I’m seeing a pattern here with the Splinter Cell series. The odd-numbered installments are noticeably better than the even-numbered installments. Case in point: The first Splinter Cell re-defined the espionage genre. The second entry, Pandora Tomorrow, introduced multiplayer to the franchise but ultimately failed to live up to its predecessor due to a lackluster story. The third Splinter Cell, Chaos Theory, is regarded as the pinnacle of the franchise; one of the best looking games of its generation. The fourth entry and first on current-gen consoles, Double Agent presented an interesting concept but fell short on execution; not to mention its exclusion of co-op multiplayer. That brings us to Conviction, the fifth installment in the franchise, and wouldn’t you know it, the trend continues.
Conviction picks up a few years after the events of Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Sam Fisher has gone rogue. He’s fallen off the grid. But when a former Third Echelon colleague, Anna Grimsdottir, tracks him down to warm him of an impending attack, Sam is compelled to re-emerge from hiding to help Anna in exchange for information on the death of his daughter. There is of course more to the story than that, but for the sake of being spoiler-free, we’ll leave it at that and simply say that the story is definitely one of Splinter Cell: Conviction’s strengths.
Conviction represents a refresh for the Splinter Cell franchise in terms of its core gameplay. There are a handful of major changes, starting with a cover system. A natural evolution for a third-person stealth game like this, the cover system is essentially an extension of the mechanic used in Rainbow Six Vegas, another Ubisoft Montreal production. Players snap to cover by holding the left trigger. The primary difference is Fischer can swiftly move from cover to cover at the press of a button; that and you can also jump over cover. The only blemish in an otherwise flawless system is the fact you must remain crouched while in cover, even if the object is tall enough for you to stand up behind.
Gone are the stealth and noise meter bars. Now whenever Sam is hidden in the shadows the screen fades to black and white. During this saturated state, enemies come more into focus by remaining in color. It’s a visual cue that can cause occasional issues as you attempt to navigate the darkened environments. When enemies become aware of Sam’s presence, another new feature kicks in: Last Known Position. Here, a silhouette of Sam is left behind indicating the last place the enemies saw him. The enemies will start suppressing that location and tossing grenades before beginning their search for Sam, at which point players who were able to escape can then flank the enemy or simply sneak past them.
Last but not least is the new Mark and Execute feature. A way to pre-plan an attack, Sam can mark up to four targets (enemies, explosives and environmental traps) and execute all of them at the press of a button. In order to earn the right to execute, Sam must first perform a hand-to-hand takedown. Wait, what? Sam can’t summon the skill to execute a group of mercenaries without first taking an enemy out using melee? How is that realistic? It isn’t. It’s just a way to prohibit players from continually marking and executing multiple targets. It can feel forced at times and there are occasional line of sight issues as well, but let me tell you, there’s no better feeling than pulling off a well-planned Mark and Execute.
These core new features are designed to achieve two things: first, to make the game more action-driven, and second, to make the game more accessible. On these fronts, mission accomplished. But these inclusions have led to a number of exclusions that may have Splinter Cell faithful doing a face palm. Gone are moves like the inverted neck snap and split jump, and activities like lock picking. Okay, maybe no one is going to miss lock picking, but I have a feeling a lot of people will miss the ability to move dead or unconscious bodies, especially in levels like the parkade where arousing guard suspicion equals an automatic mission failure. There are times when you’re going to want to hide the evidence and have no way of doing so. The parkade segment trails only the flashback scene in Iraq as the clumsiest in the game.
Conviction’s single player campaign is short-lived at roughly 6 hours, but there’s plenty to do beyond that. For starters, there’s a 4-mission co-op campaign that plays as a prologue to the single player campaign. In it, rival American and Russian agents must work together to recover EMP warheads that eventually play a role in the single player storyline. Each of the co-op missions clock in at around an hour, and so together the co-op campaign is almost as long as the single player campaign.
When you’re done with both story campaigns, there are a handful of multiplayer modes to choose from, collectively known as Deniable Ops. The four modes are Hunter, Last Stand, Infiltration and Face Off. Hunter is a co-op mode that will likely get the most replay. It’s essentially Splinter Cell’s version of a Terrorist Hunter from Rainbow Six, or a Firefight from Ghost Recon. You and a partner team up to eliminate all of the enemies in a level. Each level is broken into multiple zones and each zone is inhabited with ten enemies. If an enemy spots you, they’ll call in reinforcements, so it’s not uncommon to have to defeat between 40-60 enemies per level. Infiltration is another co-op mode except here the goal is to sneak through the level without being detected at all. Get spotted by an enemy, a camera, or trip a trap and its mission over.
Last Stand is Splinter Cell’s version of Defend from Ghost Recon, Horde from Gears of War, or any other similar survival type mode. Here two agents are tasked with protecting a warhead from increasing waves of enemies. Rounding out the multiplayer modes is the only adversarial mode, Face Off, in which two agents compete against one another in environments that are also populated with hostile AI. Gone are the deathmatch style modes that used to populate Splinter Cell’s multiplayer suite. In its place are modes that are much better suited for the mechanics of Splinter Cell, and I for one am happy to see this renewed focus.
Like all multiplayer games these days, Splinter Cell: Conviction features a progression system. Just like the cover system, Conviction extends upon the PEC (Persistent Elite Creation) from Rainbow Six Vegas, a system that sees players earn points by eliminating enemies using various tactics (Mark and Execute, Last Known Position, etc.). As players complete new levels, they’ll earn points that they can spend to unlock new weapons and gadgets, as well as different camouflage (though there’s no ability to customize said camouflage). There are currently six multiplayer maps in total, four from the co-op campaign and two unique maps, and Ubisoft has already started to release weekly DLC in the form of new gear and maps for multiplayer.
I was slightly disappointed in the presentation of Splinter Cell: Conviction. Don’t get me wrong, the game looks good, it’s just that over the years Splinter Cell has become known as a franchise that has constantly pushed the envelop in terms of visuals. Conviction does not make that same push. The graphics are grainy and that’s why it can be hard to make out the environment when the display fades to black and white as Sam enters the shadows. That being said, character models look pretty good and the environments are smartly varied and immaculately detailed. Count me a fan of having Sam’s objectives projected onto various surfaces. Sound design has its ups and downs as well. Michael Ironside delivers another strong performance as Sam Fisher. The soundtrack is solid but forgettable. And then there’s the guard chatter. I enjoyed the comments that came out of the enemies in the Rainbow Six Vegas games, but here it becomes overkill.
With Conviction, the Splinter Cell series has made the transition from a stealth-driven action game to an action-driven stealth game. Gone are the slow, methodical crawls under the constant guidance of night-vision goggles. Sam’s new motto: Quick, quiet and deadly. It’s a more accessible and cinematic experience that may turn off some Splinter Cell purists. If you’re only in it for the single player story, a rental will suffice, but with a good-sized co-op campaign and a more focused multiplayer suite, Splinter Cell fans have excellent reason to get re-acquainted with Sam Fisher this summer.