing apart your squishy companions who you attempted to place at a safe distance it just starts to feel like the game hates you.

“Oh, you think you’ve won, have you?” it says to you with a malicious cackle. “I think not, fair player. Behold! A dozen bandits have spawned behind you and your rogue now has a broadsword where their liver used to be.”

Other altered gameplay features include the revamped inventory, which I’ll give credit for not going the Mass Effect 2 route and basically stripping it out entirely, but still feels like an unnecessary “streamlining” of a feature that worked perfectly well before. You’ll still find weapons, armor, and items same as you did in Origins, but now every piece of equipment comes with a “star” rating, supposedly informing the player of which armor sets and weapons are better suited for their level. This basically takes all the thought out of equipping your character. Whereas before you would have to compare weapon stats to optimize your loadout, now you can just look at the star rating. If that axe has five stars and that sword only has four? Use the axe. Apparently BioWare thought we somehow became too stupid to interpret numbers. Thanks guys. Big vote of confidence there.

Of course it didn’t even manage to get that incredibly stupid feature right. Sometimes the star rating for an item will simply be blatantly wrong. A ring slot item that gives you +4% fire damage is not under any circumstances better than one that gives you +4% fire, nature, and spirit damage. But the game thinks that it is. It’s almost as if the game implements this system to counteract our supposed idiocy when it comes to simple mathematics… and then punishes you for using said system.

Oh, and another lovely “addition” to the inventory system is your complete inability to swap out your companion’s armor (or in your dwarven rogue’s case even their weapon). Found some sweet mage robes that you want to give to your healer? Nope. A set of fire resistant heavy plate that you’d like to give to your tank so she’s better suited to taking on that dragon? Nuh-uh. Now, you can marginally improve companion’s armor by finding small upgrades scattered throughout the game world, at shops, or through plot points. But there are only about five of them per character, and only one will alter their appearance in any way. I suppose this was supposed to help create a more “set” character design for each of your companions but I miss tweaking my party for certain combat environments, or for simple bad-assery (Oghren in the Legion of the Dead plate armor anyone?) and I never felt as if simply giving a character a different pair of pants detracted from their established character in any way, but apparently the folks at BioWare disagree with me.

So after all of that, we figure that we can at least take refuge in the story: the one thing BioWare games have always managed to do right. Remember a while back when I wrote that super-pretentious post about the place of the epic in video games, and how Dragon Age pretty much nailed it in every way?

Yeah, don’t expect that here.

Dragon Age: Origins had you deeply embroiled in a story that was admittedly clichéd (save the world from an ancient evil) but was so marvelously presented that you didn’t care. No, scratch that: you didn’t simply “not care” but rather you embraced its classical structure for what it was and loved it all the more. You traveled the vast reaches of Ferelden, gathered allies, faced impossible foes, forged iron-clad relationships, and defeated the Blight. There was a sense of real accomplishment there. For amidst the somewhat fatalistic backdrop (the Blight will happen again and more people will die in droves until the Old Gods of Tevinter are all slain) you knew that there was hope: these enemies could be defeated. They had been before, and they would be again until the threat of the Blight was gone forever and Thedas could perhaps reach some semblance of security, safe from the Darkspawn hordes.

Dragon Age 2 is a framed narrative: imagine the Princess Bride where the actual person telling the story exists in-universe. The tale of Hawke (that’s you) is related to Cassandra, a Seeker of the Chantry (basically like a super-powerful, military intelligence branch of Dragon Age’s version of the Catholic Church) by one of your former companions, a suave dwarf by the name of Varric. This creates an interesting narrative structure in that sometimes Varric will… exaggerate certain parts of the story. Cassandra will occasionally call Varric out on these sensationalized tidbits or will ask questions about certain key decisions you make during the course of the game, bringing your focus back to the storytellers and how the tale of Hawke relates to them in the present.

The story begins with you as a refugee of Ferelden, fleeing the very Blight that you faced as the Warden in the first game. Your only aspirations: to find a new home for your family and maybe stop people from kickin’ you around all the time. The first act consists mostly of this. You spend your time simply trying to gain a foothold in the city of Kirkwall (hope you like it: you won’t be going anywhere else the entire game). Things at this point feel basically like a series of fetch quests. You go someplace, you find/kill something of little to no consequence, you take it back to the quest giver and he gives you a shiny gold sovereign and a chunk of XP. Lather, rinse, repeat. This trend sadly isn’t limited solely to the first act. The rest of the game will see you doing basically the same thing. I honestly can’t remember the point of about half the missions I did in this game. It feels kind of like Grand Theft Auto in that you’re just carrying out simple tasks for people with only a vague (and somewhat selfish) end goal in mind.

