It’s been quite some time since we last saw Sam Fisher in action and several delays have not only made us wait for his return, but have also changed the game considerably from the early glimpses of this follow-up to Double Agent. The game is a very different animal from the Assassin’s Creed-esque prototype originally planned.
Continuing the arcing Splinter Cell story, Conviction takes place a while after the events seen in Double Agent. Regardless of your decisions made in the previous game, though, the story here is set in stone, so don’t expect your previous choices to have much weight here.
I won’t spoil the story, of course, but this outing is all about Sam, and is a much more personal affair, concentrating on Sam, his daughter and events that have brought Sam to his current situation. What I can say, without fear of spoiling your experience, is that Sam, while initially reluctant to get involved in the events of the game, soon ends up indulging in his old tricks, and is as deadly as ever, even without the considerable backing of Third Echelon.
Spliner Cell: Conviction will be instantly familiar with series veterans, but it’s important to know that this isn’t simply yet another Splinter Cell, and while previous games have strayed little from the path laid by the original title, Conviction has cut the apron strings, and decided to go about things in its own way. This is Splinter Cell, yes, but not quite how you remember it.
Replacing the previous game’s overly linear and scripted stealth system, which punished you unforgivably for any slip-up, resulting in a game of pure trial and error, Conviction now possesses a much more free-form and forgiving mechanic.
Stealth is still key, of course, but gone are the rigid combat mechanics and clunky stealth elements of before. This time there’s a much more organic feel. Sam can still skulk around in the dark, and can use walls for cover, but this time it’s all about planning your attack, and taking out foes carefully while attempting to stay undetected.
Foes can be grabbed and dragged away, used as human shields and silently dispatched, but this time combat is more at the forefront, even if the goal is to remain unnoticed. What we’re talking about is carefully executed headshots, silent death-from-above kills and the game’s new mark and execute system.
By killing a foe with a hand-to-hand attack you gain access to this special ability and, once earned, you can tag a number of targets and then press Y and Sam will effortlessly take out each and every one. This may sound like a cop-out, but the actual result is a very cool and valuable skill that you’ll end up saving for those tricky moments when the odds are against you.
And, if you play the game on the hardest level (a very good idea, as this isn’t a very long game…) you’ll really need to make use of this skill, as well as develop a real eye for tactical positioning.
This tactical positioning is enforced by another cool feature: Last Known Position. If an enemy spots you, you can quickly try to slip away, slinking off into the darkness, and a ghostly image of Sam will appear, representing the enemy’s last known location of Sam. Using this, you can cleverly flank your foes as they move into place to attack this position.
However, there’s much more scope than simply flanking here, and by combining this system with some of Sam’s gadgets, such as a remote mine, you can create some truly satisfying traps.
It’s a great feature, not least in that it finally kills off one of Splinter Cell‘s big issues: the inability to recover easily if you make a mistake.
Often in previous games, you’d simply reload or let your foes kill Sam, so you could start again. This time, though, this isn’t the case, and even if you’re discovered, you can regroup and carry on. In fact, the game is often at its best when you’re discovered, and the nail-biting game of cat and mouse that you play with the game’s above average AI is enjoyable.
Splinter Cell, even with more of a focus on combat, is still all about stealth, though, and changes have been made here too. Most notable is the lack of the game’s iconic goggles. Sam can’t, initially at least (until the new sonar goggles are found), see in the dark, and there’s no light meter to show you how well Sam is hidden.
Instead the game renders everything in black and white when Sam is safely hidden, and then bleeds out everything to colour when he’s not. This works well, and although still a clear sign of Sam’s current camouflage state, it’s more natural, and is a good way to handle things. This is a bit of a double edged sword, though, and as Sam likes to stay hidden, you’ll spend a good deal of the game in black and white. If you’re the type who avoids black-and-white movies like the plague, this may not impress.
The improvements in combat and stealth are certainly the main draw of the show here, and both succeed in evolving the franchise, keeping it fresh and current. Yes, this is still a very similar game, but it really does play and feel fresh at the same time.
Other new elements also help to freshen Sam’s adventures up. The new interactive interrogation is a nifty little feature, albeit not as impressive as we’ve been led to believe. Certain people, often key scripted foes, can be grabbed and ruffed up, and by banging their heads on bathroom sinks, mixing decks and even stabbing them in the shoulder with the American flag, to name but a few techniques, Sam can always get the info he needs.
As seems to be a standard feature these days, Sam’s weapons, once found in the field, can be pimped out with laser sights, stocks, extended clips and so on, increasing their effectiveness. Most notably, this often increases the number of targets Sam can mark using the Mark and Execute skill.
Sadly, as good as the selection of weapons is, I’m certain most players will take my route, and spend the majority of the game using a silenced pistol like the Five-Seven and the silenced MP5. Still, the more powerful toys are there to play with, and will certainly spice up multiplayer.
Speaking of multiplayer, Conviction goes that extra mile this time, and while the multiplayer options in previous games have always been interesting and unique, this time fans are in for a real treat.
The game features the traditional multiplayer modes of the series, but also includes two new options: Deniable Ops and Co-op. The former of these two modes pits players against waves of enemy AI in various modes, such as Hunter, Last stand and Face-Off. This isn’t a simple case of the devs ripping off Gears Of War‘s Horde mode, though, and it still has a heavy emphasis on stealth and plays like Splinter Cell at all times.
The Co-op mode is sure to be a big hit and places two players into a full mini-adventure. This isn’t a case of simple maps strung together, and is, in fact, a prologue to the game’s main story, complete with its own impressive end game.
These modes, along with the standard multiplayer additions, help to add to the game’s longevity, which, sadly, is the major flaw.
Conviction is over far too soon. The main story won’t take long for seasoned veterans to complete, even on the Realistic setting, and the Co-op and other multiplayer modes probably won’t be around for long after the novelty wears off and people drift back to the usual XBL suspects.
Still, while it lasts, Conviction is a brilliantly crafted title. It’s presented with tons of cool little touches, such as the projections of back story on the environments, a feature also used to inform you of your goals, and although there’s some truly irritating audio repetition, with guards repeating the same stock phrases over and over, the majority is spot on.
Michael Ironside is great once again as Sam, and the rest of the cast is perfectly believable.
If it wasn’t for the short length, this could have been a real five star effort. As it is, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable outing, and one of, if not the best of Sam Fisher’s games so far.
It’s old, but new, alien, yet familiar, and always a blast.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.