Many games are centered around angry characters with brutal tendencies. Kratos. Asura. Starkiller. These are emotionally unstable beings who resort to acts of intense over-the-top violence to curb their limitless rage. Not exactly the sorts of fellows one associates with the cold, dry-witted, typically professional government operative that is Sam Fisher, the first and best Splinter Cell. Yet as it turns out, being forced through a few years of loss, suffering and betrayal can do a number on even the best of us, which brings us to Conviction, a brand new take on a long-silent franchise that introduces plenty of new features and a more driven, aggressive and truly admirable Fisher than ever before.
For those looking into its history, particularly newcomers, the Splinter Cell games have featured heavy focus on stealth mechanics, borrowing some ideas from its cousins Metal Gear and Thief, while delivering various innovations on its own. The games are both memorable and notorious for the high difficulty of missions and the trial-and-error gameplay which has become commonplace for older games of the genre. Fortunately, Conviction has its sights set on modern conventions of third-person shooters, fitting the more action-oriented focus of this installment.
Yes, this time, sneaking around in a black Splinter Cell uniform and knocking enemies unconscious is no longer an option, as Ubisoft Montreal has replaced those SC staples with more brutal avenues that Fisher can undertake. Fisher now moves from cover to cover, in a more intuitive manner than Gears of War and its spawn, and can either freefire using an efficient zoom system, run over to his targets and brutally kill them with a melee attack or utilize the brand new Mark and Execute system. The Mark and Execute system seems designed to assist players who have trouble with aiming, allowing them to target enemies and automatically shoot them. The catch is that Fisher must melee kill an enemy each time the player wants to use the mechanic, so there is an inherent balance.
Conviction, despite refining its multiplayer, is still very passionate about its offering to individuals. Its single-player campaign, consisting of 11 levels, brings Fisher from the streets of Malta to the heart of Washington D.C (the latter of which takes up a large portion of the gameplay). Levels are driven on a linear path, but the areas that the player travels to have numerous pathways and contextual options (explosives barrels, shootable chandeliers, etc.) to take down or distract the various enemies strewn about. The opposing artificial intelligence is more than competent, as they will communicate with one another, investigate noises and disturbances en masse and will indeed check at your Last Known Location, a neat mechanic that imprints a silhouette of Fisher where he was last spotted. The light and darkness mechanics of Splinter Cells old is still in us, but with a clever twist: the screen is monochrome when Fisher is in the shadows, while colours appear when he is surrounded by lights. This emphasis, combined with the smooth never-before-seen-in-a-Splinter-Cell-game cover system, makes for the most interesting and effective interpretation of the stealth genre yet.
The controls are intuitive, with many interactions (including “gluing” to cover and opening doors) mapped to the A Button and a familiar third-person shooter set-up for movement, shooting, aiming, swapping weapons and gear, et cetera. The melee moves are brutal, indicative of Fisher’s bubbling rage and his disregard of the phrase “with all due respect”. There is also a customization system, referred to as Persistent Elite Creation, which allows players to gain points, through completing certain in-game achievements, that can be spent on weapons and explosives upgrades which are shared between multi-player and single-player.
Speaking of multi-player, the additions this time around seem more fitting than traditional Splinter Cell online fare. The main online/offline co-op mode is a prequel to the single-player, putting players in the shoes of Archer (a Splinter Cell) and Kestrel (a Russian special forces operative) as they travel through four different levels in a mostly-separate campaign (more on that below). Archer and Kestrel have access to all of Fisher’s tricks, plus some co-op exclusive ones (like Dual Executing when enemies are marked, or Reviving one another). As well, the game offers Deniable Ops, four modes consisting of Hunter (go through maps, kill all enemies in each section), Last Stand (defend an EMP generator from continuous waves of enemies), Face Off (earn points by killing ordinary enemies, earn many points by killing the other player) and Infiltration (similar to Hunter, but avoid detection). Hunter and Last Stand can be player alone, while all five of these multi-player offerings can be enjoyed online or off with two players.
There are also two more additions that assist the cinematic side of this installment. First, as Fisher progresses, videos and images will appear on walls as a sort of slide-show to emphasize plot points or the current objective, which is helpful and interesting. Second, during specific missions, Fisher can grab key enemies and interrogate them in a fixed area filled with various interactive objects that they can be smashed or thrown against.
Unfortunately, with all of the refinement comes some negative aspects. Bullets fired with the Mark and Execute system can sometimes clip through walls if enemies walk into another room as they are targeted, which can be weird to witness but is not a deal-breaker. What is more mind-boggling is the design of two particular levels in the single-player campaign, one of which is set as a flashback to Iraq and plays like an ordinary third-person shooter, the other forcing the player to avoid detection completely or else repeat the mission from the previous checkpoint. Their shift in tones, while interesting and not a major problem, may concern certain fans and newcomers, respectively. Lastly, though perhaps due to player preferences rather than inherent flaws, the matchmaking seems to be a little clunky, seemingly having difficulty finding exact matches and randomly disconnecting from play-sessions. Overall, these complaints are nitpicks and not a major detriment to this package.