There are exceptions to this, of course: a few gems that stand out here and there. For example, in Act 2 we get to have a lot of interaction with the Qunari, who I found incredibly interesting based on the limited exposure I had to them in Origins. An understanding of the rigid Qunari mindset is necessary to interact with these guys even marginally successfully, and that slim understanding that you do have ensures that each conversation with them will be… an educational experience, shall we say. The overarching thematic conflict is also quite good, and feels like a loyal continuation from the issues we encountered in Origins. Basically, the Templars and the mages in the city of Kirkwall are at each other’s throats. The Templars are often seen as being prejudiced and oppressive towards the mages, while the mages (and this may require a bit more intuition on the players part) are genuinely dangerous, therefore at least partly validating the Templar’s (and everyone else’s) mistrust of them. This contrast of chaotic danger and abuse of control is one of the more striking examples of grey vs. grey morality that we saw in the first game, and is what will occupy a great portion of your time and attention throughout the course of this game, especially in Act 3 where the excrement well and truly impacts the oscillating cooling unit.

Of course by the time you get to Act 3 you’ll likely be wondering how you got there. You started off as a refugee, regarded as being below even the lowest class in Kirkwall. Then you did some random fetch quests. Then you got sorta famous and then you got even more famous and then… the climax happens? I guess? There doesn’t seem to be any real driving force to the narrative. In Origins, you knew exactly what you had to do: stop the Blight. Here, you have no such goal. You’re just kinda strung along for all these disjointed adventures and so by the time you finish the game you don’t really feel like you’ve accomplished anything. It’s a very empty feeling after the exuberance that came with defeating the Archdemon and y’know… saving the freaking world.

But hey, Mass Effect 2 had this problem, right? That game had a horrible plot and suffered from a similarly stripped inventory system, but still managed to be great. It did this on the strength of its characters. Sure, the plot had more railroad tracks than Grand Central Station, but hey: we got Mordin Solus out of it so I’d call it a wash. So perhaps Dragon Age 2 could similarly mend our broken dreams with some truly fantastic characters, the likes of which BioWare has given us before.

I think you’ve spotted the trend at this point. All together now:

This is probably the first BioWare game where I haven’t completely loved at least one character. Knights of the Old Republic had Jolee Bindo, Mass Effect had Wrex and Ashley Williams (that’s right internet, I actually like Ash: deal with it), Dragon Age had Sten and Morrigan. Dragon Age 2 has… a few characters that you don’t care about nearly as much. Ultimately, I don’t think this is a problem with how the characters are written. It’s obvious that there’s something there to make pretty much every character truly likeable (except for Anders, who has become a bit of an extremist jackass since we saw him in Awakening). No, the problem here lies in how the game structures your interactions with them. You can’t talk to them in the open world, only in their respective “home base” environments, and even then only when the plot allows you to. Try to talk to somebody when they don’t have a quest marker above their head, and all you’ll get is a canned sound bite that you can’t respond to. Compare this to being able to talk to your companions whenever you liked in Origins, with dozens of branching conversation trees and thousands of lines of dialogue which helped you to really understand the character. To this day, I haven’t met a character (or a real person for that matter) that I felt I had a relationship of “grudging respect” with more than Sten. And Morrigan has probably the single best example of emotionally torn motives in video games. Comparing these interactions to the minimalistic banter you are allowed to partake in within Dragon Age 2 is… depressing.

Finally, one of the major aspects that is touted in all of BioWare’s RPGs, the concept of choice, is equally diminished. Ultimately, it feels like your actions have no impact on the story whatsoever, adding to the disheartening feeling that you are simply along for the ride and not a real driving force for the plot. Your final (and artificially binary) choice in the game’s finale doesn’t appear to have any real impact other than what enemy types you’ll be fighting; the boss characters (one of which is simply a recycled model from an Origins DLC module, by the way) are the same and the results of the battle remain unchanged. And keep in mind that this is probably the single biggest choice in the entire game. And it does nothing. How do you think the rest of your decisions played out?

