Reviewed: April 28, 2010
Released: April 13, 2010
I owe my love of video gaming almost exclusively to Ubisoft and Tom Clancy starting with Rainbow Six (back when you had to use a dial-up modem for multiplayer) then moving on to Ghost Recon and especially Splinter Cell. As an ex-military sniper, Sam Fisher and I share more than a few similarities in attitude, combat styles, and even wardrobe. While previous Splinter Cell games have always told their own unique stories, there has always been a central arc; and underlying plot that came to some earth shattering revelations in Double Agent.|
Splinter Cell: Conviction takes place a few years after those events; events that have left Sam bruised and bitter, but certainly not broken. The loss of his daughter, his best friend, and even his career with Third Echelon have taken their toll on Sam, but when the call comes in from his old handler, Anna Grimsdottir, that might reveal some new details on his daughter’s murder, Sam is more than ready to spring back into action.
Conviction is all about presentation starting with the high-energy cover tactics tutorial followed with a flashback sequence introducing the new Mark & Execute ability then moving into the first "environmenal torture" sequence, all within the first 15 minutes of gameplay. Even though the game is divided into several missions or chapters, the entire thing plays out in one seamless stream of events. You’ll never see a loading screen or a gratuitous cutscene. It’s all blended right into the game starting with the highly innovative projection moments.
These projected images can be as simple as a text prompt giving you your next major objective to an immediate clue like “take cover” or as complex as complete video segments that play out like some weird hallucination. Not only are these excellent story delivery devices, they give the game a very fresh look and energetic style that keeps up the intense pacing without pausing for exposition.
There are several other new gameplay elements at work in Conviction. First up is the new cover system, loosely modeled on a mix of Ghost Recon and Gears of War. Sam can quickly attach to cover then peek out to fire or use the stick to point and quickly snap to a new piece of cover. The screen slips into black and white indicating when you are in stealth mode – a nice alternative to that clumsy meter from past games.
For much of the game Sam has only his own senses to rely upon. He doesn’t get his fancy goggles until very near the end. Unlike past games where you had various vision modes like UV and thermal, these goggle are sonic, allowing you to sense other people even through walls. The only caveat is that your own footsteps render them ineffective so you can only use them when standing still. The one good thing is that any targets you “paint” while wearing the goggles are still targeted when you remove them.
Perhaps Sam’s most useful new gadget is his own new heightened sense of awareness. When an enemy spots you a ghost image of yourself is left behind marking where the enemy “thinks” you are. This allows you to reposition and flank the guy, perhaps invoking one of Sam’s new stealth takedown moves. This triggers the new Mark and Execute system; a momentary bullet-time effect where you can mark additional targets then execute them all with a single button press. Of course once you have the M&E system active you can engage it at anytime, even by painting targets through walls with the goggles or using a mirror to peek under a door. The number of enemies you can take down with this system are based on your current weapon and any upgrades you may have made to it. Just wait for the targets to light up red then press the button and enjoy.
This system presents a few problems that are quickly outweighed by some of the most cinematic game moments in my stealth-gaming career. The obvious concern is that clearing a room with four one-shot kills makes the game too easy. Another is the fact that the designers have clearly created situations to goad you into using the system – like four guys in a room with one straggler with his back to you. Hmmm…
But the bottom line is that there are usually more enemies than you can mark in any one encounter and that once you perform the execution your cover is revealed. And just how fast the enemy can find you after you displace is based on your chosen difficulty. I highly recommend Realistic mode for the best challenge, and if the M&E system really bothers you, nobody is forcing you to use it.
The story and environments are excellent and quite exciting, leading Sam on a rapid adventure through several locations in and around Washington D.C. The similarities to a season of “24” are obvious, both in pacing and intensity. There is one level, a brief flashback to Iraq that establishes the relationship between Sam and the man narrating the story, that seems a bit out of place. Personally, I loved the level as it was all about stealth and gunplay in broad daylight in some environments that I’ve experienced in the real world. But when you remove the M&E system and much of Sam’s abilities, you lose a bit of the Splinter Cell experience and the game just becomes another shooter.
Levels include a fairground around the Washington monument, infiltrating a foreign embassy, breaking into Third Echelon HQ, and even a trip into the White House. I dare not say more lest I reveal too much of the exciting story that is loaded with mind-blowing reveals and story twists. The levels provide excellent opportunity for multiple styles of gameplay including foot chases, stealth activities, and even some defensive last-stand moments.
The graphics are excellent with outstanding character models, texture details, and ragdoll physics. Lighting is fantastic and you can still shoot the light sources to create your own pockets of darkness. The black and white effect is seamless and effective and the sonar goggles provide a unique outlook on gameplay. Level designs are rich in detail and totally convincing.
The audio surpasses the visuals with another flawless performance by Michael Ironside who summons some serious inner demons to get Sam to sound as bitter and vengeful as he comes across on screen. There are plenty of other great performances by the supporting cast as well as several humorous throwaway lines from the generic enemies. I was surprised by the excessive amount of cursing in the game, most of which is directed at Sam.
Conviction also offers a multiplayer component; nothing near the engagement level of Spies vs. Mercs, but you do have one of the coolest co-op modes of recent memory, and unlike Gears of War, you aren’t merely dropping into the same story. Conviction tells a completely unique story, a prequel adventure with two new agents on a search for WMD’s that is as long and perhaps even better than the solo campaign and is available through split-screen, system link, or online.
The co-op mode rivals the spec-ops mode in the last Modern Warfare game in that if either of you die it’s game over, but you both have the ability to assist and heal each other. You also have the added ability of being able to mark each other’s targets for shared takedowns. For the first time in Splinter Cell history, the game is at its best when you share the experience, which also includes some exciting modes like Hunter, Infiltration, and Last Stand. Plus, the robust in-game challenge system and Ubisoft’s new Uplay game hub destination service enhance the experience even further.
To date I have played the story mode twice and the co-op mode twice (starting my third) and am still having a great time playing the various other modes. I continually look forward to when one of my friends picks up the title and asks me to join him for a co-op session. For me this game has near infinite replayability despite (or perhaps thanks to) its relative shortness and fast-paced approach to stealth gaming – a design that has redefined the genre as far as I am concerned. In the real world I might spend days waiting to take a single shot.
In Splinter Cell: Conviction I can save the world in just a few hours and then do it all over again with a friend. This might not be the biggest Splinter Cell in the franchise but is by far the best and gets my vote for most innovative action game of the year.