For nearly four years, Ubisoft had been hard at work on Splinter Cell: Conviction. Originally unveiled as a very different game from what the Splinter Cell series has represented in games prior, Splinter Cell: Conviction was a very intriguing change to the established Splinter Cell formula, forcing former secret agent Sam Fisher to hide in plain sight, using improvised weaponry and tactics to outwit or avoid his opponents. Unfortunately, the game was taken back to the lab and re-tooled significantly, resulting in a game that’s very much unlike the initial concept and more akin to a third person shooter with tacked on stealth aspects. The end result released earlier this year on the Xbox 360and PC is a game that, while decent, seems like it could’ve been so much more.
The story begins shortly after the events of Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Sam, having shot and killed Irving Lambert, one of his closest friends while working undercover for the JBA, has left Third Echelon and is on the run. While lying low to stay as far off of Third Echelon’s radar as he can, he finds himself dragged into yet another international conspiracy except this time, he’s taking the fight to Third Echelon. The new leader of the organization has been corrupted by power and now has concocted a scheme to cause a large scale disaster and create political upheaval within the US government.
Sam, no longer working for Third Echelon, has no rules and thus there are fewer restrictions on what he can and cannot do. Sam’s moral code is still very much in play and prevents you from mercilessly gunning down civilians but now, you have more freedom as to what you can do to your opposition. Very rarely are specific restrictions placed on who you can and cannot kill and how you go about doing so. Mission objectives and certain cinematic events are cleverly projected onto the scenery which is a nice aesthetic and surprisingly practical touch.
New to the series is the “Mark and Execute” feature, which allows you to mark up to five targets at once, depending on the weapon you’re carrying and applied upgrades to said weapon, and then press the “Execute” button to have Sam take out all of the highlighted targets in range in one smoothly animated and cinematic motion. The targets don’t necessarily have to be human either and there are plenty of moments in the campaign in which there are objects such as chandeliers, explosive barrels and even jet engines that can be targeted and taken down to provide an effective distraction. The Mark and Execute feature does come in handy throughout the campaign, no doubt, but it makes me feel like the game is playing itself whenever I use it. It is essentially a win button. Sure, you have to sneak up to and melee kill at least one human target to earn the ability to use it once, but that seems like a rather contrived method of ensuring that the feature isn’t overpowered or overused and even then, still seems a bit overpowered at times.
The single player campaign itself is on the short side and I’d be surprised if you got more than 6 hours or so out of it, even on the hardest difficulty (which still affords you infinite ammo for your pistol…). Despite the brevity of the campaign, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the ride. Many of the missions were genuinely entertaining to play through and the story was enough to keep me interested, even if it was rather formulaic and predictable. Saying that the storyline featured in Conviction is better than that of Splinter Cell games past isn’t saying much at all but at least it’s a step forward.
The co-operative campaign, which takes place prior to the events of the single player campaign, is also a great deal of fun to play. Sneaking around or blasting your way through a mission with a friend is loads of fun and does require a good bit of actual teamwork if you expect to survive and progress. Taking place across many of the same locales that you’ll see in the single player storyline, the co-op campaign has its own separate storyline and mission objectives so the experience, while not entirely new, does manage to feel rather fresh and unique in and of itself.
There are a few kinks to be found, specifically in the area of enemy AI. The Splinter Cell series has never been known for having stellar AI (or even “good” AI for that matter) but never before has your artificial opposition been this mind-numbingly stupid either. The AI follows very predictable patterns that they rarely deviate from and once you know what you’re doing, it is incredibly easy to exploit these patterns. It’s like the developers didn’t spend any time actually trying to make them at least reasonably intelligent and decided to make them little more than mobile obstacles placed between you and where you’re supposed to be and are begging to be either shot, knocked out or snuck around.
Another new addition is the “last known position” system, which creates an outlined silhouette of Sam in the last place he was spotted. This visual cue allows you to gauge where the enemy will begin searching for you and allow you to take appropriate measures. This also allows you to exploit the AI in a number of ways. Once you’ve been spotted, the AI likes to taunt you by continually shouting “intimidating” phrases as they search the few square feet of terrain around the area you were last seen but all this does is prove how stupid they actually are. If you know that there is someone lurking in the shadows that you can’t see, why would you repeatedly alert them as to your exact whereabouts? The last known position system allows me to exploit their inherent idiocy to lure them into the simplest of traps and take them out. This, while entertaining, does make the game a tad easy.
