Version tested: Xbox 360
The irony in calling the reinvention of a long-established series Conviction, only to flip-flop on what exactly that reinvention should look like, is writ large across Splinter Cell's recent history. We're now three years on from Ubisoft's original release date for Sam Fisher's fifth outing, a development hell seemingly spent groping in the dark for exactly what a stealth game should look and play like, post-Kojima.
The answer, it appears, is nothing much like a stealth game at all. Fisher has found alacrity in his middle age, his sneaking now less about cowering from torch beams than dashing, Dark Knight-like, from silent takedown to takedown. There are still echoes of the series' tradition of planning and executing skulk attacks, but new-found pace and accessibility makes this more of an action game than ever before.
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.
Is it really possible to reconcile creeping stealth with fireworks and fury? Even within the last two months, release dates publicised in magazine advertisements have passed Splinter Cell: Conviction by, reconfirming the impression that this is a game more often defined by uncertainty than the confidence of its assured name. Why mention the difficult gestation here? Because, despite the classy visuals and the neat set-piece mechanics, the conflict around the game occasionally spills inside the game; and while the developer has done its best to paper over the cracks, your eyes soon adjust to perceive the fault lines, particularly in the single-player storyline.
Not at first, mind you. The bold, stylised visuals and careful pacing of the excellent first hour or so of play make sure of that. As you creep from cover to cover through a continental night-time market, shooting out light bulbs with a silenced pistol to create pockets of dark safety, new ideas come thick and fast. When safe from enemy detection the world drains of colour, only refilling with warm hues and tones when you step out into the light. The technique allows Ubisoft to keep the screen free from clutter, while communicating everything the player needs to know at any given moment.
Fisher's thoughts and memories are projected as grainy black-and-white video onto whichever nearby wall or ceiling can act as a screen. Likewise, the daring choice to project game instructions, directives and mission overviews directly into the game's environments as stark, white light lettering is a triumph. The technique of placing fourth-wall-breaking text into the world is borrowed from title sequences to films such as David Fincher's Panic Room and Saul Bass' work on North by Northwest, again eliminating the need for intrusive menu pop-ups or HUD text elements.
The technique's at its best when it's used at set points, telling you to infiltrate a mansion by placing 30-foot high words to that effect along the shadowy side of the building itself, or as a stress-heightening countdown timer repeated on every wall around. However, a click of the select button will project your current objective onto whatever surface you currently have the camera pointing at, so you're never at a loss as to what you should be doing.
During the tutorial stage, Ubisoft casts Fisher back into a seemingly mundane flashback: a conversation with his daughter encouraging her not to be afraid of the dark since, when one is in the dark, others should be afraid of us. Then, zipped back to the marketplace, creeping death along straightforward corridors of interaction, the new panther-like Fisher demonstrates his argument. He's lithe and deadly in the dark, a character comfortable in his polygons.
This inventiveness is also found in the basic systems, although with mixed success. Fisher's new mark and execute auto-kill feature, a cross between Rainbow 6's target mark-up and Fallout 3's VATS, allows you to light up multiple targets and then, at the squeeze of a trigger, automatically execute them in bullet time. At the start of the game, where set-pieces are arranged to teach the mechanic, it appears intuitive.
However, as you can only execute a mark attack after performing a stealth melee kill (one time per kill), it's often a better idea in principle than in practice. Once levels begin to open up, it never quite feels natural to go out of your way to melee kill a target simply to earn the right to use the auto-kill feature at a later stage. More often, you rely on silenced weapons and various grenade types, Fisher deadly enough to tackle most situations without the need for the feature.
Soon after the first few missions, the game's schizophrenia reveals itself, as in a playable flashback you find yourself wearing Marine's khakis in a sunlit Iraq, fighting amongst the rubble of a bombed town. Stealth is possible here, but without the cover of darkness, the game devolves too quickly into sub-Modern Warfare firefights, each side taking potshots at the other from around low-level cover.
