Sam Fisher returns in Splinter Cell: Conviction, on the run from old allies and old gameplay conventions alike. Should he be on the run from the assembled video game critics as well?
It's been a rocky road with several false starts, but Ubisoft has finally come through with Splinter Cell: Conviction, the latest, most brutal episode in the Sam Fisher saga yet. After discovering the accidental death of his beloved daughter might not have been as accidental as he was led to believe, Sam goes hunting for her killer, and anyone standing in his way is expendable.
Can this new, unchained Sam Fisher draw in new fans to the stealth action franchise while still pleasing the old guard? Read on.
Where once Splinter Cell was the primary preserve of the patiently cruel - those players happy to memorise enemy patrol patterns, lay elaborate traps and find thrill in the crumple of a single adversary - Conviction invites Jack Bauer into its lead role, then dresses him up like a ninja. Now on the run, Fisher has no access to the raft of gadgetry once provided by former employer Third Echelon, the lack of night vision goggles placing new emphasis on movement and blunt power (and eliminating the dull green wash that characterised the visuals of the earlier games). No longer is the game about laying traps in the dark and hiding in wait. Rather, darkness acts as a superhero cape, empowering as it gives you, the unseen, deadly power over them, the seen.
From the opening scene in Malta in which the player is given a brief tutorial on the basic changes to the gameplay, Fisher comes across as walking powder-keg. The new, brutal gameplay combines with the rumbling tones of Michael Ironside's brilliant voice-work to paint a picture of a man who is a barely contained coil of naked rage. It's not long before some small-time mercenary provides an outlet for his anger; the tutorial ends with a scene in which Sam interrogates the flunkey, by beating the living daylights out him. Sam puts his foe's head through a mirror, then a sink, then a urinal and finally ends things by snapping his neck. It's an ugly, violent scene, but also shot through with a sense of cathartic release.
Performing a close-combat take down opens up the opportunity to use Conviction's 'Mark and Execute' system, a new feature that does exactly what its name suggests. Marking up enemies using the RB button places a triangle over their head which will change from grey to red if they're in range. Press Y and Sam will take them out in slow-mo with pin-point head shots. It's a feature that could have been horrendously over used but with it being restricted to two shots before it has to be replenished with a new takedown, you're forced to really think about how you use it. Better yet is the fact that a lot of the time you don't feel like you need it at all. That's not to imply that Mark and Execute is a wasted feature - it's more a testament to the game's tactical freedom. With pipes to climb, lighting rigs and fire extinguishers to shoot, stealthy CQC takedowns and human shield options - not to mention the good old pick 'em off one at a time with a clean headshot approach - each situation you find yourself in really is yours to work through however you want.
While the campaign is disappointingly short, coming in at no more than seven hours, no one should feel underwhelmed by the presentation. Conviction is a slick looking game, built expertly using the Unreal Engine 3. It's a shame that much of the game is played in black and white, considering the levels have been superbly created, but it's a design choice that helps gameplay. A real highlight of the experience is the ultra violent interrogations that Sam performs on key characters throughout the campaign. Here the ex-agent smashes enemies into mirrors, crushes skulls on pianos and a whole lot more. Equally great is the in-game projected mission objectives system, with text being beamed onto walls and other objects instead of popping up as overlaid text. It looks great, adds a modern TV-show quality to the presentation and keeps you immersed in the game world.
While the single-player of Conviction might not scratch every itch fans of the franchise have, the game includes a robust multiplayer component, which features a co-operative campaign (via Xbox Live, split-screen and system link) for two players. The co-op campaign is more in line with the "classic" Splinter Cell games, featuring two characters decked out in full uniform who can also utilize the game's "Mark and Execute" feature. The co-op campaign acts as a precursor to the conspiracy story in Sam's adventure and stars two agents: American Third Echelon agent Archer and his Russian equivalent, Kestrel, from Voron. While the story isn't on the same memorable page as Conviction's main tale, it does a good job giving some background into the threat Sam faces. Co-op, which will run players about five hours, also doesn't have any of the elements found in past games like hiding bodies, hacking, and lock picking, but the new focus on systematically taking out enemies is amplified when controlling Archer or Kestrel. In the multiplayer modes, stealth is always the best possible method for success, which isn't necessarily true when you're playing solo as Sam Fisher.
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.