After a troubled development cycle, the latest Splinter Cell iteration is finally here. However, as far as entrenched franchises go, it’s probably the least iterative sequel in some time. It may be a streamlined, style-over-substance kind of fare, but it more than makes a compelling argument for its existence. After all, it’s commercially favourable to be simply liked by 50 paying customers, than loved intensely by just one. One paying customer, holding his game case close to his heart, dreaming of Fisher, watching, waiting… Oh! You’re still here. Where was I?
If you’ve been playing the Splinter Cell series, particularly the previous one, Double Agent, you’ll know that Sam was left in a dark place. I mean, you know a guy is depressed when he throws his night-vision goggles into the ocean. Let us recap: Only child, daughter, Sarah, dead (killed by a drunk driver). Boss and friend, Irving Lambert, dead (shot by Sam himself – this is canon, now). Navy SEAL buddy, Douglas Shetland, dead (also shot by Sam himself). Possible romantic interest, Enrica Villablanca, either dead by the machinations of Sam within John Browns Army, or free and unaccounted for (also possibly carrying Sam’s child). Life’s pretty dark when you make a living hiding in shadows and killing people, so it’s a small wonder that Sam hasn’t already had a Kratos-esque freak out, or potentially expressed how he “can’t work under these conditions!”
Of course, it wouldn’t be spy-level intrigue if things were as simple as they seemed, and without really giving anything away, the story is centred around the truth behind what happened to Sam’s daughter, Sarah. The game front-loads the intro with a scene that happens near the end of the game, chronologically, and is narrated by someone that will be introduced later. The misdirection in narrative intended for you to second guess who can be trusted or not is pretty heavy handed and cringe-worthy. It’s not subtle enough to fool anyone, and showing the player the end result right from the beginning results in a feeling of disempowerment. Having said that however, in the greater context of the story arc, it works. It might have an unrefined delivery in places, but it follows it through with the (dare I say it) conviction it deserves.
When writing about the gameplay, there’s two ways this review could go. I could Hulk-out and start raging about how they’ve cannibalised the only series other than MGS that managed to make stealth fun, or I could sing praises of the fearless nature they’ve shown, stripping the core mechanics down and rebuilding the game for a larger audience. I’d like to do both, truth be told, but for the sake of review cohesion (not to mention my fragile psyche), I’m going to tame the enraged fanboy for the most part, and sum up the case of Conviction Versus The Splinter Cell Legacy in the next paragraph:
There’s no incentive to make it through Conviction, without fatalities, and non-lethal options have been pretty much eliminated from the game. Murder is on the mind, and stealth is merely another tool towards this goal. If you pick up this game desiring nothing but the standard Splinter Cell affair, you will find yourself disappointed unless you’re willing to compromise the stealth for more action. You will not be picking the locks on doors. You will not be hiding bodies (even though your enemies will discover and acknowledge them!) You will not interrogate random guards for intel. You will not hack secure terminals for intel. You won’t even (spoiler alert!) play as Sam Fisher for a brief part! On the other hand, you will kill enemies by pulling them off ledges, dropping onto them from above, shooting environmental hazards, or by utilising martial arts. You’ll also be able to kill multiple targets via a single button press using the new “Mark And Execute” system. So obviously, what Splinter Cell: Conviction lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in extreme lack of subtlety.
The Mark And Execute system is largely as it states: You mark your enemies with RB (the number of enemies you can mark is determined by your weapon, the most I could find was four), which you can do by peeking under doors, using a sticky cam, or even Sams fancy new sonar goggles that he acquires late in the game (basically giving him wallhack powers). You then press Y and you automatically shoot them all in the head. To stop this from breaking the game entirely, you have to execute a hand to hand kill to earn the execute ability. It’s a little weird and not given any contextual justification for this limitation, so it’s almost as if there’s this unspoken idea that Sam Fisher has to destroy a life with his bare hands to focus his killing powers each time, although all things considered, that wouldn’t be inconsistent with the relative bloodthirstiness of this title. It does allow for all sorts of brutal attack opportunities, and you can mark targets before you do the melee kill, allowing you to jump a guy and instantly execute the marks while they’re still reeling. You can also mark various environmental hazards, adding to the possible carnage.
Co-op is a significant part of Conviction, which will help allay the concerns that the single player campaign is too short (for the record, I was sated by it). The co-op campaign is roughly that in length again, though potentially longer when you have a teammate with no appreciation for the “light touch” technique (mine in particular had a penchant for kicking in doors). It follows the events of an American-Russian joint operation, with two new characters, Archer and Kestrel (I’m guessing those aren’t their real names). Like in many co-op games, player death isn’t necessarily fatal as long as it’s only one, and revival is only a small jolt away (from shock paddles; I hear they work wonders with bullet wounds). The Mark And Execute functionality gets a double shot too, allowing both players to execute enemies using only one of the players execution ability. It’s all very neatly done, and on top of that there’s other game modes for defending a location against waves, hunting enemies down, and a new adversarial Face Off mode, which is a one on one affair with AI enemies in the mix. Face Off is certainly not even a shadow on the Spies vs. Mercs mode of Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, but for a reference point, I really loved Spies vs. Mercs, so by saying that it’s not a shadow on it, I’m saying that it misses the lofty heights of “a goddamn amazing experience” and settles with being pretty cool.
It’s not all smiles and headshots mind you, there are a few annoying things that made it into the the final game. Probably the most annoying is that your enemies, once they’re remotely aware that this isn’t a simple routine guard watch, will taunt you almost non stop. In the story, they’ll call out Sam Fisher by name, and in coop they’ll make comments about how hiding in the shadows is for cowards. It’s really quite obnoxious and doesn’t help when they repeat themselves and sound similar if not identical to each other. I can’t help but think that it would have been far more effective if the frequency of their chatter was dialed back. The other problem is that the cover can be a little hit and miss at times. Given that a large slice of this gameplay pie is a third person cover based shooter, it can be a hassle to have Sam roll past a piece of cover instead of snap up to it. It’s solid enough that you can probably play the entire campaign without issue, but at one point my interaction with cover caused the game to flip out and teleport me backwards some 40m, practically to the starting location, so during moments of free manoeuvrability, it can be quite unreliable. My only other issue is that the overall game was quite easy. I know I don’t represent the ‘average player’, but playing it through on "Realistic” difficulty, I never felt challenged enough to use any item other than the remote mines, and even then, sparingly. So I’d expect most seasoned shooters or sneakers to probably blow through the normal difficulty without much resistance.
Splinter Cell: Conviction is not your first generation Xbox’s Splinter Cell, and while it doesn’t scratch that stealth and thinking-mans-sneak-em-up itch like previous iterations did, It makes a water-tight case for its presented form. High action, stealth mechanics which integrate well into said action, and a story that plays Jedi to Double Agent’s Empire; it’s a comprehensive package to make an undeniably great game, and it will probably have greater appeal to a broader audience. I’d still really like to have the Chaos Theory type experience as well, though… (sigh)