Later in the game, whenever cover is blown amongst a large group of adversaries, you are supposed to seek cover in new pockets of darkness, flanking enemies as they line up shots on your last known position (represented as a ghostly silhouette). But here the scrappy open play is at odds with the more considered approach when you're undetected, leaving both you and your opponents racing around in an incongruous game of kiss-chase.
That may be somewhat realistic, but too often it feels as though your punishment for being spotted is that Splinter Cell: Conviction becomes a far worse game. By the end of the short single-player campaign, the heavy emphasis on unavoidable shoot-outs ensures that its best moments were experienced hours earlier.
The stylish, foreboding stealth set-up is also heavily undermined by some of the most intrusive and inappropriate enemy voice acting in recent memory. "You're not the only badass on this airfield", screams one soldier as he angrily swipes a flashlight around in search of you. "Come on LITTLE GIRL. Show your ass," barks another. The dialogue is bad, but it's the performances that truly grate. While Fisher, played by Michael Ironside, is gruff and understated, his opponents are Batman-villain caricatures, their interminable screaming destroying all sense of tension and tautness to the atmosphere.
The game's only economy comes in the form of P.E.C. points, which are used to upgrade Fisher's weaponry, increasing their accuracy and power. Points are won by completing P.E.C. challenges, in-game achievements that work in a similar way to Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer challenges. P.E.C. Challenges are divided into three categories and involve taking out an enemy in a specific way without being spotted, performing specific feats after being spotted, or more general in-game achievements, such as completing a level without being spotted or retrying.
Some P.E.C. challenges have multiple levels, with scaling rewards as you complete them one by one. Feeding these rewards into upgrading your weaponry and gadgets is an effective motivator, encouraging repeat play-throughs at each of the three difficulty levels in a more persuasive way than trophies and achievements might manage.
Some of the game's best moments are to be found outside of the main story. Conviction features a substantial and assured co-op campaign allowing two players to take on the role of Russian and US agents respectively in split-screen, system link or online, in a welcome revisit of one of the better features of the series' formative days.
In this prequel to the campaign story, Third Echelon Agent Archer and Russian Voron Agent Ketrel are charged with working together to find some missing WMDs in a mission spread across four sizeable chapters, each with multiple objectives. Both agents share the same moves as Fisher himself, including the ability to mark and execute in conjunction with one another. It's a smartly-executed addition to the single-player campaign, the stakes being raised as the death of either player leads to mission failure, forcing levels of trepidation often unnecessary in the main game.
Deniable Ops adds further value in the form of a suite of four challenge modes playable for one or two players across six maps. Each of these emphasise the more puzzle-like subtext to the game in forcing the player to balance silent takedowns with situations that require carefully planned mark and execute attacks to pass undetected.
Hunter and the unlockable Infiltration game modes require the elimination of all enemies in an area while avoiding any detection, while Last Stand has the team protecting an EMP bomb against increasingly testing enemies. The best of the bunch, however, is Face-Off, in which two players attempt to outwit one another, Spy vs. Spy-style, across a map filled with enemies hostile to both parties. Co-op and Deniable Ops buttress what is otherwise a rather slight single-player campaign, and in their balance and creativity, add true value to the package.
The main story chugs along with moderate interest, and enjoys a neat twist in its climactic sequence (OR DOES IT?), but the lip-syncing and animation is simplistic. The lack of subtlety in the storyline, amplified by some blunt QTEs that have you bashing buttons to cave in skulls during impromptu interrogations, mirrors Fisher's new overt approach. The speed and flow of the game may be more suited to mainstream tastes, but there's no escaping the cramping of tactical potential that has come with the change.
Where once players were free to tackle Splinter Cell's enemies in myriad, improvised ways, now the options are more limited, traded for an upped tempo that's more Arkham Asylum than Metal Gear. At its best, Conviction is played as a high-stakes puzzle game, taut and thrilling when everything is going your way. But when cover is broken, the floodlights go up to reveal a mediocre shooter. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Splinter Cell: Conviction appears brightest in the dark.
7 / 10