Great storytelling makes the short campaign entertaining, but it's in the fun co-op modes that this stealth/action hybrid truly shines.
Sam Fisher is back, and he is not in a good mood. Of all the smart decisions made in crafting a new Splinter Cell title, this might be the best one developer Ubisoft Montreal made. Sam's angry and you hear it in every grunted line of dialogue, can see it in the brutal takedowns and interrogation moves and feel it pulsating through Sam with every step. That anger, that aggressiveness is built not only into the story but the gameplay changes as well. It was a huge risk deviating from the trial-and-error style that made the series famous, but it paid off. Splinter Cell Conviction is awesome.
The story takes place a few years after the end of Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Don't worry, if you never finished that game, you'll get caught up quickly as to what's going on. Sam's daughter was killed, he murdered his best friend Lambert, and he split from Third Echelon, the government agency he'd called home for years. With new evidence leading to his daughter's killer, a tormented and semi-retired Sam Fisher is called back into action. Turns out the people responsible for his daughter's fate are planning a major terrorist attack on Washington D.C. This is going to be one long day for Jack Bauer... I mean Sam Fisher.
Conviction sets itself apart from its predecessors with its pacing. You're always being pushed forward, so much so that I played through the entire single-player campaign in one sitting without even realizing I'd been up all night. Ubisoft pulled off a few magic tricks to make this happen.
There are no in-game loading screens unless you die. From the moment the game starts, you never sit around waiting for something to happen. Levels are loaded while you're watching slickly presented cutscenes. Fancy new projection technology integrates text into the scenery to point you towards your goal, and back story is shown with movies playing out on walls as you progress through a level. These things aid in keeping players immersed in the world, but the real reason things feel so fluid is the change in approach to stealth.
In Conviction, stealth is about speed.
Sam moves fast. Really fast. He can get in and out of cover quickly, shimmy across ledges faster than the Prince of Persia and beat a hasty retreat if he gets into trouble. Sam's codename used by Third Echelon is "panther," and that's fitting. In past Splinter Cell games, enemies were meant to be avoided; in Conviction, Sam is a hunter. He isn't avoiding enemies, he's stalking them.
Sam lurks in the shadows, finds his moment to pounce and strikes with deadly efficiency. There may be a dozen men, fully armed and with extensive combat training closing in, but they're the ones who should be worried. You feel like the ultimate badass thanks to some generous aiming assists that let you easily put bullets into approaching enemy noggins.
Interrogations: You might have heard a lot about the interactive interrogation scenes. While these are nice little moments, they aren't as special or in-depth as you might have imagined. They might look cool, but they aren't any fun.
Rather than force players to eyeball a variety of meters to determine their level of stealth, Ubisoft made things very obvious. If you're in the shadows and impossible to see, the color bleeds out and things go black and white. The minute you're in the light, the color comes back. This easy sense of whether you are hidden or exposed enables you to move quickly through the environment and plan your route of attack on the fly.
Shadows and light are just half the stealth equation. The other half is the cover system. The cover is not at all like Gears of War, where you're sucked against a wall. Squeeze the left trigger and if you are near an object, you'll take cover behind it. Release the trigger and you immediately disengage, or you can hold down the trigger and move away from cover with no problem. You're never attached to a surface. In fact, you can hold down the trigger when out in the open and Sam will crouch, doing his best to minimize his visibility.
This is the best cover system I've ever used. Every other game needs to change, because I can't go back.
Should you be spotted, the best thing to do is retreat. Get out of sight and a white silhouette appears, marking your Last Known Position. The AI will focus on this spot, because it's where they think you're hiding. They'll unload some shots, maybe toss a grenade and then make their way towards the spot to see if they got you. On Realistic difficulty -- the only way you should play Conviction -- the AI is very sharp and won't be fooled for long. You can use the Last Known Position to your advantage. Flank your enemies when their attention is on your silhouette, then take them out before they realize what's going on.
