Splinter Cell Conviction Review: The Best Lurks In Shadows

Several years in the making, and at least one false start later, a new Splinter Cell is finally upon us. Fittingly, the best part of it sneaks up on you.

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction is a third-person stealth action game offered in four parts: single-player campaign, single-player challenges, two-player cooperative adventure and competitive multiplayer. In the first you are what you would expect from Conviction's marketing campaign. You are series hero Sam Fisher, the impeccably vicious ex-government spy and morose dad of a daughter believed to be dead. (Yes, this game adds to the recent Daddening of Video Games.) The Fisher storyline charges the Sam and the player to do the usual infiltration of bases filled with enemies, but offers the gamer a superb new method of killing-from-the-shadows gameplay.

In the co-op campaign you and a fellow gamer are a pair of Fisher-quality American and Russian super-spies, ensnared in a series of base-infiltrating missions of their own. Their storyline never overlaps with Fisher's but connects to it. The little-hyped co-op part is graduate school to the single-player campaign's college, the most advanced and complex element of the Conviction package.

But still, a game in development this long — it once starred a shaggy Sam Fisher and was going to be released in 2007 — might well be a mess. You'd be right to fear that before playing.

Loved
Mark And Execute Respects My Brain: Other stealth games, including other Splinter Cells, require more muscular skill than Splinter Cell: Conviction, a game that introduces a "Mark and Execute" system that ensures guaranteed pinpoint targeting. A player can line up a shot from Sam Fisher's gun with cross-hairs and careful aiming via analog stick as they can in all the other nervous stealth games ever made. But in Conviction they can earn the ability to Mark and Execute by committing a one-button, non-alarm-raising melee kill. Even without committing the melee kill, players can "mark" by tagging up to four enemies with white icons over their heads. The melee kill earns them the ability to "execute," which means that the press of a button triggers Sam to fire automatic kill shots at any marked enemies — this is key — who are in Sam's line of sight. You know they're in his line of sight because their "mark" icons turn red.

This system is no less radical than the first Metroid Prime's introduction of auto-lock-on shooting in the first-person genre, but it is as welcome, to cite another Nintendo reference, as Link's refusal to stupidly fall off dangerous ledges in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time if players accidentally sprint him toward them. What we have here is a game hero who has the simulated brains to match ours, to recognize our common sense and our mental planning. I am in control of a super-spy. I see four guys he should be able to shoot and I have decided that doing so won't draw the attention of two other guys. For once I can trust my spy is good enough to execute my desires and his enemies, the sometimes broad gap in games between player intention and character execution, in Conviction, narrowed. Not that you have to use the system if you think it's too much of a gimme.

Walking Like A Panther: Ubisoft's designers describe the potency of Fisher in the shadows of Conviction as like a panther, instead of like a grandma. As with Batman: Arkham Asylum, we are in control of a gaming hero who takes to the shadows not out of fear but out of cunning aggression. Fisher feels powerful in darkness, moreso than he does when outgunned under bright light. A good Conviction player will shoot out the lights, peek under doors with a camera and mark enemies on the other side of the door for ready execution. They will perform familiar Splinter Cell ceiling-drop kills, use the new Sonar Goggles to spot enemies through walls and utilize a new visual helper called Last Known Position to identify the ghosted position where Fisher's enemies think he is (where they last caught sight of him.)

Gameplay Twists: The basics of Splinter Cell's single-player and co-op campaigns are base-infiltration. You're a spy taking cover behind crates, surveying a patrol of enemies in a big room, and either sneaking past or killing, or a combo of the two. But on occasion something very different is happening, as in the tutorial mission that opens the game, when darkness during a chase reminds Sam of a moment at home with his then-young daughter. Suddenly we're alternating between playing the mission and playing a memory. Another brief surprise scene presents the fascinating experience of not being sure if we are in control of one character or the character who is holding a gun at them; and another involves one of the best uses of gameplay to depict rage that I've ever witnessed. As God of War III showed before it, Conviction bears some marks of game designers confident enough that their players can handle sudden switches to alternate gameplay styles that best suit a given mood or moment.

Light And Dark: When Sam is not hidden, his world is in color. When he's in shadows, it simplifies to more of a black and white. Sonar Goggles present a third, fuzzy view of the world. While a frantic fight and flee can introduce a disorienting quick-change of look to the world, the way the color styles are used to indicate sneaking conditions are a great aid to a player who needs to always be aware of such things. Also nice are the mission objectives and hints projected onto walls in the environment, a stylish cluing in of the player about what they should do next. Splinter Cell, always a series known for cutting-edge lighting is winning in this category again.