The only real discernable areas where you actions carry any weight is in regards to your companions. Choosing to help the chantry with a job will likely piss off your bordering-on-jihadist-douchebag mage companion, who thinks the Chantry is to blame for… well, everything. Similarly, aiding apostate mages in their schemes to escape the Templars generally won’t sit well with your guard captain companion, who sees this as disrupting the rule of law. Taking actions that your companions agree or disagree with will earn you friendship and rivalry points, respectively.

Of course, the game even manages to screw that up pretty good since even characters who have a full rivalry score will stay with you through their crisis points where they would normally leave the party. Remember back in the days of Baldur’s Gate where doing stuff your allies didn’t like would cause those crisis points? Hell, if your levels of righteousness fell below a certain level (or above a certain level if you’re doing the evil party thing) they’d turn on you right then and there. But this game somehow reasons that pissing your companions off enough will cause them to stick around.

Actions should have consequences. But the only consequences you feel in this game are the ones that the plot dictates you must experience.

There are a number of other issues that I could touch upon here, such as the unacceptably high number of quest-breaking bugs that crop up in the late game, the blatantly recycled environments, the lack of any real ending (probably so that it can be sold to us piecemeal as DLC), and the horrible distribution process enacted by EA. But if you’re really that interested you can just take a look at the BioWare forums: all I’ve talked about and more is debated nigh-endlessly over there, though sometimes a little more… vehemently than might be logical.

Dragon Age 2 is not truly a horrible game, as it may sound like I am suggesting here. In truth it’s significantly better than most games out there on the market. The problem is that it has the Dragon Age name attached to it. While most of the lore remains intact, this is simply not Dragon Age as we know it. Had it been shipped under another name, then I probably would have loved it. But it needs to stand not alone, but as part of a franchise: a franchise which was declared to be “the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate”.

This is not that game. It is instead a rush job; likely forced out too quickly by the folks at EA who demanded that a sequel to their newly acquired IP be shipped as soon as possible, presumably so they can force out another sequel shortly thereafter and keep milking us for all we’re worth. It doesn’t help that most of Bioware’s writing staff is likely dedicated to other projects at the moment. With Mass Effect 3 announced for sometime next year and The Old Republic MMO (a massive project that could make or break the company) slated for launch this summer, it’s understandable that significantly less effort went into this game than did its predecessor, which had a production time of almost five years.

That said, these justifications don’t truly wash away the bitter sense of disappointment this game left me with. I’m sure I’ll come back to play it again sometime in the future, but until then I’ll just take solace in the fact that I’ll always have Origins. If you need me, I think I’ll be back in Ferelden. Maybe I’ll roll an archer this time…

REVIEW: Red Dead Redemption

To say that Red Dead Redemption has been on my radar for quite some time would be failing to illustrate exactly how much I have been anticipating this game. Perhaps it is closer to the truth to say that Red Dead Redemption has stood out like an Imperial Star Destroyer amidst a cloud of conventional aircraft on my radar. If I had sonar, I’m sure it would have shown up on that too, nevermind my seismic and infrared sensors. In short, once I heard that Rockstar Games was making an open-world western title, you couldn’t have kept me away from it.

Red Dead Redemption is a sort of spiritual successor to Rockstar San Diego’s 2004 game Red Dead Revolver. Though the similarities are few. The name is obviously a shared factor, as is the publisher, developer, and general setting. But apart from that, Redemption is a very different game. While Revolver focused on somewhat more linear environments, and functioned more or less as a simple third-person shooter, Redemption is an open-world game in the style of Rockstar’s flagship Grand Theft Auto franchise. While this has prompted many people to label the game as simply “GTA with horses”, this simply isn’t so. Obviously there are going to be common factors, but Redemption goes beyond a re-skinned version of Liberty City and becomes truly special its own right.

In Redempion, you play as John Marston: an outlaw turned family man who’s been enlisted by the US Government to hunt down and kill the members of his former gang. Marston is an interesting character, simply because he’s so different from Rockstar’s usual protagonist archetype. He’s not a crude, hyper-violent, self-serving street drifter like you usually see in the GTA games. He is simultaneously more complicated and simpler than that. Marston is perhaps the first character I’ve seen from Rockstar that can be classified as truly likeable. Marston is tough when he needs to be and violent when the situation calls for it, but on the whole he has one thing that almost no other character from Rockstar does: he has manners. Marston is not a “city man” of the upper class, but he has significantly more class and style than those who are. He has personal honor, respect for those who warrant it, and love for his family. He’s just a cool sort of guy, and you’ll find yourself liking his character within the first few minutes. Plus he looks like Clint Eastwood.