Using shadows and cover, you stalk your prey, and when you're close enough, you can perform a hand-to-hand takedown. There are dozens (probably more than a hundred) of these. They're an excellent reward for being sneaky. My favorite is shooting a guy in the leg and as he crumples downward, popping him in the chin with my silenced pistol. But the system isn't perfect. You bash in a door with the same button as a hand-to-hand takedown. Attempt to quietly kill an enemy near a door and you may end up kicking in the door and causing a ruckus. Occasional glitches aside, stealth kills look cool, avoid attracting attention and earn you the ability to execute.
The Mark & Execute system is probably the most controversial change to the Splinter Cell series. You can tag or "mark" enemies, putting a big arrow over their heads and then executing them with the press of a button. So long as the mark is red, you are guaranteed a kill. As it's described, this would seem like a "win" button that would make Splinter Cell too easy. Far from it. You have to work to earn the right to execute. Use it once and you must perform another stealth takedown to activate the execution option again. More importantly, executing does not equal "stealthily execute." If you aren't careful, you can easily expose yourself to enemies when you enter execution mode. There are often more enemies than you could ever mark, so it's not as if you run through tagging and killing with ease.
Sam Fisher is out for blood. In Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction, this normally cool cat has honed some extra-sharp edges, but that's what happens when you mess with a man's brood. At one point in the game, a voice-over tells us that the boorish brute is "pure Sam, pure Sam when he's mad," but that simple explanation doesn't say the half of it. The franchise's gruff star is a changed man, and with Conviction, Splinter Cell is a changed series. This is not the challenging stealth purebred you'd expect, but rather a more approachable kind of stealth-action mongrel. You still silently snoop about in the shadows, but features you'd expect in a Splinter Cell game, and even in stealth games in general, simply aren't present. You can't move bodies out of plain sight, you don't pick locks, and you can't choose to knock your foes out--only kill them outright. Yet the new mark-and-execute feature helps make up for a bit of that lost spark by providing tense thrills of a different sort, and fantastic storytelling will keep you invested in the campaign. But if you really want to see Conviction at its best, you should grab a buddy and sneak your way through the shadows of the cooperative campaign. The joys of coordinating attacks and wriggling out of a tough jam make co-op play a knockout, and its flexibility will keep you coming back again and again.
Sam Fisher is the gravel-voiced protagonist who is as much a part of Splinter Cell's identity as goggles and guns. The murder of his daughter Sarah has siphoned away the hope and joy in Sam's life, and he's left with a single focus: find her killer. A few old friends put Sam on the trail, but that trail isn't a straightforward one (is it ever?), and Sam soon finds himself wrapped up in a conspiracy far greater than it first appears. You encounter a few legitimate surprises along the way, though the story isn't as intriguing as the way in which it is told. The text of your current mission is stretched across walls and angled up pipes, as are simple indications of Sam's emotional state. ("Anger," indicates one display; "Guilt," shows another.) Black-and-white flashbacks play out on certain surfaces as if someone is broadcasting Sam's thoughts through an old movie projector. This environmental integration is remarkably effective, broadcasting updates and emotional states as if they are burned into his soul and then etched directly onto his retinas. Actor Michael Ironside again does a good job as Sam; some scenes are thick with his desperation and exasperation. The supporting cast keeps up with him, making it easy to identify with the old acquaintances that have his back. That something has changed is clear from the moment you lead Sam through the initial level. Sam can still crouch and slink of course, but Conviction's stealth is centered around its cover system. You can take cover and press against any vertical surface easily, from walls and curbs to vehicles and filing cabinets. You may then slip quickly to the next cover spot, assuming the visual indicator appears at the cover spot you want to zip to next. It's an intuitive system, and you can use it to quickly position yourself in all the right ways, often so you can clock a wandering guard over the head as he passes by without being seen by his cohorts in crime. You get some good interface tools to help you get your bearings when trying to stay out of sight. If you're shrouded in darkness and invisible to your enemies, everything turns black and white, aside from targets and important environmental objects. If you're seen, a ghostly image of your form will remain at your last known location, and the AI will direct its attention there. Warning alerts appear and sound if you are caught or are in immediate danger of being caught. The black-and-white effect can obscure things a bit much sometimes, but overall, these are sensible interface elements that toss you important information with a minimum of distraction.