Learning To Spy: The Fisher campaign is, with all due respect, a glorified tutorial for the co-op mode in the game. The latter gives the player all of the abilities introduced and learned up through the third-to-last level of the Fisher adventure (though you'll have far better weapons available if you play the solo campaign, so it's not all just training; it's also arming up). It is unusual for a single-player portion of the game to dole out so many new abilities for so long, but it is a great preparation for the enhanced skills required to survive co-op, which contains all of the game's toughest missions.

Two Clancyverse Games In One: Ubisoft has talked about connecting its Tom Clancy games and has done that a little, overlapping a mission in soldier game Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter with one in plane game HAWX. Here, in Conviction, are two quality adventures starring different characters doing different things that relate to the same key event: Big trouble in Washington, D.C. The two campaigns could be played as standalone games and provide a nice glimpse at how different styles of games (in this case, single-player and co-op) could be used to present multiple playable fictions that relate to each other

Co-Op Is The Main Event: The Fisher part of the game may have the best graphics, the best character and the best (aforementioned) surprise gameplay moments. But the most fun I had with Conviction was in the co-op campaign, when I and another player (MTV's Russ Frushtick) had to coordinate our sneaking through some very challenging situations. Things are tougher when you have to coordinate with a friend, more satisfying when you both manage to tackle enemies from the shadows (or pull them off ledges simultaneously). One melee kill in co-op earns both players the chance to execute, allowing a skilled pair of players to coordinate some room-clearing sequences if they manage to line-up a platoon of enemies just right. The co-op campaign, which is light on story — something about Weapons of Mass Destruction falling into the wrong hands — presents some challenging twists, introducing old-school zero-tolerance levels that cancel at the first instance of an enemy raising an alarm along with some interesting last-stand-style battles and other fun set-ups.

Hated
Paid-Off Gameplay: The systems I mentioned above for Mark and Execute and Last Known Position are good, as is the arsenal of pistols, machine guns, sticky cameras, mines and so forth, but what's alarming is that the game awards players points for completing Achievement-style challenges involving that arsenal. It's alarming because it seems that the best convergence of gameplay and level design would cause the player to use their varied arsenal naturally. That the game instead has to incentivize the player with point rewards that unlock weapons in order to ensure they try all of the available gameplay moves reveals a shortcoming of the game's level design. Miyamoto-style games, the Zeldas and Marios as well as, of all things, the Gears of War series, are still the exemplars of smart level design conducing creative and varied play, without having to "pay" players to perform it.

Unfortunate Overlap: It's not much of a bother that the story is stock Clancy, a narrative involving secret government agencies, double agents, false murders and the impending detonation of nuclear weapons. Nor did it bother me that a couple of Fisher's levels felt as if they were leftovers from a very different previous incarnation of the game. (I'm less confident about the benefit of the occasional sections of locked-room interactive torture, which feel gratuitous.) It is, however, a sad turn that one crucial section of the Fisher campaign and one crucial section of the co-op campaign are both very similar to games from Ubisoft rivals that came out in the last six months. Ubisoft does not appear to be ripping those games off (can't mention them, as it would spoil things), but let's just say that players of some recent games may feel more been-there, done-that than they'd want to, simply because Ubi's team was thinking along the same lines as some other top development teams.

Halo 2, Is That You?: The Sam Fisher campaign ends abruptly.

NOTE: The game was reviewed on an Xbox 360 debug unit and included, as is standard, some game code that is not final, including the ability to load any game map on the fly. It could be because of the hardware or non-final code that one frenzied section of the co-op campaign triggered an alert message that indicated the hardware was running out of available memory. The game did not trigger this alert at any other moment. Contacted about this issue, a Ubisoft spokesperson told Kotaku: "Known issue. Is fixed in the automatic title update of the retail version that is already out." So as long as Conviction players connect to Live, they should be ok.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is a little bit slight as a game for single-players, a weekend rental that, with some single-player challenges, still might not be beefy enough. But for gamers who intend to also play the co-op campaign, it is both the college and the graduate school of cutting-edge stealth gameplay innovation. Never before has Sam Fisher and playable colleagues felt so powerful.

Conviction was a long time coming. For those with friends, it will hit the mark and show that some video game spies are as capable as you will them to be. Study the single-player. Plan to play the co-op.

Splinter Cell: Conviction was and published by Ubisoft for the Xbox 360 on April 13 (a PC version ships later in the month). Retails for $59.99 USD. An Xbox 360 copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the single-player (six hours maybe?) and co-op campaigns (same), even when, for a quarter of the latter I had to do it on my own with two controllers.

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