Splinter Cell: Conviction review

The stealth genre only really has four representatives: Metal Gear Solid, Thief, Tenchu and Splinter Cell. And don’t try to pretend Syphon Filter belongs in that list.

As the years have progressed it has been interesting to see these series progress and note how representative of their time and culture their respective entries each were. Both Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu have both stagnated in their own way, MGS by bloating out of control while Tenchu never really tried to mix anything up after the second instalment (insultingly the PS2/Xbox version still used the Resident Evil rotate-then-move-forward-and-backwards despite having access to a second thumbstick). When people talk about how the Japanese game industry is not really moving forwards I envision these two as being classic examples. As for Thief the series died, foreshadowing the dark ages that the PC market went through where games based around complex systems seemed to become a thing of the past. Amusingly Thief’s rebirth is happening at a time when PC gaming has moved more confidently back into the lime-light.

In a similar way Splinter Cell: Conviction feels highly symbolic of the stealth genre shift and bid for survival as well as Ubisoft’s – the publishers and developers of the game – strange ability to really piss off their core fans. Ubisoft have their flaws but they are a company likely to try and revitalise their franchises in a meaningful way, even if it does result in them missing the mark and angering fans.
After Splinter Cell: Double Agent it was clear that something needed to change. The formula was no longer working; they were trying to stick too closely to the series’ roots whilst also making it more accessible.

That means that you can see your objectives on any surface. It feels... classy.

During SC:C’s troubled development cycle there was at least one complete trashing of the game’s design (the original idea was of a homeless protagonist using crowds as a method of blending and stealthing) as well as rumours that things had gotten to the point where the development team were performing triage – hacking out whole levels that didn’t work – in the final months, rushing to get the game out of the door.

Despite these problems, alleged or true, there is much to enjoy here as long as you are not looking for a purist Splinter Cell experience.

The differences that Ubisoft was aiming for are immediately apparent. The opening places you in the shoes of the rejuvenated Sam Fisher, looking a bit like George Clooney circa 2004 rather than the grumpy old man of Double Agent, while he sits in a piazza. Things go downhill for Sam straight away, but for gamers as a statement of intent it was a positive one. As Sam starts shooting his way out of yet another tight situation the area he moves through is markedly different to the enclosed corridors of previous instalments. There are no obvious climbing antics, no slow deliberateness to Sam’s advances and barely any HUD.

Instead the game posits its two big changes: the modified stealth mechanics and the new execute system.

For starters the light bar is gone; now when Sam Fisher skulks in a darkened corner the level loses all of its colour and this monochromatic display reassures you that no one can spot Fisher as he lines up the next shot.

Agent 47 makes a brief appearance.

This approach changes the game more than one might imagine. With the player viewing most of their surroundings through a ‘Noir’ filter it gives play a hard-boiled feel, and the gritty (possibly racist, possibly misogynistic) story line is almost validated given that it is seen through the same filter as that of a 50s gangster film. More importantly, from an aesthetic perspective it was great to experience twinges of panic every time Sam accidentally walked out into a well-lit area and the entire level blossomed into colour.

This effect is however something of a double-edged sword. It’s a shame that as a player you will spend most of your time seeing everything in black and white, as some of the levels look stunning in colour. To be fair, this is a minor complaint when pitted against what this game is attempting.

The second big innovation is the execute system, which is the biggest change to the game in terms of what becomes expected of the player. The changes in introduces will delight some and infuriate others.

The idea is that, depending on the weapon you are carrying, you will be able to mark a number of enemies and then instantly execute them as long as they are within range and eye-line. Once this ability is used the player must perform a melee attack to replenish the ability. The tactics involved with this feature come into full flow when you realise that it is possible to mark targets for the execute move, then perform a melee attack and immediately trigger it for deeply satisfying results. This system grows deeper when it becomes apparent that you can also target environmental objects to cause more set-piece madness.

Don't worry, this is not a spoiler.

An early example of this was after I had snuck into a mansion on the Mediterranean coast and made my way down into its sizeable garage/atrium. Five guards were patrolling the area and I had the ability to execute three marks with my current weapon. Two guards were loitering under a conspicuous chandelier (who puts a chandelier in a garage?) while two more idly chatted about the news. The final guard was a wanderer, shifting from point to point with a flashlight.

The latter was my main target, but there was no obvious way to take him out without alerting the others. Instead I shimmied my way along a pipe on the ceiling, targeted the chandelier and the two idle guards, then triggered a ‘death from above’ attack by plummeting onto the final walking guard before pressing the button to initiate the execute command. In less than ten seconds all five men are lying dead or unconscious and the entire room was silent.

I shot out all the lights just to be safe and keep things grey.

For posterity I captured another example:

Please bear in mind that this took two attempts to capture properly but that was the fault of my equipment and not the game, as the player’s ability to achieve these moments is smoothly handled so long as you see the points at which they can occur.

This shift in combat focus does mean that a lot of levels bottleneck into areas where the temptation to ignore the sneaking option and go in all guns blazing could become a little irritating for the traditional SC fan. Worse, there are actually some levels where stealth isn’t an option at all.

That being said, in previous instalments it always felt like the gameplay was on a precarious edge, with the puzzle-like element of creeping through areas meaning that if you got something wrong your playthrough usually fell apart with instant deaths and ‘game over’ screens aplenty. Perfection was required to progress which tended to make the games feel very linear. With Splinter Cell: Conviction some of the best moments are actually when it all goes horribly wrong. Those slow-motion “ooooh shiiit” scenarios such as when a guard turns unexpectedly and catches you in the glare of his flashlight, or that carefully lined-up head shot misses by inches alerting the target who triggers the alarms, usually don’t mean that you are forced to start again, instead simply changing how you play.

The game enables this by creating a ghost of where you were last seen. All enemies will converge on this point so it allows you to create traps for them, manipulating their actions. This is further helped by the inclusion of flashbangs and EMPs.

The option to go fully automatic and still walk away from a set piece may make some people baulk. Really though it just means that Conviction leans more towards Hitman-style play, which can never be a bad thing.

No, SC:C’s real flaws are its dodgy storytelling and attempts to diversify the gameplay beyond the two new elements already introduced. I am not sure if anyone has ever actually cared about Sam Fisher’s plight but the attempts to turn story into interactive gameplay – you get to interrogate people in a gruesome manner – is as feeble as the moments in Assassin’s Creed where you are forced to witness exposition when you would rather be hanging out in the dark. The moments told in flashbacks where all of the toys and baubles are removed in an attempt to mix it up just make the game a boring, broken Gears of War clone rather than providing a refreshing break from the core mechanics.

This is not racist, I swear.

A lot of complaints were made about the campaign’s length, and these gripes are legitimate if you don’t have a friend to jump in and play co-op with you. Available in both split-screen and over Xbox LIVE, there is a five-level campaign to play through that precedes the single player storyline. All of the elements from the single player are carried over and the mark-and-execute mechanic has the added spice of one player being able to line up shots before their partner melees an enemy, sparking off a combined murder spree. It is probably the best feature of the game and Ubisoft clearly understood this by releasing DLC that added more of it.

With all that there is to recommend the game it still feels like Conviction, as a reboot, made little sense. The hardcore fans rejected it as not being true to the franchise, its obsession with setpieces instead of the slow and steady executions turning them off straight away. At the same time the innovation introduced was not communicated to the fans who had seen the games stagnate (myself included), and instead there was only the perception of a shaky product with not enough focus.

Still, if the above has intrigued you, and given the extremely low price tag that Conviction now goes for, don’t let this game slip by.