While an in-game crossover with The Outlaw Josey Wales might have been
fun, it also would have been very confusing. 

The gameplay is more or less what you would expect from Rockstar. Most of the controls are the same as what we saw in GTA IV in terms of movement, interaction, etc. The differences are in the details. Riding a horse is nothing like driving a car. You can’t just hold down a button and let the thing plow through streets and civilians without a second thought. Instead, these horses actually feel like living animals. You want it to go faster? You’ve gotta spur it a little to pick up the pace. Want to go flying across the terrain at breakneck speeds? You can, but push it too far and you’ll wind up either being bucked off by your aggravated steed or you’ll find the poor beast dead from over-taxing its physical abilities. You’ve got to keep in mind that what you’re riding is an animal, not a machine. You’ll spend a good portion of the game riding from place to place, so it’s best not to be too mean to your mount.

Gunplay obviously plays a major part in the game, so you’ll be happy to hear that shooting feels solid and rewarding all the way through. Revolvers, lever-action rifles, shotguns, and even throwing knives all feel satisfying to fire, and you’ll fire them a lot. A snap-to-target style of auto aim is implemented by holding the left trigger, which can make a marksman out of anybody, but you can still free-aim at whatever you’d like (which is handy for taking out the legs of fleeing bad guys). The bullet-time-esque feature of “Deadeye targeting” returns from the first game, which allows you to slow down time to a crawl while you paint multiple targets, allowing you to string together a series of kills in the blink of an eye once you pull the trigger. Nothing makes you feel like more of a hard-boiled cowboy than fanning the hammer on your Peacemaker, blasting a crowd of outlaws before they have time to reach for their guns. Bliss.

I used that gun all the way up until the ending. Why?
Because Jayne Cobb. That’s why.

Now, I’m not usually one to go on about sound design, simply because I don’t know too much about it. So when I say something about the sound in a game it’s either going to be really bad, or really, really good. I’m happy to say that in this particular instance, it’s the latter. For starters, the voice acting is top-notch. John Marston sounds thoroughly grizzled enough to match his frontier-man exterior, and the supporting cast is just as fitting. Every character’s voice matches their apparent personality, be they a world-weary but competent lawman, a sleazy snake-oil vendor, a crazed treasure hunter, or a self-righteous revolutionary. All the voice work is wonderful, and it stands out above some of the other example of sub-par acting seen in many games.

But it doesn’t stop there. Along with the superb voice acting comes a whole plethora of outstanding sound effects. Everything just *sounds* right in this game. Rifles shots echo off canyon walls with a sharp crack, horses hooves beat a rhythmic pattern into the dirt as they gallop, piano encompasses the interior of saloons, and the calls of wild elk drift over the pine trees of forests. This is impressive stuff. And then of course there’s the soundtrack. The music in this game fits perfectly with the setting. You’ll hear plenty of great tunes as you explore this game world, and all of it is appropriate for the time and place. Fight sequences are set at a somewhat faster pace and make good use of electric guitar in a way that still manages to jive with the western locales. But most of the time you’ll be listening to the sounds of an idly plucked acoustic guitar, or the lonely sounds of a harmonica. Then when you get your first taste of a mournful, tired-sounding vocal track as you make your way into Mexico for the first time, you’ll probably have your appreciation for the sound of this game firmly solidified in your mind. I know that was the defining moment for me, at any rate, and made me glad that my pre-order copy came with a free version of the soundtrack.

It’s dull, barren, uninhabited desert… and it’s beautiful.

But as great as all of the above mentioned features are, the single biggest factor that I enjoyed about the game was this: atmosphere. Red Dead Redemption is probably one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played. Every last bit of it is dedicated in its entirety to making you feel like you’re in the Wild West. Go ride your horse out to the middle of the desert and stand on a nearby hill. Now look off into the distance and watch as a thunderstorm builds on the horizon. Then watch it wash over you and continue on into the distance. Get back on your horse and ride into the nearest town. Walk into a Saloon. Get a drink. Wander into a back room and join in a poker game. Lose. Get another drink. Go back and try to cheat in the poker game. Get caught. Duel the guy who saw you and blast the gun out of his hand. Then head back to the ranch and herd some cattle. Don’t like cattle? Go hunt a Grizzly Bear in the mountains then sell its fur at the nearest trading post for enough money to get that shiny new Winchester rifle you’ve had your eye on.

