A Fresh Start to an Already Awesome Franchise
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction is the fifth installment in Ubisoft’s long running stealth action series starring Michael Ironside as veteran spy Sam Fisher. The team at Ubisoft Montreal have made significant changes to the game’s trial and error formula, opting for a much faster paced action/stealth hybrid. Does this dramatic shift in style teach this old dog some new tricks, or is Splinter Cell past its prime?
Conviction’s single player story picks up roughly three years after the events of Double Agent; Sarah Fisher, Sam’s daughter, was run down by a drunk driver; He was forced to kill his best friend and former Third Echelon Director, Irving Lambert, while under cover in the terrorist organization John Brown’s Army (JBA). With his friends and family gone, Sam left Third Echelon and decided it was time to live his life off the “grid” and free himself from any more Tom Clancy world ending scenarios. However, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Retirement doesn’t sound like an exciting action game so while spending some time in Valetta investigating a possible lead to the identity of his daughter’s killer, Sam receives a phone call from his former Third Echelon handler, Anna “Grim” Grímsdóttir. She immediately warns him that a group of thugs are out to kill him and that their leader may know something about the man who sent them… and murdered his daughter.
Gamers who have never played any of the previous games in the franchise need not worry; Conviction’s story is quick to bring them up to speed and even quicker to move Sam forward towards his ultimate goal: revenge. For series veterans, the game does feature a welcome amount of familiar faces to compliment the new ones.
With a much larger focus on fast paced action, Conviction does away with a lot of the game play complexity of the past games. Ubisoft eliminates the need for light and sound meters by draining the color from the environment every time the player is hidden in the shadows; Enemies however remain colorized making it easier for the player to focus on their targets. Cover is the other side of the stealth coin here. Players will spend a lot of time pressed against walls, cars, cabinets, and other waist high objects strewn about the various and diverse locations Sam encounters. Luckily the system is extremely flexible and allows for quick movement from point to point at the push of a button. Instead of snapping players in and out of cover, (Uncharted 2 or Gears of War) the player holds down the right mouse button when they want to safely duck behind solid objects.
Unlike classic Splinter Cell games, detection isn’t the worst thing that can happen to Sam (with the exception of a few segments). In fact, the game encourages players to utilize their mistakes to trigger one of Conviction’s new features, Last Known Position (LKP). Once detected, escaping enemy sight using whatever means necessary (flash bang, EMP burst, sticky camera, etc.) will be your top priority. When Sam has successfully slipped back in to the shadows, a white silhouette of will appear where he was last seen. Enemies will focus their attention on this spot with a constant stream of gunfire and grenades until they feel it is safe to approach the spot to confirm a kill. While their attention is diverted, Sam can flank, plant a proximity mine, or just guns blazing using the large arsenal of weapons at his disposal. Ubisoft’s new bag of tricks make any number of heavily armed men stacked against this worn and weathered hero easily surmountable.
Along with LKP comes the Mark and Execute system. Players can target up to four enemies at a time, marking them with an arrow that can be seen at all times. Performing a hand-to-hand takedown grants the player the ability to execute any marked targets within range. Trigger and execution has Sam dish out a series of quick and violent headshots punctuated by camera zooms and slow motion. Using Mark and Execute to take down a room full of enemies after careful planning makes it the game’s most visceral and satisfying new feature (it’s even better with a partner in co-op). Should an enemy happen to wander into the next room or behind solid objects after the sequence has begun, the bullet will still find it place nestled into the target’s skull which looks sloppy but it won’t hinder the thrill.
The single player campaign has great set piece moments and really lets the player get into the mind of Sam Fisher, but the experience does feature some rough edges that won’t remain hidden in the shadows as well as Sam can. Enemy interrogations are no longer intimate interactions with guards that the player has grabbed a hold of, but have become heavily scripted, interactive cut scenes… with little interaction. There are only five or six interrogations in the eight hour single player campaign, and each of these boil down to:
- Grab a guy by the throat.
- Walk around a very confined space with him.
- Occasionally decide what object in the area to slam his head into next.
The game makes it clear what instruments of pain it wants used in these situations which will leave more “creative” players in the cold (a rusty, broken down car just screamed [Smash head with door] at me but it was a no go).
Level design still offers a large amount of options for getting from point A to B; will you move cover to cover under the street lamps to reach the stairway to the second floor or will you climb the wall mounted pipe to reach the window and kill the guard gazing at the moon? Kobin’s mansion early on is the best example of this design philosophy but later levels increase the level of action and number of enemies, providing less avoidance options and forcing players to use guns and gadgets. The worst level in the game is a flash back sequence that takes place in Iraq. It strips the stealth mechanics away from the player and becomes a straight TPS experience that does not suit the series at all.
The cooperative campaign is where Conviction truly shines. All of the game play mechanics from the single player carry over without sacrifice. Everything from a simple shoot out, to marking and executing, to silently taking out a room full of thugs one by one is all the more satisfying with a friend. Co-op stars Third Echelon agent Archer and Russian Voron agent Kestrel who have access to all the weapons and gadgets acquired in the single player campaign. On the downside, the PC version suffers horrible lag, poor match making, and a complete lack of voice and text chat. In a game where careful planning and tactics is king, these omissions and flaws nearly unforgivable and can seriously hinder the play experience.
Aside from the two great campaigns there are the added modes that highlight the different sides of Conviction’s game play: Hunter, Last Stand, Face-Off, and Infiltration. Each of these modes can be played alone or with a friend with the exception of Face-Off which is strictly two players.
Hunter has players taking down a set number of enemies in the environments featured in the co-op campaign. When detected, enemies gain reinforcements that increase amount of kills necessary to continue to the next zone.
Infiltration is the mode fans of classic Splinter Cell games will gravitate towards. Detection means instant mission failure, your only option is a slow and stealthy approach to every situation. However, the complete lack of in-game communication between partners will likely lead to Infiltration being a solo endeavor.
Face-Off pits two players against one another and patrolling NPCs. Killing the other player grants the most points and death at the hands of the other player or computer results in a loss.
Last Stand has players defending a stationary target from waves of enemies. This mode is designed around the player’s ability to handle heavy combat scenarios. Invading enemies won’t allow players much time to coordinate a proper trap or execution set up which leads to spamming grenades into their spawn points before they get a chance to even move into the room.
Splinter Cell: Conviction makes a lot of bold and extreme changes to give the series a fresh feel and new beginning. The single player campaign is a short but exciting adventure into Sam’s quest for revenge and offers a satisfying finale to his story arc. His return remains to be seen but if this is the last (or his last) game, Fisher definitely goes out on a high. Co-op takes all the good of the single player and multiplies it by how well a player can coordinate with a friend, assuming they can find a match and means of communication. The game’s flaws and new direction may nag at long time fans of Splinter Cell but the pros heavily outweigh the cons and promises great things for the franchise’s future.