In the past, Splinter Cell meant being a spy. Sneaking and suffocating, creeping and crawling. For the most part, that’s no longer true. The gruff new Sam Fisher is focused solely on revenge, forgetting some of the subtlety that so prominently defined previous entries in the series. Sam now has his daughter’s sudden murder on his mind, and will mow down anyone preventing him from reaching the killer. While the premise is sound, and creates a fast paced Jason Bourne-esque adventure through warehouses and political landmarks, it in effect risks sacrificing what made Splinter Cell so cool.
The entirety of Conviction walks this fine line between stealth and action, at times delicately, but at others quite sporadically. Thankfully, most of the mechanics are so elegantly crafted that the failings of this balancing act can often be overlooked. Moving about in the world feels incredibly natural; the cover system is fluid and effective, allowing Sam to briskly move from barrier to barrier with the simple press of a button. I always felt in total control, and transitioning from cover to crouch to kill is silky smooth and satisfying. Similarly, the decision to place mission objectives on environmental objects is incredibly sleek, and delivers an immersive menu-free navigation system. As cheesy as the objective projection may seem, it really does add a level of polish that boosts the secret-agent vibe.
A handful of flashback cutscenes also occur within the levels themselves, projected amongst the environment while players retain full control of Mr. Fisher. The context specific interface is equally efficient, changing up the available action based on where you’re looking. The “open the door” prompt quickly becomes “peek under” as the camera shifts towards the floor. Fluidity and rapid transition seems to be a focus for Conviction, and while it works incredibly well for presentation, the affect on gameplay isn’t as impressive.
Ubisoft tossed around the word accessibility for this release, a term that doesn’t really represent the older Splinter Cells. Nonetheless, Conviction makes everything easier, opening up the calculated stealth gameplay into a menagerie of hiding, shooting, and all out sprinting. Even on the hardest difficulty, Conviction is kind of a cakewalk. The new “mark and execute” mechanic factors in a bit, but this super-spy move isn’t the main simplifier. After taking out a guard with a melee attack, Sam gains the ability to automatically target and take out a handful of enemies within range. While initially this seemed to be a game-breaker of sorts, it ends up being more of a cool cinematic addition that looks awesome half the time, and downright dumb the other (some weird collision detection allows Sam to occasionally “mark and execute” through walls and boxes). No, what really destroys the challenge of Conviction is the action option, the ability to clear a room with gunfire. Sure, stealth is still the preferred method, but it’s hard to justify when baiting and popping is often more effective.
Why sneak by when you can quickly kill all the guards? That’s the question I was constantly asking myself during the single player campaign. The heavily showcased “last known position” system is neat visually, but ultimately detrimental to the overall game. When an enemy spots Sam, his silhouette appears, alerting the player to where the guards think you are. In theory, this should allow for some great flanking opportunities; in reality, when done right, you can lure guards around blind corners, and take them out one-by-one. Here lies my biggest complaint with Conviction. The sneaking aspect is so well done, and the stealth controls so graceful, that I just didn’t want to do the whole third-person-shooter thing. I could have forced myself to only use stealth (in fact, the forced stealth areas were some of my favorites), despite the game pushing me towards conflict, but when the rooms are overcrowded with enemies, it becomes clear that the developer didn’t always intend for a quiet approach. Especially in the later levels, there are so many damn guards, it became incredibly frustrating to try and avoid them all, and much easier to just pull out my pistol and deliver a few headshots. And when all of the bad guys are annoyingly shouting ridiculous repetitive lines, you’ll definitely want to put them down quickly.
Somewhat rough shooting controls make the aggressive approach that much less appealing, and for better or worse, a silenced pistol is the only truly effective weapon. Sam has plenty of gadgets, including a remote camera and an EMP grenade, but they are hardly ever needed, except in very specific spots (while there aren’t any night vision goggles this time around, the sonar equivalent pops up later on, allowing you to see through walls and easily spot almost every enemy). The other armaments aren’t especially useful either; heavy weaponry is inaccurate and draws far too much attention to Rambo-Sam. All in all, the action seems forced and isn’t very satisfying, especially within a franchise that typically rewards no causalities.