I think you get my point.

There is so much to do in Red Dead Redemption that it’s doubtful you’ll get tired of it even after you’ve finished the game and the credits roll. And even then you’ll probably want to go back and play through the story again just because it’s so darn fun. Redemption is unequivocally western, and the tale it tells as you progress through the game is engaging enough to stand on its own as if it were one of the famed Spaghetti Westerns of old, which makes sense as the game is essentially one massive love letter to Sergio Leone and others like him. In short, Red Dead Redemption is a great game, and its greatness is amplified if you’re a fan of westerns like myself. Its well worth checking out… per un pugno di dollari.

REVIEW: Splinter Cell: Conviction

Now that I’ve had a little over a week of exposure to the new Splinter Cell, I’d say I’ve got enough experience raked together to attempt to express my impressions of it. So here goes.

If you’ve been keeping up with the Splinter Cell franchise, then you’re probably aware of all the “controversy” surrounding this particular release. Splinter Cell: Conviction is the first release in the series of stealth games since Splinter Cell: Double Agent back in 2006. It wasn’t long after that that Conviction was announced, slated for a November 2007 release. With only a little over a year between projected release dates, it didn’t come as a huge surprise when Conviction missed its launch date; after all, these things take time and most of us appreciate when developers take an extra few months or so to get things just right. However, we were taken a bit by surprise when it was announced in May of 2008 that the game had been officially put on hold and had been “taken back to the drawing board”.

Now, it’s 2 years later and we’ve finally been re-introduced to our old buddy Sam Fisher, and it’s a beautiful reunion, if a bit of an odd one. I say odd because this isn’t quite the Sam we’re all familiar with, which is actually quite understandable. In Double Agent, Sam is informed that his daughter, Sarah, has been killed by a drunk driver, which devastates him to the point of causing him to be removed from active duty. Compiled on top of that, at the end of the game, Sam is forced to kill his best friend Irving Lambert in order to maintain his cover amongst a terrorist group. When you put all of that together, you’ve got a Sam Fisher who’s good and pissed off at pretty much everybody. He’s very much a different man than the rigidly loyal and patriotic Third Echelon agent we met back in 2002; which is fine. A darker Sam seems to be a natural response to him losing everything in his life, and this shift in personality makes his character feel a bit more human.

Ultimately, the story is pretty standard fare for a Splinter Cell game. It begins with Sam on the hunt for the man who killed his daughter, but eventually leads into your run of the mill “save America from a bunch of jerks who got an EMP” kind of plot. Admittedly, the narrative is presented in a pretty impressive fashion. Introductions to each chapter of the game are given by an old friend of Sam’s, currently incarcerated by a shady group of individuals and being grilled for answers about just what happened throughout the course of the game. The voice actor for this character does his job well and makes these bits of exposition feel like you’re really caught up in the midst of a modern spy movie; which for all intents and purposes you are. Right from the outset, Conviction presents a pretty strong Bourne Identity vibe, what with the rogue agent on a mission of discovery and all. The locations actually feel very espionage film-esque as well. You’ll see a mansion in Malta, secret research laboratories, and even the Lincoln Memorial and the White House. The backdrops they provide really do a lot to strengthen that feeling of being one of the world’s most bad-ass super spies.

Adding to the immersive element of the narrative is the new idea of how to present mission objectives. The Ubisoft Montreal team came up with the idea that instead of having a clumsy HUD popping up onscreen telling you what to do next, they would instead project your mission objectives onto the environment. This is just downright cool. If your next objective is to, say, interrogate Captain McTerrorist then “interrogate Captain McTerrorist” will be projected onto a wall, doorway, pillar, or whatever in real-time. It gets even more impressive when you realize that they actually put a virtual projector into the game, so walking in front of whatever surface the objective is printed on will result in the words also projecting *onto you*. It’s a really impressive element that adds an artistic feel to the game. So overall the presentation is great; even if the plot does sometimes feel a little like this.