Splinter Cell narratives usually revolve around international plots involving the modern citizen’s greatest fears: bioterrorism, cyber-warfare, nuclear proliferation. This time around, the plot is more personal and more brutal, centered around good old Sam as he begins investigating the events surrounding his daughter Sarah’s death, an important plot point from previous installment Double Agent (Essentials not withstanding) that caused his departure from Third Echelon. As it turns out, the conspiracy goes beyond Fisher, he being a pawn in a much larger political struggle involving PMCs and secret organizations gunning for the U.S. President. Within the first hour of the game, Sam is located and drawn back into the fight against terrorism by long-time veteran Anna “Grim” Grimsdottir to stop these malevolent forces from taking control and discover the truth behind his suffering.
Also introduced in the game’s opening is Victor Coste, an old friend of Sam’s who retells the events of Conviction to a group that is interrogating him for unknown purposes. Calling Victor a “poor man’s Sully” wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but it would be underselling his value. Victor manages, through narrations, to set the scene for each level, interpreting Sam’s actions and providing players with the most developed psychological analysis of Fisher in the series’ history while also showing that Sam has influenced the lives of many in his travels.
As it stands, Conviction’s plot is less about conspiracies and manipulation as it is about, well, conviction and personal values. For every major out-of-left-field plot reveal that fleshes out the shadowy antagonist force, there are more subtle moments where Sam shows other sides of himself: loyal comrade, loving father, professional soldier, tormented veteran. References to the events surrounding Double Agent are present and accounted for, as are explanations and appearances by characters new and old to flesh out this web of deception. This plot, while hinging on some knowledge of previous events, is satisfying and well-crafted enough that all gamers will feel welcome, particularly in the suspenseful final hours that act as the most emotional moments in the franchise’s history.
Speaking about the plot, though, does require mentioning the co-op campaign. Taking place ten days before the events of the single-player campaign, this tale features the aforementioned Archer and Kestrel attempting to crack down on the weapons black market in Europe and Russia and recover stolen Russian weaponry. It’s very gameplay-oriented, with few actual scripted moments, save for the final mission which sets up for the main story while tying up Archer and Kestrel’s story arcs in an interesting, if not totally satisfying, manner.
Aiding this latest and greatest installment are very high quality visuals. Running on the LEAD engine, a heavily modified version of Unreal Engine 2.5, the game’s various locations are fairly impressive, though the textures might not be as polished up close. Similarly, the art design is good, but not exceptional; some locations are portrayed as being stark and benefit as a result, while others are acceptably bright. However, the overall appearance is supported by its cinematic-style quality and the split monochrome-colour design, which gives this game a unique appearance.
Voice acting for Splinter Cell games, while not bad, have seemingly lacked passion or emotional value, save for Michael Ironside’s gruff take on Sam Fisher. This time around, the actors play their parts excellently, with emotional output and charisma that matches what film and television can offer. Ironside remains the star of the show with his wide range of expressions that give Fisher greater depth as a character, while Howard Siegel gives Vic Coste a sort of ‘wise mentor’ tone that is befitting of his role. The same can be said of Claudia Besso as the cold-hearted Grimsdottir and James A. Woods as the proud, narcissistic antagonist, Tom Reed; no one phones in their dialogue.
Last, and certainly not least, there is the soundtrack, a blend of generic intense action tunes and more orchestral themes. The former take their place in the midst of gunfights, enhancing the atmosphere with a mix of tension and adrenaline, while the latter play out during quieter scenes and narrative moments to build up suspense and drama. All in all, a good blend of music that, while not always memorable, manages to do its job well.
At the end of the day, Splinter Cell has always been about tension and focused action, not all-out gunfights and subtle character studies. Yet somehow, Conviction tries this new approach to stealth gameplay, well-paved by its peers, and it manages to succeed in many ways. It stands as an example of how far not only its own franchise has come, but also every member of its genre. To say it requires conviction to play would be a mistake; in spite of its flaws, this is truly Splinter Cell at its best in a while.
Author’s Opinion: Let me be clear: an 8 is not bad; Splinter Cell: Conviction is a great game. Altogether, its content will keep you busy for quite a while, and you’ll want to come back to its single-player and multi-player time and again. It has high production values, a strong narrative, good improvements to controls and other features that make it an excellent title to own. It isn’t as high on the scale as, say, Metal Gear Solid, but I highly recommend to any self-respecting gamer to at least try Conviction. Buying it would be just as rewarding, though.
-Kurt Hvorup, Writer & Founder, Gamer Codex