With that being said, there are some standout moments during Sam’s frantic trek. A few of the levels are set in atypical locales, including a carnival and a few famous monuments, and these are super cool to navigate. Taking cover behind game booths or blending in amongst tourists is unique, and heightens the spy-like immersion. I loved planning out maneuvers between unusual hiding spots, eventually leading to adrenaline-pumping silent takedowns. Combing quiet melee moves with “mark and execute” was at times thrilling, especially in these more civilian areas, and ultimately made the generic warehouse levels seem outdated and dull. Shimmying across boxes and concrete just isn’t as satisfying as crawling beneath tables at a crowded fairground.
A handful of interesting pace-changers are thrown in to mix-up the missions, but unfortunately Conviction is too short to include very many. Listening in on a conversation via cameras was a clever way to disguise a dialogue scene, but stuff like this just doesn’t happen enough. And probably rightfully so: Sam is no longer the spy of yesteryear, instead more of an old angry ‘kill ‘em all’ type dude. This does have some slight benefits, as the man is pretty shockingly rough with his big catches. Interactive interrogations are gruesome, albeit short and simple, and allow the player to do such things as slam a dude’s head through a television set.
Again resembling Bourne, a fast on-foot chase is thrown in along the way, and while these moments are awesome, the game on a whole enters its final act far too quickly, and is over in a mere 5 or 6 hours. Combine that with a low-level of difficulty, and Conviction sounds pretty slim on value. Fortunately, a bunch of multiplayer modes assuage the campaign content crunch. A full-on co-op story mode takes place before the events of the main game, and seems to rely a little bit more heavily on being sneaky (though having double the “mark and execute” power once again encourages action over stealth).
Hunter and Last Stand are playable in both solo and multiplayer, and when contrasted, these modes kind of exemplify the sort of identity crisis that Conviction struggles with. The first places you in a map filled with enemies, entrusting your spy with eliminating them all. Here, it is important to be quiet, as more guards will pile in upon explosions or large firefights. Stealthily taking out the opposition keeps their numbers low, and made me feel like I was finally playing the game the way I wanted to play it. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Last Stand pits the player against an onslaught of attackers, all of whom are hell bent on destroying a generator you are charged with protecting. Stealth isn’t very useful when you’re on such a time crunch, and believe me, that generator will go down fast.
The final mode is Face-Off, and may potentially be the highlight of the bunch. It’s essentially spy vs. spy on an enemy infested level, with points awarded for kills and subtracted for deaths. Defeating your adversary is worth more than picking off guards, and the mode is fast paced and intense: the perfect blend of stealth and action. For whatever reason, the rest of the game doesn’t share that same balance. Besides personal satisfaction, the only real reward for sneaking in single player is Challenge points, used for purchasing weapon upgrades and multiplayer costumes. There are plenty of these Challenges, requiring things such as five escapes with a flashbang grenade, but these are probably more suited to a dedicated second playthrough.
A couple of enemy spawn glitches and some bad checkpoints were a bit aggravating, but it was the uneven melding of stealth and action that muddled the experience for me. It’s a very easy ride, with a few trial and error sections thrown in to try and buff the challenge. Nonetheless, Conviction is a fun game. As much as the single-player at times struggles, the overarching framework is fantastic. Traversing through environments in a linear fashion really highlights the effortlessness of the controls, and I almost enjoyed these sections more than the sandbox style ones, especially considering the inefficiency of all-out stealth.
The different multiplayer modes are a great addition (the separate co-op campaign being an especially nice treat), and in certain bursts, the single-player story feels incredible. Some stellar audio composition establishes momentous musical moments, and the presentation is downright superb. It’s almost as if Ubisoft Montreal created this fantastic framework, and then patched on an uneven adventure that doesn’t fully take advantage of the best parts of their invention. I’d really like to see the underlying stealth gameplay of Conviction transferred onto a different title; it’s kind of sad to see an A+ control and interface system attached to a B- game. If I go back to play Splinter Cell: Conviction, it isn’t because I love what’s there. It’s because I love the potential of what could’ve been.