After a somewhat extended hiatus and a number of design changes, Tom Clancy's gruff silent assassin has at last returned to us. Like its main character, Splinter Cell is a changed entity; the result of a good few years of going back to draw board and throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks in order to create the superlative Splinter Cell experience. What we have are not the expected fruits of such a labour, but rather a game that nonetheless remains a compelling experience and an encouraging reboot for the series and one which endures despite its conflicted identity.
The identity crisis that Conviction seems to suffer from stems almost directly from the proposed freedom that the player has been given to approach almost any given situation. No longer will the player now be mercilessly punished by alarms and wave upon wave of tougher-than-you guards who converge upon you within seconds of you being spotted, or a body being discovered. This time, Sam Fisher can go balls out and overtly take the fight to the enemy by letting rip with a number of different weapons from silenced automatic weaponry all the way through to the completely un-stealthy twin-gauge shotgun.
Traditional elements of Splinter Cell games gone past such as moving dead bodies, hacking computers, picking locks and even the need to avoid all out confrontations at all costs, are distressingly, nowhere to be seen here. Indeed, itís wholly possible to go through the entire game and not use half of the gadgets at your disposal, and just blast your way through everything only to get all your gadgets and weaponry fully restocked on the next mission. This is in stark contrast to earlier titles where you valued each and every sticky cam and gadget that you had in your inventory. Carefully planning when the best interval would be to deploy it and the manner in which you would go about doing so added a satisfying dynamic to the stealth emíup format that the series has prided itself on since its inception, but alas, is nowhere to be seen here.
If it isnít obvious already, the game appears a lot less harsher on the player than in times past with the onus on potentially trial and error stealth replaced by a far more relaxed approach which in almost every situation, does not preclude the use of loud and open fire fighting to get the job done. The ability to not move bodies is tempered by the fact that if a guard sees a dead comrade, heíll merely begin looking for you, instead of triggering an alarm and potentially ending the mission for you.
While this is ostensibly an indication that the stealth formula has been diluted for Samís latest outing, the decision behind this is very deliberate. As much as the series may have regressed in regards to its stealth mechanics, Conviction marks an evolution for the series in regards to how third-person action is now being handled. Among other things, Sam now has a dynamic cover system which allows him to stylishly transition from cover to cover and dive into cover whenever need be. Factor in the regenerating health system and you have a game that relentlessly pushes the player forward and doesnít want them to be concerned with reading e-mails, hiding bodies or retracing their steps through a level to find a much needed medikit.
A new takedown system also allows Sam to quickly deal with enemies in close quarters and not just from the flanks, but daringly, directly from the front too; killing the target instantly in a quiet, subdued fashion. The implications of the takedown system however feed directly into the other new gameplay system for Conviction; the Mark and Execute system. Borrowed from the Rainbow Six Vegas series, as this quick kill mechanic has been taken and repurposed for Samís latest outing. Mark and Execute works in the same way here as it does in the Vegas titles, you tag your targets and press a button to down them all at the same time; the exception being that you need to fill up your execute meter to be able to use it and this is done by completing a takedown on a hostile target.
The Mark and Execute system, like so many of the other changes in Conviction do the one thing for a player in a stealth title that you should never feel; confidence. For me, the whole idea of being stealthy in Splinter Cell is feeling my heart pound in my chest as I peek under a door, observe a guard patrol, stealthy open the door and sneak by, mere inches from the patrol. Here, the regenerative health, mark and execute system and freedom to go in guns blazing propagates a type of confidence and bravado that is hugely at odds with the typically cautious style of play that is widely associated with the stealth genre.
A fun and visually entertaining new gameplay feature are the interrogations. In scenes that would make Jack Bauer proud, there are certain characters that are key to the narrative that Sam can physically abuse in the pursuit of truth. From a simple touch of the button, players can slam heads through urinals, knee uncooperative bad guys in the face and sear somebodyís face off with a hot grill and itís all done in a very satisfying and brutal fashion with lots of cinematic flair.
So on this evidence and with all the apparent strides that have been made towards a more action-orientated and less cerebral approach to gameplay, Conviction can hardly be classed a stealth title right? Well, Ubisoft Montreal has implemented a number of incentives to promote stealthy play within the game and while the rewards themselves are not largely significant, the fact that the concept of stealthy play has not been forgotten is nonetheless a reassuring one.
UbiPoints are accrued throughout the single player and multiplayer co-operative campaigns by completing a certain number of stealthy milestones such as completing a number of stealthy takedowns or vanishing in the shadows a number of times if spotted. These points then allow the player to purchase a number of different upgradeable weapons and gadgets that can be used in both the single player and multiplayer co-operative campaign. While some may rue the fact that stealth isnít arbitrarily forced on the player on the player as in previous games, it does indicate a bespoke approach on the behalf of Ubisoft Montreal to diversify the core Splinter Cell experience with the result being easily the most accessible title in the series thus far.
Unfortunately, Convictionís relatively breakneck pace compared to previous instalments actually exacerbates a larger issue with the single-player campaign; it isnít that long at all. The whole affair can be wrapped up in just shy of six hours but any disappointment felt because of the fact finds itself tempered by the robust co-operative modes. There is a lot of fun and mileage to be had in the deniable ops co-op modes which to their credit give you three full-sized, fully-featured prequel missions that are completely divorced from any of the maps seen in the single-campaign.
Another feather in the cap of Conviction is just how visually accomplished the game is. While visuals have never really been a point of concern for the series, the aesthetics in Conviction are a cut above anything that has come before with meticulously rendered environments and well animated character models that are compounded by a smooth frame rate. This is quite simply the best series has ever looked and the interrogation scenes (particularly the very first one you do) do a great job of illustrating the development teamís mastery of the 360 hardware.
In terms of the narrative itself, Conviction does a serviceable job. Following on the overarching plot set in motion earlier on in the series, Sam is in the pursuit of the people who murdered his daughter and in that ever-watchable Jack Bauer/Jason Bourne fashion, is intent on using his considerable training and skills to get the job done as new characters are reintroduced alongside older characters that have been part of the story since the beginning. Generally speaking the story is written solidly enough but provides little surprises, but a special mention must be given to the voice of Sam Fisher; Mr. Michael Ironside still brings a decent amount of gravitas to the role; delivering badass lines and snappy quips with due aplomb.
Ironically Splinter Cell: Conviction is not a game that appears to have any solid conviction in its grass roots foundations; instead optioning a reworking of its third person action mechanics at the expense of many of the stealth elements that when taken as a whole, show the latest Splinter Cell stealth experience to be diminished as much as the all-out action approach has been emboldened.
There is a robust platform here for future titles in the series to evolve from, but like Sam Fisher himself, Splinter Cell would do well to take lessons from its past when it comes to forging and solidifying its own identify for the future.