Splinter Cell: Conviction
When last we saw Sam he was running for his life, on the lam for the murder of his friend and colleague Col. Irving Lambert
- A satisfying conclusion to Sam Fisher's saga, improves upon the franchise's shooting mechanics in almost every tangible way, co-op and multiplayer modes feel like "classic" Splinter Cell
- Enemy AI runs on predetermined paths unless interrupted, NPC chatter can get repetitive, single-player may be too much of a departure from the series for some fans
Splinter Cell: Conviction's troubled development did not bode well for gamers eagerly awaiting Sam Fisher's next adventure. Ubisoft Montreal went back to the drawing board late in the development cycle, bringing on a new creative director and scrapping years of work in favour of a bold new direction. That Conviction succeeds on so many levels is a testament to the studio's skill as well as an affirmation of the franchise's appeal. While it deviates from the established stealth tropes that made the first few titles so successful, Conviction opens the door to an exciting new chapter in the saga of Sam Fisher.
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Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Conviction will probably be the most divisive game in the franchise's history. While Ubisoft claimed it halted production on a previous version of the game to bring Sam back to basics, the "new" version of Conviction is still quite a departure for the series. The Splinter Cell fundamentals remain but the idiosyncrasies of the franchise (hacking and unlocking mini-games, moving downed enemies, and night-vision goggles) have all been thrown away. This might sound like the worst idea possible but it's the only real way Ubisoft Montreal could have approached Sam Fisher's latest journey.
When last we saw Sam he was running for his life, on the lam for the murder of his friend and colleague Col. Irving Lambert, and dealing with the sudden death of his daughter Sarah. Hunted by Third Echelon, the organization that used to sign his checks, Sam retires from spy games and disappears. Upon learning that his daughter's "accidental" death was actually a calculated personal attack, Sam -- voiced again by actor Michael Ironside -- decides to step out from the shadows to uncover the truth. The general theme of Conviction is absolute anger. While fans of the franchise will no doubt miss the methodical, almost robotic superspy of old, this incarnation of Sam Fisher is much more complex. He's broken by grief and blinded by rage; as cliched as it may sound, this time, it really is personal.
This is where the gameplay decisions made by Ubisoft completely work in tandem with the game's storyline. It just wouldn't make sense for a man this pissed off to act as slowly and mechanically as he has in the past. Before, Sam's missions were solely about getting the job done; he had no stake in the outcome other than fulfilling his duty and maintaining "national security." But in Conviction, Sam is motivated by something far more personal, and his actions are tinged with an appropriate sense of recklessness and desperation. While he was often compared to Metal Gear Solid's Snake, in Conviction, the more apt comparison is to Liam Neeson's character in the film Taken or 24's Jack Bauer.
It's a complete shift for a character whose entire career was predicated on following orders. Sam is now focused completely on vengeance; he has to face his mounting personal losses, which all come as a direct result of his life as a dedicated military man, and the fact that you no longer hide bodies or worry about being seen makes sense within this context. While my own immediate kneejerk reaction was to berate Ubisoft for changing the formula in Conviction, the gameplay decisions only add to the complexity of the character. As a vehicle for the story, the slow methodical gameplay of past Splinter Cell titles wouldn't make sense for a man who doesn't care about maintaining his cover.
That's where Sam's new abilities come into play: The last-known position marker and "Mark and Execute." Last-known position creates a ghostly silhouette of Sam whenever you're detected, representing the place where the enemy saw you last. Unlike previous games where things turned into one big cat-and-mouse guessing game after you were spotted, the last-known position allows players to confidently flank enemy forces after being discovered because you can visually see where the enemy's focus is. This element is comparable to the concept of fear in Batman: Arkham Aslyum. It really reinforces the idea that Sam is a predator, teasing enemies by purposefully being spotted then moving into a flanking position to efficiently remove threats from the equation.
But it's the "Mark and Execute" mechanic that steals the show; it's by far the best addition to Conviction and it's something other action games should unabashedly lift for future titles. Each weapon in Sam's arsenal has a limited set of "marks," which allow the player to tag enemies (you can do this through hard surfaces when used alongside Sam's new Sonar Goggles); once enemies have been tagged -- and Sam has performed a successful hand-to-hand manoeuvre to activate the ability -- a simple button press downs the marked targets automatically. It's silly that the only way Sam can activate the "Mark and Execute" ability is to perform a hand-to-hand action (this includes landing on enemies from above) but Ubisoft was smart to limit its availability; it's so powerful -- not to mention satisfying -- that it would have essentially broken the game if you could pull off the maneuver with impunity.