But as interesting as a game’s presentation may be, it wouldn’t be worth much if the game wasn’t fun to play. Luckily, Splinter Cell: Conviction is a lot of fun, so no worries. When previews of the gameplay began to emerge on the net, it caused more than a few murmurs of discontent; and understandably so. Gone is Sam’s ability to move the bodies of his opponents, as well as his darkness and noise meters and a few other tricks such as the split jump. All of this results in a game where you’re perhaps a bit less stealthy than before. Sam isn’t hiding from his enemies so much as stalking and hunting them like a well-armed tiger with Michael Ironside’s voice. Your arsenal also now consists of everything from pistols to assault rifles to shotguns, meaning that you’re not necessarily toast the second somebody spots you; instead it’s sometimes feasible to blast your way out of trouble with enough bullets. If you were looking for the invisible Sam of days gone by, then you might be a bit upset.

Don’t get me wrong, though; this is still very much a stealth game. Play it like a shooter game and you’re gonna get hurt. Staying undetected is still the key to success more often than not, and even if you happen to mow your way through a crowd of enemies with a 12-gauge that’s about as subtle as Dennis Rodman, then you probably won’t feel very accomplished about it. The real enjoyment comes from taking out your enemies as silently as you can. The stealth mechanics have been reworked to accommodate this new, faster-paced stealth action. When you’re obscured in darkness, the color in the game fades into black-and-white, letting you know that you’re more difficult to see, which I honestly prefer over the somewhat awkward darkness meter of past games. I recall one instance in the first Splinter Cell game where I was simply crouched in a corner with a guard looking right at me. Yet because my darkness meter was maxed he just turned and walked away. Enemies aren’t quite that stupid anymore. If you try to hide “in the open” like that, they’ll still see you, so don’t try it. Also, a cover system has been implemented into the game, much in the same style as existed in another Ubisoft title Rainbow Six: Vegas. Now, I love cover systems, and Vegas’ system has been my favorite for the past several years. I’m happy to say that Conviction has now stolen that place of honor. While it retains the idea of actively holding the left trigger instead of using a single button press, it also incorporates movement. If you’re hiding behind a box, and you want to hide behind that dumpster ahead of you, you can simply aim your crosshairs at the corner of that dumpster and press another button to dive behind it. Using this system to creep up behind an unsuspecting enemy feels incredibly intuitive, and I very much hope that other developers will learn that *this* is how cover should be done.

Other new features include interrogation sequences, which are interesting in a sadistic, holy-crap-why-would-you-do-that? kind of way. The problem with these sequences is that they are obviously highly scripted, so that you can only interact with fairly obvious environmental objects, and you’re trapped by invisible walls in a fairly small area, making these interrogations feel less impressive than they could have been. The game also incorporates a “last known position” feature, which leaves a silhouette of Sam in whatever area the enemies believe him to be in. It’s pretty simple, and we’ve seen similar ideas before (minus the silhouette) in games like Metal Gear Solid years ago; but using your last known position as a lure to guide enemies into a trap as you take them out from a pipe on the ceiling ends up being amusing… perhaps more than it should be, now that I think about it.

But perhaps the single biggest new feature that has been added to Conviction is the inclusion of the Mark and Execute system. With this, players can “mark” a number of targets, putting a floating arrow above their heads. When the arrow turns red, that means they’re in your sights and you’re free to tap a button and take out any enemies you marked all at once. Some people wrote this off as a simple “win” button, but don’t be deceived; you can’t just go through the game executing everybody you see. You have to first earn the ability to mark targets by performing a melee kill (which you should be doing anyway just because they’re fun to do). Also, each weapon has a limited number of marks, the maximum being four, while most only have two or three. This means that you can mark four people at most with this ability then after you use it, you have to perform another melee kill. It actually provides a good balance between ranged and melee attacks throughout the game, and the feeling of reward you get from marking a room full of bad guys, breaking down the door, and then popping off a string of headshots in the space of a heartbeat actually provides some of the most memorable moments of the game.

And really, that’s what it all comes down to. When trying to decide if a game I’ve played is worth the money, I usually ask myself if it provided any “holy crap that was awesome” moments; the kind of stuff that we nerds gather around the water cooler and relate back and forth to each other to pass the time. If it did, then I’m usually pretty satisfied with it. As of now, Splinter Cell: Conviction has given me a good handful of those moments in the single player campaign alone, and co-op has provided me with a good deal more. I recognize that many die-hard fans of the series won’t necessarily appreciate the changes that have been made to their beloved franchise; and I can understand that. But for me, Conviction got me excited about stealth games again, for which I have to give it credit. Instead of losing its former glory and fading into obscurity, it climbs atop the shoulders of its predecessors and strikes a triumphant pose, having emerged as a hero in its own right, and certainly earns my praise as my favorite game in the series.