Games of 2010: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction

Clancy that.

"Fisher? You'll pay for what you did to Robertson! Hear me, Fisher? This won't end like it did at the airfield!"

Airfield? What airfield? And who's Robertson again? Splinter Cell: Conviction isn't just my game of the year, it's a game it took me most of the year to finish, even though a lot of people complained about how fleeting an experience the single-player campaign was. I played it between work, between moving house, and between playing games I was actually meant to be writing about. Each time I picked it up again I had to remind myself of how the controls worked, whether I'd inverted the camera, and of the best means of wringing entertainment from Ubisoft's super-powered reinvention of stealth.

I got my money's worth, I think, but there were certainly casualties to this approach. Casualties like narrative consequence, with pivotal moments at airfields simply blinking out of existence for me. Casualties like Robertson, too, who I appear to have murdered without realising it. Apologies, Robertson: I'm sure you deserved better.

Splinter Cell: Conviction took much longer to make than it did for me to play, of course, but lengthy delays are rarely a guarantee of quality when it comes to videogames. Actually, I can think of at least four or five games I've played in the last few weeks that are easily better than Sam Fisher's latest - games that are more considered, pacier, and less fundamentally ridiculous.

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Amon Tobin worked on the soundtrack: the menus, in particular, feature some lovely bloops and bleeps.

Rewind even further, delving into 12 months that saw Mario blasting back into space, that had Super Crate Box tying weapon sets and scoring systems together deliciously tightly, and sent Solipskier racing through the greyscale snow, hurrying towards his inevitable date with both destiny and Chopin, and Clancy's super-spy, gruffly competent as he is, really has no place in too many end-of-the-year lists.

So no, I'm not suggesting that Conviction is the best game of 2010 by any means. Instead, I'm admitting that it's the game I had the most fun with: the game I enjoyed for all the things it unexpectedly gets just right for me, and some of the things it makes such an entertaining mess of.

Here's another caveat: if you've played the previous Splinter Cells, Conviction appears to be a bit of a disappointment. Mechanics have been simplified, and approaches have been reined in. The possibility space of the adventure, as Will Wright might say, has been significantly diminished, in favour of speedy traversal, unlikely set-pieces, and the fact that the design team spent two or three years plugging helplessly away at a project apparently called: Sam Fisher, The Deadliest Hobo, and then had to knock something sugary together pretty sharpish when that fell to pieces.

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Conviction's not strong dramatically, yet Michael Ironside's performance rises above the dialogue, and Fisher's animation captures his skilful ingenuity brilliantly.

But I haven't played the previous Splinter Cells - I'm fundamentally lacking the patience, the intelligence, and the eyesight to navigate their gloomy playgrounds - and so I brought none of those grumbles to the table with me. Rather than the neutering of a once-great franchise, Conviction struck me as a sustained rumination on a single, fascinating question: What would happen if Captain Haddock out of Tintin went totally mental one day, and turned out to have the double-dangerous voodoo-ninja skills to do some real damage?

Again, I'll admit that, strung out across the best part of a year, the niceties of Splinter Cell's plot have kind of passed me by. I know Fisher's grumpy and bearded because his daughter's been killed, and I know that Anna Grimsdottir, a red-headed lady who looks a bit like Tanya Donnelly, lead singer of the much-missed mid-nineties band Belly, is involved. I also know, this being Tom Clancy, that the rot goes all the way to the White House, and that the Geneva Convention, with its, "try not to torture people too much", and its "don't shoot people in the dark, right?" is just a load of Commie bunk.

(Have you ever seen a photo of Tom Clancy, incidentally? It's enormously disappointing. Real-world Clancy resembles a man who made an enormous amount of money in the fried chicken business before entering the celebrity golfing circuit, while his paranoid, militaristic ramblings have always made me assume he's a sinewy cross between Glenn Beck and the Unabomber. He has a huge, matted facial hair, in my imagination, dresses exclusively in a soiled flight suit, and talks to most people through the letterbox of his heavily-fortified house lest they try to read his mind with microwave brain-cannons when he opens the door.)

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