But you won't spend as much time in the shadows in Conviction as you did in previous games. Sam is still vulnerable; you can't just wander into a horde of hired guns in broad daylight. But in Conviction, Sam conducts business on his own terms, and as such, is far more aggressive than before. To this end, you can mark multiple enemies at once (up to four, depending on which weapon you're packing and whether you've upgraded it) and then execute them in a single astonishing move. To pull off a mark-and-execute maneuver, you first have to perform a close-quarters kill. Once you've taken down your initial target, the execution is ready, and as long as each of your targets is in range and not obscured by some object or another (you know it's a go when the tag markers turn red), all you need to do is press a single button. Time slows a bit, the camera zooms toward each enemy in turn with a subtle swoosh, and your victims crumple to the ground, no match for a trained killing machine with a chip on his shoulder. It's a little disconcerting when a target moves behind a wall during an execution and your bullet clips right through it, but as a rule, the slick camera moves and audio cues make executions a rush. In fact, most of the campaign's best moments come from clever use of execution tactics. For example, a roomful of guards aware of your presence might be flanking your location, giving you little hope of escape. Some quick marking, a slick hand-to-hand murder, and a zoom-zoom-zoom execution is a compelling and exciting way to eliminate the threat. Conviction tries its hand at other explosive moments, but these don't come together in such a dramatic way. You can occasionally use environmental objects as tools of destruction--shoot a chandelier so that it falls on a foe's head, or shoot an enormous explosive tanker, for example--but the rarity of these opportunities makes the scattered few that exist seem like a tease. More of a tease are the few interrogations you perform on key witnesses. In these highly scripted scenes, you grab your target and bash the answers out of him by jamming him into environmental objects clearly waiting to be splattered with blood. Unfortunately, the first interrogation you perform--a bloody bathroom beatdown--is the best in the entire game. In the rest, the invisible walls that hem you in and the "hey, look at me" nature of three or four conveniently placed objects make interrogations more predictable than provocative. Had they been more interactive (think takedowns in 2008's The Bourne Conspiracy), they could have been extraordinary; instead, they're violent but shrug-worthy.
Many levels do grant you welcome flexibility in how to approach the task at hand. You might shimmy up a pipe, throw a remote camera (one of a few gadgets for you to use), lure nearby guards to it, and detonate it--always a good way of getting two or three hostiles out of the way. Or instead, perhaps you'll hang from a ledge and use one of your silenced pistols to thin the crowd with a few well-placed headshots. The flexibility is nice, but Splinter Cell: Conviction isn't much of a challenge, a few tough sequences aside. (Series veterans will want to start on the hardest difficulty setting straightaway.) It's a shame the campaign doesn't make better use of these gadgets. Sonar goggles are nice, but you only need them for bypassing laser traps a few times; otherwise, unless you're having a hard time finding any straggling enemies, you may forget you even have them. You could say the same about the other gadgets in your arsenal, or even the extensive array of weapons you earn and upgrade. That's a disappointment, given the ease of the short six-hour campaign--seven, perhaps, if you prefer silence to stridence--and how well previous Splinter Cell games made your various hi-tech tools seem so indispensable.
Splinter Cell: Conviction does go out of its way to throw in some variety, and fortunately, it hits more than it misses. Many levels, such as an early one in an art museum, look colorful and may be approached in a number of different ways. A jaunt through a fairground, a secure checkpoint surrounded by innocent bystanders, and an excursion through an airfield are also particular highlights, because they offer plenty of room to slink about and prepare some exciting executions. Others don't work out so well, such as a flashback level that removes many of the elements that make Conviction so convincing and plays out more like a slightly awkward third-person shooter. A level at the Lincoln Memorial includes an exciting chase sequence--but also an overlong eavesdropping session involving a lot of boring dialogue. Nevertheless, most campaign missions are solid, thanks to careful level design and enemies that are quick to flank when they've spotted you, and quick to spread out when doing so puts the most pressure on you. The AI isn't always spot-on; your adversaries are sometimes slow to respond to grenades tossed directly at their feet, for example. But security contingents are still unpredictable and adaptive enough to keep things interesting.