Splinter Cell: Conviction is changing, and it’s taking the stealth genre with it. The new direction speeds pacing in a way that looks promising, but it may alienate traditional genre fans. Max Biland, the project’s creative director, gave a thirty-minute presentation on some of the new features in the PAX auditorium. Read on for the run down on the Mark and Execute system, Last Known Position, and a cute tweak to storytelling.
Biland framed the game’s new features as part of an overarching gameplay cycle: prepare, execute, and vanish. This sort of thing is normally just marketing screed, but in this case it actually summarizes genre gameplay. If you need to push through a bodyguard to access a warehouse office, you might position yourself in the rafters, drop down to break his neck, and then melt into the doorway’s shadows to prepare for your next target.
It sounds like a recipe for an action movie, but stealth gameplay tends to emphasize the prepare phase so much that it makes for slow pacing. Conviction‘s new mechanics are about rebalancing the phases to refocus the genre on action rather than waiting.
Mark and Execute
Mark and Execute is a cinematic adaptation to the traditional stealth kill mechanic. Imagine an action movie where Chisled Cop Out For Revenge™ pokes his head around a corner, counts three lackeys, and then pops back into cover. He rests his gun against his nose for a moment, pops around the corner again, and kills all three lackeys with three precise shots.
In game, it looks like the Mark and Execute system is your reward for stealth well maintained. Covertly observing hostiles will allow you to designate them for execution. Then, you input a simple command to make the kills. It’s cool to watch, but some Splinter Cell veterans in the audience expressed concerns that the system amounted to a “win button.” Biland was quick to assure everyone that wasn’t the case, but didn’t expand on how failure would work.
Last Known Position
Stealth-as-usual is all about permission and denial. Designers want you to rely primarily on stealth to navigate obstacles, so they punish you for being spotted. This generally gets done by crippling the combat system so that it’s unwieldy or ineffective, and by making it difficult to disappear once you’ve been spotted. That way, when the klaxons start screaming and four faceless guards show up, anything that happens afterward is just a pretty formality to ease you into the game over screen.
Apologists might defend this sort of enforced stealth as realistic (it’s common knowledge that ninjas don’t do well when directly lit), but Conviction will actually allow permission to erode some of the denial. They accomplish this by treating stealth as line of sight. It’s the radical notion that if your enemies can’t see you, they don’t know exactly where you are. A necessary corollary of this mindset is the Last Known Position mechanic.
When Sam drops out of line of sight, he leaves behind a silhouette that represents the last point where enemies could see him. Enemies will investigate your last known position like they would follow a knocking sound, which means that you can drive AI behavior by controlling your line of sight.
Biland described it as the Splinter Cell version of knocking on a wall, and it is, insofar as your last known position attracts enemies. However, that downplays the critical fact that Last Known Position resets the gameplay cycle by taking you through vanish and leaving you at preparation, and it does so in the middle of combat. This makes stealth a tool, something that you pull out and use when you need it, rather than the sole permitted mechanic. It extends the scope and diversity of stealth gameplay to keep the game flowing forward.
Projected Environment Objectives
The last new feature from the demo was a charming minor mechanic. During the normal course of gameplay, developers rely on HUDs and other interruptive contrivance to relate objectives and background narrative. Projected environment objectives are a uniquely gaming sort of solution to these sorts of pacing interruptions. They’re exactly what they sound like: illuminating gameplay tasks on the sides of buildings with 50,000-watt bulbs. It’s a little ridiculous and immersion-breaking, but gameplay objectives as a part of the scenery comes off as smooth and stylish.
All of these mechanics and tweaks serve one purpose, to move Splinter Cell away from deliberative stealth gameplay and toward action with stealth mechanics. They replace frustration with empowerment at the cost of moving from strategy toward tactics. Although their ideas so far are sound, whether or not this comes as good news depends on your allegiance to genre convention.
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