Conviction still poses plenty of challenge, but players who master Sam's skill set will find even the hardest difficulty setting a little easy. When utilised correctly, it's possible to clear out entire areas of enemies without raising any sort of alarms. It makes sense within the context of the game but the low level of difficulty may disappoint some hardcore fans. But Conviction sports a fantastic presentation style that keeps the action moving smoothly. Mission objectives are projected in to the game's environment in real-time, and while this might seem like an overly fancy gimmick, it's put to good use, coming across as a visible representation of Sam's personal thoughts. Conviction does a great job of grabbing the player's focus while also showcasing the emotions of the broken-down grizzled soldier.
Of course it wouldn't be a Tom Clancy-branded title without a world-threatening event and Conviction delivers, as a series of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) bombs threaten Washington D.C. Forced back into action, Sam is dispatched to uncover the conspiracy that surrounds the weapons with promises that the truth he seeks about his daughter's death will be revealed to him once his mission is successful. What Conviction does well is mix both elements of the game's story. Players will flashback to moments that helped shape Sam as a character. These include a silly conversation with his daughter about the benefits of darkness, which acts as an awkward tutorial in the game's first level, to a complete departure from the series that puts players in the middle of a mission gone awry during Sam's Gulf War days. These segments, including an exciting on-foot chase sequence, help keep the game fresh throughout the eight-hour experience.
Beyond the single-player campaign, Splinter Cell: Conviction features three tiers of challenges: Execution challenges, which feature in-game goals for taking out enemies; Vanish challenges, goals for quickly disappearing after being spotted; and Splinter Cell challenges, for players who can traverse the game's multiple missions without being detected. These features add a new layer to the game, asking players to master all of Sam's skills for points. Earned points can be used to upgrade any of Sam's weapons and gadgets, adding more "marks," power, accuracy, or range. The upgrades made during single-player also carry over the game's multiplayer component.
While the single-player of Conviction might not scratch every itch fans of the franchise have, the game includes a robust multiplayer component, which features a co-operative campaign (via Xbox Live, split-screen and system link) for two players. The co-op campaign is more in line with the "classic" Splinter Cell games, featuring two characters decked out in full uniform who can also utilise the game's "Mark and Execute" feature. The co-op campaign acts as a precursor to the conspiracy story in Sam's adventure and stars two agents: American Third Echelon agent Archer and his Russian equivalent, Kestrel, from Voron. While the story isn't on the same memorable page as Conviction's main tale, it does a good job giving some background into the threat Sam faces. Co-op, which will run players about five hours, also doesn't have any of the elements found in past games like hiding bodies, hacking, and lock picking, but the new focus on systematically taking out enemies is amplified when controlling Archer or Kestrel. In the multiplayer modes, stealth is always the best possible method for success, which isn't necessarily true when you're playing solo as Sam Fisher.
Multiplayer also includes a mode similar to Halo 3: ODST's Firefight: aptly named Last Stand, players must terminate waves of enemies before they can destroy an EMP generator. Hunter is an elimination mode where players must push through six lengthy maps eliminating enemy forces while avoiding detection; if you are spotted, reinforcements are called in, effectively doubling the threat. Both modes are available in the game's Deniable Ops mode (which is a fancy way of calling the extra modes single-player only) as well as for up-to two players via Xbox Live, split screen, or system link. Replacing the popular Spies vs. Mercs mode is Face-Off, where two spies hunt each other but still have to contend with waves of enemy A.I. who are searching to kill both agents. Fans will no doubt be disappointed by the absence of Spies vs. Mercs -- introduced in Pandora Tomorrow -- but Face-Off is a worthwhile consolation prize.
The biggest difference between Sam Fisher's side of Conviction and the multiplayer side is difficulty. While Sam can easily plow through his adversaries, the multiplayer modes can be somewhat relentless. In one Hunter mission, the enemy A.I. quickly reacted to discovering a downed ally by ordering in another wave of enemy forces, pitting me against 18 heavily armored guards. Conviction really falters when it comes to enemy A.I. and NPC chatter: Aside from some well-written and voice-acted scripted scenes, enemies who detect infiltration will continuously spout off the same cheesy one-liners until they sign for your express delivery of a bullet to the head. The A.I. isn't bad, but characters seem to follow the same pre-determined routes unless interrupted by suspicious situations. The game does a good job of changing enemy placements if a restart is necessary and thankfully, enemies won't just return to routine if a body is discovered. They will constantly be on the hunt, sometimes in groups, and it won't always be in the same areas. However, levels have so many points of entry and the action is so fast-paced that neither of these issues becomes glaring blights.
While it might not be the back-to-basics game fans were expecting, Conviction is an outstanding title from top to bottom. On sheer value alone the game warrants a look, with an action-packed and satisfying single-player campaign, lengthy co-op mode, and entertaining online components. Why Sam has stepped out of the shadows and is on full out attack makes complete sense in context with the story, so if you can accept it for what it is and not dwell on the fact that it isn't what you've come to expect in a Splinter Cell title, you'll no doubt agree that Conviction rivals Chaos Theory as the best title in the franchise's history.
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