Sam Fisher is back and better than ever
Sam Fisher may have lost his daughter, killed his best friend and seen his life begin to unravel, but his troubles are nothing compared to the tumultuous few years Splinter Cell: Conviction has endured. After a debut trailer depicting an old, downtrodden Sam Fisher - long hair and beard in tow – involved in hand-to-hand combat in broad daylight, the team at Ubisoft Montreal took early criticism on board and carried Conviction back to the drawing board for some much needed redesigning. The Sam Fisher we’d come to know had officially gone MIA, disappearing from the grid as we were left wondering if he’d ever see the light of day again. After a few years and a couple of extra delays, Fisher is finally back - faster, deadlier and more aggressive than ever. Forget about lurking in the shadows and avoiding detection, this Fisher is the ultimate hunter… and he’s angry.
With his daughter dead and nothing left to live for, Sam is out of the game and looking for answers. The story in Splinter Cell: Conviction is a much more personal affair for Sam, though it’s not long before he’s dragged back into the world of international espionage as a dangerous threat faces American soil. With the promise of some answers, Sam reluctantly agrees to help and the plot quickly begins to resemble a season of 24 or a Jason Bourne movie. It’s definitely an intense thrill-ride, filled with plenty of plot twists, intrigue and revelations. However, it’s the storytelling and presentation that stands out above all else. There are no loading screens and no camera cuts so the narrative is constantly moving, keeping up a frenetic, exhilarating pace. The camera moves through each environment, seamlessly transitioning between new locations and in and out of gameplay. It’s extremely slick and looks fantastic, especially when combined with Ubisoft Montreal’s unique visual technique of projecting objectives and keywords upon the environment. Each element of the presentation maintains the story’s quick pacing and keeps the player immersed in the game world.
It’s a refreshing change for the series that should appeal to a wider audience in much the same way the gameplay should. Splinter Cell purists may find the changes to the gameplay mechanics too simplified, but Conviction follows the natural progression of the stealth genre over the past few years, opting for a more action-oriented approach if the player so desires. It’s no longer about waiting patiently in the shadows and watching enemy patrol patterns; Sam is a whole lot faster than his appearance lets on. He can now quickly move from cover to cover, shimmy along ledges faster than the Prince of Persia and acrobatically traverse the environment with enough speed to avoid detection and prime for the next kill using his Krav Maga combat techniques. These kills are satisfyingly brutal, often utilising the butt-end of a pistol, any degree of rapid-fire hand-to-hand takedowns or a variety of good old fashioned choke holds. Once again it’s very similar to the pace and ferocity of the combat in the Jason Bourne movies, especially when combined with the new “mark and execute” feature.
This much touted new feature provides the biggest gameplay departure for the series but it works exceptionally well. If you see any enemies you can “mark” them with the press of a button and then hit “execute” to automatically dispatch them all with a few headshots in quick succession. It might sound like a “win” button but it’s balanced in such a way that it doesn’t make the game too easy. You have to earn the ability each time by first killing an enemy with hand-to-hand combat. This only counts once so you can’t build up multiple “mark and executes” by killing a few enemies in a row, there’s a limit, so you have to decide when and where you want to use it. Once that’s done you only have a set amount of “marks” to use and this number varies depending on what weapon you’re using and how much you’ve upgraded it; usually surmounting to about two or three at a time. Once you’ve become accustomed to it, “mark and execute” quickly becomes a useful and strategic tool in your arsenal. Each area is set up with a certain number of enemies and multiple routes to tackle them from. For instance, there could be a control room with three guards inside; in past Splinter Cell games you would probably find some way of sneaking past them. In Conviction, you can mark two of the guards by peeking under the door, before climbing onto the roof, dropping onto one of them through the skylight and hitting “execute” to dispatch of the other two. It looks extremely cool and planning each conflict with “mark and execute” in mind adds a whole layer of strategy to proceedings, particularly when you factor in context sensitive objects in the environment, human shields and so on. The only problem comes when you activate the “execute” and an enemy moves behind a solid object. The bullet will still hit him so it looks odd, but these moments are few and far between so it’s not overly bothersome.
