Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Don't Call It...: Return of the Fisher King

Another piece on comebacks, this time in the world of console-and-televisual games. It's a bit more tangentially related to the hip-hop orientated posts which will bookend it, but no less violent or sweary.

Eat this, five-eyes.

Sam Fisher. Like stealth gaming’s Eminem, every apparent retirement means another inevitable self-reinventing comeback. After a four year hiatus, and at least one return to the drawing board, Conviction brings back everyone’s favourite grumpy killing machine.

Except, he’s not so silent these days. Following the apparent death of his daughter, Sam’s not feeling so subtle. As he tracks down whoever is responsible through fairgrounds, industrial warehouses and (in flashback) war-torn Iraq, he leaves a trail of snapped necks and exploded craniums.

Oh yes. Out go the extensive gadgets and meticulous planning. In come brutal close-quarter murdering and its reward, the ‘Mark & Kill’ system, which allows Fisher to get off two or three insta-kill shots from the hip faster than the unholy spawn of Clint Eastwood and Sonic the Hedgehog.

Everything is designed to streamline your stealth experience. The new ‘last known position’ system, which leaves a white outline in the place enemies makes it easier to keep track of cat-and-mouse chases. It’s also a step towards the removal of the cluttered HUD, as Conviction tries to put everything on screen.

Mark & Spencer

This is a double-edged sword. Replacing the increasingly over-complicated feed of information (light meters, noise meters, doing-a-jig meters) of yesteryear by simply jumping into black-and-white when you’re hidden is a neat idea. In theory.

In practice, it can be headache-inducing or, worse, just plain unconvincing. Coming back into full-colour mode shows these ‘hidden’ spots to be quite reasonably-illuminated corners. The flashbacks and objectives projected onto walls, however, are a brilliant idea. They’re Conviction at its most beautiful, and should be copied immediately.

But this isn’t a particularly beautiful game: it’s too busy with manly grunting for that. The delicate interplay of light and shadow, growing in sophistication with each instalment, is gone. There’s certainly no more gawping at thin slits of light crawling across your body, or the slowly-rotating silhouette of a fan. Without the strength of its convictions to create deep dark shadows, there’s little contrast, and little hiding rough-edges.

Meanwhile, the men you’re trying to knock off shout increasingly hyperbolic threats. “We’re gonna find you Fisher!” “You’re supposed to be a soldier, Fisher, not some little girl!” “How about I take your mother out on a date, Fisher?!?” It used to be that the snatches of dialogue you’d catch felt like spying on your enemies. But that little voyeuristic thrill is swept away in the deafening scream.

God, I feel like an old man. I know I keep leaning on the it aten’t the way I remember it argument, but this is quite self-consciously a comeback. The weight that carries means you can’t help but compare it to what came before.

A wee torture session (ha! wee! gettit?)

There’s the scent of a few failed attempts during that time in the wilderness, and of looking over its shoulder at the competition (the looming bat-shaped shadow of Arkham Asylum, the sweat-marks left by Call of Duty). After nearly annual releases, there were four long years between this and the last Splinter Cell game. That can’t help but build expectations: just look back at my 2009 preview for proof of that.

In the hip-hop examples I’ve been looking at, the comeback pushes against the tension of all that time away to build tension, raise the stakes. All a long-delayed game has to push against is the fans. And so I end up focusing on how much complexity it has shed, reaching for options that aren’t there anymore like a phantom limb. The myriad of buttons and moves you’d only use twice was part of the joy of Splinter Cell.

But, it is a Proper Stealth Game. It’s been a while since we saw one of those, following the death of last decade’s stealth boom. I just wish it would remember that, realise what used to make it so special, and just quiet down a little. But then, isn’t that how it always is when one of your favourites comes back from the dead?

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.