What really tipped me off as to exactly how brain-dead these guys are is the moment I used a frag grenade for the first time. I saw a group of about four or five guys huddled together in a small group. I thought a simple grenade would be useful in thinning that group out a bit. Unfortunately, I threw the grenade a bit high over their heads. That didn’t matter though because as soon as it landed, three or so of the guards broke off from the group and ran toward the grenade as opposed to away from it, and were quickly enveloped in the resultant ball of flames, along with the other few guys who hadn’t so much as moved.
I would’ve been able to shrug off the lapse in judgment that resulted in running toward an active grenade, chalking it up to mere human error (and a fatal error at that), if the entire group hadn’t shouted lines like “It’s a grenade!” or “Holy crap, run!” or simply an screamed an expletive. If they knew what had just been thrown at them, why didn’t they run away from it instead of crowding around it like idiots? Oh wait…it seems I’ve answered my own question there.
Visually, Splinter Cell: Conviction is a relatively good looking game. While it probably won’t knock your socks off, it is quite competent in relation to top-tier graphics giants. Character models are mostly well detailed and animated and environments are mostly very well detailed. There was a highly publicized exposé in which it was stated that the game runs in a sub HD resolution but I really don’t think it matters and if that story had never been published, I’m sure that none but the most eagle-eyed of gamers would’ve noticed. In terms audio performance, I wasn’t as impressed. The major voice actors and actresses mostly did a good enough job and Michael Ironside’s deep, gravelly voice was once again a perfect fit for Sam Fisher but outside of that, there was nothing particularly special.
The biggest problem I have with Conviction is that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. On one hand, it still errs on the side of stealth and gives you the tools and the abundant amounts of shadow you’ll need to sneak around your adversaries. On the other, there are plenty of times in which the game forces you to abandon stealth in favor of a more…direct, guns-a-blazing style of play. The Iraq mission that occurs very early into the game is proof enough of this and while I was hoping that would be the only time something like this occurred, I was mistaken and there are several moments in the campaign that practically force you to grab the nearest un-silenced weapon and start shooting. This goes against everything that the Splinter Cell series has been thus far. Stealth is more an option and less a requirement in Conviction, likely to make the game appeal more to the mainstream audience in a way that the series couldn’t but I can’t help but feel like the game has lost its character.
The Metal Gear Solid has long been known for its ability to almost seamlessly blend action as well as stealth but has always seemed to present stealth in a heavy-handed sort of fashion. Splinter Cell was the game I played when I wanted pure stealth. Now, since Ubisoft has taken the series in a different direction, seemingly favoring action over stealth, the Splinter Cell series no longer represents my benchmark for stealth. The problem with Splinter Cell: Conviction is that it has turned into a jack of all trades and a master of none. Action occasionally feels stiff and forced and stealth feels rather cheap and uninvolving and very much like an afterthought.
That’s not to say that the blend of stealth and action can’t be good. There were many times in both the single player and co-operative campaigns when I legitimately enjoyed sneaking around my (dimwitted) opponents or eliminating them soundlessly and simply rushing into a room, assault rifle in hand and killing everyone inside. My problem is that neither stealth nor action feels quite as polished as they should be and perhaps if they were, I would be much more forgiving.
Looking back on the time I’ve spent with Splinter Cell: Conviction, I feel that this game represents a missed opportunity. This is not Splinter Cell as it once was. Is that a bad thing? Well, that depends on your perspective. If you are a big fan of the previous Splinter Cell games and their trial and error styles of play and are expecting something similar to those games as I was, you’ll probably be very disappointed with Conviction’s newfound focus on action and how forgiving it is of mistakes. If you are a fan of action games, disliked Splinter Cell’s unforgiving single player campaign and always wished Splinter Cell would focus a bit less on stealth then you may enjoy this.
As for me, I’m somewhere in between the two camps. This is not the Splinter Cell I know and love but, at least to some degree, I’m okay with that. The single player campaign was brief but the storyline was far better than that of any Splinter Cell game thus far, presentation was quite good and it was fairly enjoyable from beginning to end. I enjoyed moving through the various stages, silently eliminating my adversaries from the shadows before they knew what hit them and when I was forced into blasting my way through my targets, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it but I didn’t particularly dislike it either. Overall, I’d say that Splinter Cell: Conviction is an enjoyable but brief experience that, while not the game I was hoping or expecting it to be, is at least good enough to be worth a look by all but the most die-hard of Splinter Cell fans.