Of course, to get into these prime positions there’s a good amount of sneaking to be done. Luckily, Conviction has one of the best cover systems available. One button will move you in and out of cover while another will move Sam to any nearby cover of your choosing. It’s extremely intuitive, never sticking to the wrong object or becoming stuck, so moving through the environment feels great. It’s also helped by another redesign to the game’s HUD. Instead of over-exuberant shadow and sound meters, you’ll know if you’re hidden simply by the colour bleeding out of the screen. If it’s black and white, you’re hidden; if the colour comes rushing back in, you’re out in the open. It’s an impressive effect that lets you know how hidden you are in the simplest way possible. Though if you are discovered, a silhouette will appear of your “last known position” so you know where the enemies think you are. They’ll search the area en masse before eventually spreading out, so you can use this to your advantage by sneaking around to flank them, laying down a remote mine, and so on. Generally speaking, the AI can be fairly intelligent in these situations when playing on Realistic – which is advised for any experienced gamers. They won’t always rush in, choosing instead to sit back and encourage you onto them and their awaiting ambush.
If this happens you may have to shoot your way out by utilising Conviction’s hefty arsenal of weaponry. There are multiple pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, shotguns and gadgets so Conviction doesn’t really bare the mark of a stealth game. And true to form you can opt to shoot your way through the majority of the game if you so desire. It’s no way near as fun as the stealth route and the shooting is a little loose, but the game never really encourages you to play it stealthy unless you want to complete the P.E.C. (Persistent Elite Creation) challenges. Though this feels like a moot point considering the points you earn from completing these challenges can only be used to upgrade your weaponry (and armour in the multiplayer). Besides from adding silencers and upgrading the amount of “mark and executes” you can use, there’s nothing really stealthy about any of the upgrades. And it’s easier to play through the game using the vastly-more-accurate silenced pistol than any of the bigger guns, so they feel largely unnecessary. While the option is there, the worst parts of the game are when you’re forced to go in guns blazing, so playing the rest of the campaign like that is inadvisable.
However, the same can’t be said for the multiplayer, depending on the game mode. All of your upgraded weapons, gadgets and armour; upgrade points and P.E.C. challenges carry over from the single player and can be used in Conviction’s plethora of multiplayer game modes. “Hunted” can be played with one or two players and tasks the player with killing a set number of enemies over 6 multiplayer specific levels. Each level is split up into areas with 10 enemies in each, with the overall number coming to 40. You’ll need to play stealthy because any detection will call in an extra 10 enemies, making your job that much harder. It’s a lot of fun whether in single or multiplayer, though it’s the weakest of the bunch. “Last Stand” is a simple survival mode similar to Gears of War’s Horde mode. Though, rather than just surviving, you’re also tasked with protecting an EMP from enemy gunfire, adding another degree of difficulty onto the waves and waves of enemies trying to kill you. This is one of the only times your heavy weaponry will prove useful as it’s less about stealth and more about setting up defensive positions and protecting yourself and the objective. Of course, if you do get a chance, setting up a two-man, eight-enemy “mark and execute” is always helpful in its devastation. “Face Off” is the only competitive mode, pitting two spies against an area full of enemies and themselves. Points are awarded for kills, with extra points for killing each other. It’s brilliant fun taking down the regular guards whilst also using their behaviour to find where your buddy is and trying to take him out as well.
Though, if you want to survive Conviction’s best multiplayer mode you’ll need to work together. The co-op campaign is a prologue, adding another four or five hours onto the seven hour single player adventure, extending the fiction furthermore. 4 of its 5 levels are from the “Hunted” game mode, which is a little disappointing, but there’s a decent amount of story driven changes to differentiate them in particular areas. It’s a real challenge when you consider the amount of enemies in each level, so you’ll really need to work in tandem to avoid being detected and utilize the two-man “mark and executes”. Some may be disappointed the popular “merc vs spy” competitive modes are missing, but Conviction’s multiplayer package is a terrific bundle of modes, culminating in one of the best co-op campaigns going.
And it’s the changes to the gameplay that make Splinter Cell: Conviction such an enjoyable, modern, stealth-action game. The stealth has been improved by a sublime cover system and minimalist changes to the HUD, while the ability to shoot yourself out of trouble and the addition of “mark and execute”, and all the strategy that entails, makes this the most accessible Splinter Cell to date. With an engaging story, impressive presentation and voice acting, and a variety of multiplayer game modes, Conviction has a lot of quality worth experiencing.