Splinter Cell: Conviction is one of those games that was very close to never seeing the light of day. Originally due back in 2007, the game was put in to numerous holds and has gone through several revisions. Many of you probably remember the earliest demos of the game which depicted a scraggly, bearded Sam Fisher slipping through crowds and knocking out cops. This version of Conviction, affectionately called “Hobo Fights” by some due to Sam’s unkempt appearance, eventually got canceled but had some of its innovations make it into Assassins’ Creed (blending in to crowds, and the like).
Against all odds, the Splinter Cell franchise has returned to the gaming scene, but with a few changes. Gone is Sam’s transient-inspired appearance and the notion of mixing with the public; Conviction now features a Sam Fishers out for revenge, trimmed up and ready to fight. But after so many delays, does the game feel like a finished product, or is it spreading itself too thin?
The main destination for many Splinter Cell gamers is going to be the campaign mode, where we finally find out what happened to Sam after he was betrayed by Third Echelon at the end of Double Agent. Third Echelon, for those who need a quick refresher, is the shadowy sub-division of the National Security Agency (NSA). Now, after two years on the run, Sam gets a call from a former co-worker, Anna Grimsdóttír, who reveals that Sam’s daughter may still be alive after her apparent death at the hands of a drunk driver.
Our former spy is back on the case, and along the way he runs into double-crossers, a plot to take over the government, and a powerful electromagnetic pulse device, something that seems to be the game plot MacGuffin of choice as of late. Honestly, the story is a bit muddled, and it provides the flimsiest of excuses for Sam to infiltrate various places of ill repute to kill everyone inside. The game’s writing is fairly weak, and the voice cast, with the exception of veteran actor Michael Ironside, all give fairly phoned-in performances.
Speaking of terrible performances, one of the most egregious parts of Splinter Cell’s campaign is the dialogue spoken by the guards who populate the levels. Not only are they the most generic “I’m going to get you” kind of lines, but every henchman in the room feels the need to spout these phrases ad nauseum over and over. It’s kind of like watching The View, except that everyone is carrying automatic weapons. Honestly, the only saving grace for this flaw is that you get to dispatch these buffoons in some very painful ways. The AI is also extremely thick; at one point I just hung out of a window and picked off waves of guys as they came to investigate the one dead solider I had left at the top of the stairs.
While we’re on the subject of dispatching flimsy guards, it bears mentioning that this Splinter Cell outing controls very differently to the past games. Whereas in previous titles you would be skulking in the shadows waiting for the perfect moment to strike and then retreating to regain the advantage, Conviction encourages you to use its new Mark and Execute system to clear a roomful of hostiles in the quickest manner. To perform a Mark and Execute, you first need to take down an aggressor with a hand-to-hand kill, at which point you’ll unlock the ability to Mark up to four targets, depending on your current weapon and the upgrades applied to it.
Mark and Execute works very well, sometimes to the point where the game bends over backwards to make sure you use it at every opportunity. Often times, there will be areas stuffed with guys but always one dude closest to your entrance point. The ability to Mark enemies before you can utilize the Execute maneuver means that you need to bring one guy down, then the rest is a cake walk. One odd thing about this system is that, when Sam is doing his whole automatic take-down thing, bullets will pass straight through walls and other surfaces to kill the guy you’ve tagged. It really causes a strange disconnect when you watch Sam twist about unnaturally to pop every one of your marked foes and then fire a few magical phase bullets for good measure.
Another issue I had with the system is that the game did not clearly state that one close-quarters kill allowed you to do one Mark and Execute and that repeated beat-downs would not stack. It makes sense, but I found myself going out of the way to murder guys with my bare hands, then wondering why I could only do one Mark and Execute. Sam is also called upon to do impromptu interrogations at certain points in the game. These feel more like a contrived way to make Sam look gritty and dangerous, but driving a man’s hand into a tree stump with a knife does have a certain appeal.
Splinter Cell: Conviction also features a different stealth mechanic from the previous games, one that focuses more on using the darkness to kill guys as opposed to using it to progress through the levels. Previous Splinter Cell games would allow you to slip undetected through most of the levels, but Conviction places an emphasis on being empowered by the dark. People who are expecting a return to form from Splinter Cell in this regard will be disappointed; it bears more of a resemblance to a third person shooter than it does to its stealthy kin.
Besides revamping the controls and the way Sam moves, Conviction also tries out a new art style, using the series’ unique take on lighting to show the players both their current objective and tell them when Sam is fully hidden in darkness. The first aspect of this works OK, it basically just projects Sam’s mission, and sometimes his thoughts, onto blank surfaces. For a game that mostly lacks a HUD, it’s a decently slick way of telling the players what to do. Where it falls short, though, is the in-game instructions which are all presented in giant block letters superimposed over the action. This kind of ruins the point of having a system like the objective broadcast if you’re not going to apply it to everything. I mean, it would at least keep it in theme if, say, when the game teaches me about hand-to-hand combat, it projected a “B” silhouette over the poor chump’s body. It is cheesy, sure, but more consistent than big letters cluttering up the screen.
In addition to using the lighting to keep players updated on the mission, the game also uses black and white coloring to tell them when they are concealed in shadow. When Sam is invisible to enemies, the game washes out to full black and white, with the enemies picked out in color. This is fine in theory, but say you have a hard time distinguishing shapes when everything is mostly the same color. Often times I would back myself into a corner then not realize I had trapped myself because I couldn’t tell there was no exit. This might not have been a problem for everyone, but this came up more than a few times in my playthrough.
While we’re on the subject of graphics, it must be said that Splinter Cell is not a good looking game. The environments are very bland, and the levels based in daytime reveal just how unpolished the game looks. The character models are especially poor, what with the lip-syncing being as shoddy as it is. When they’re speaking, the characters look more like marionettes than they do people. There was very little work done here to ensure that the lip movement even matched up with the spoken dialogue.
I’m just going to mention Sam’s new gadgets here because the lack of his traditional goggles caused a bit of a ruckus a while back. People will be happy to know that the new sonar goggles are very effective, bearing a lot of resemblance to the Detective Vision from Batman: Arkham Asylum. The goggles send out sound pulses which can be used to see trip-lasers and bad guys alike so you can tag them through walls and doors and the like. As a substitute for Sam’s old-school lenses, they do just fine.
Splinter Cell: Conviction also features a co-op mode where two people control a couple of secret agents hunting an EMP (surprise) in a prequel to the main campaign. It’s fairly fun if you and your partner are competent, but some may find that the level design is a little too linear to allow two people to operate effectively. Co-op is still a good time, though, because Convictions’ limited stealth mechanics do allow for some very tense moments. Just don’t expect to sit through more than one hour without wanting to hit your partner at least once.
By the end of Conviction’s six-hour campaign, I was growing a little tired of the constant use of Mark and Execute, the verbose guards and the annoying over-use of black and white. Sure, at some points in the game I felt like the bad-ass I was supposed to be, but these were few and far between. Playing the campaign felt like more of a slog than anything else. I have no doubt that, when Conviction got scrapped a few years back, UbiSoft started from square one throwing out everything that they had built. For a game that has taken so long, I’m a bit disappointed with how rough it feels.
So, that how I felt about Splinter Cell: Conviction. I wasn’t too happy with the final product, but what did you guys think about it? Worth the wait, or is it time to put this franchise to bed?
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