This is CTU; Get me Sam Fisher!
Sam Fisher’s been around the block a time or two, or so I’ve been told. I can’t really speak for all of that experience he’s put under his belt, because aside from a small portion of the original Splinter Cell and even less of 2006’s Double Agent, we haven’t spent a lot of time together. Suffice to say that I’m not particularly practiced with Fisher’s brand of tactics. With respect to this latest entry in the long-running stealth franchise, that’s not much of a factor, as the tried-and-tired formula has been reworked significantly to attract those just like me.
It’d be nearly innocuous to charge Splinter Cell: Conviction as a reboot if not for the continuing plot threads. Only a few key points go deep enough into the series’ past to throw off newcomers, and so words like “Lambert” and “Third Echelon” might elicit glazing of the eyes. However, much of the plot is easy enough to understand, if more than a bit contrived. Sam Fisher is now a rogue agent seeking revenge against the people responsible for the murder of his daughter, Sarah. He’s located by a former co-worker, Anna Grimmsdottir, and is pulled back into a web of intrigue with promises that his daughter is in fact alive and well.
The story is sort of a mess, all of it seemingly pulled directly from something like The Bourne Identity or 24. There’s a lot of revelations and double-crosses, and more than a few potentially cataclysmic crises that are averted. It’s contrived, and promises to be engaging for those of you that are into that kind of thing. For everyone else, well, there’s some decent enough gameplay to keep you playing through to the end.
And that’s what’s the most different about this installment in the series. Though stealth is a huge part of the experience, Fisher just isn’t as reliant on staying hidden as weaves his way through bad guy after bad guy. Almost as if to assert this idea further, the arsenal of firearms available to you only contains a couple of silenced pistols and maybe a silenced uzi. The rest are obnoxiously loud machine guns and close-range weapons, and it’s considerably easier to empty a room of patrolling grunts when you make use of them.
Of course, there are still some cool stealth tactics here. Every time Sam kills an enemy or does anything else to give away his whereabouts, a ghost-like outline of the character appears in that very position, giving you an idea of where the horde of common sense deprived foot soldiers are going to be searching. From there it can be either really simple or nearly impossible to sneak around to another position to take advantage of their hunt, depending on how well you paid attention to your surroundings from the start.
You’re also given some cool abilities as the game progresses, the most useful of them being mark-and-execute. After dispatching of some unsuspecting grunt with a quick melee attack, you can mark remaining enemies and then instantaneously kill each of them with the push of a button. It can be very cinematic at times, but also occasionally off-putting. The execution bit always works so long as the target is in range of a shot, and it can be a little jarring to watch Fisher put a bullet through a solid brick wall and subsequently catch wind of a lifeless body hitting the pavement on the other side. This whole mechanic can also make the game laughably easy if it’s used just right. The number of enemies susceptible to this ability varies from weapon to weapon, but can be increased by upgrading each one at various stations throughout the game. Once you’ve got your hands on a gun that can take out four men at once, suddenly you’re clearing half of any one encounter with a single mark-and-execute. And after a quick hand-to-hand takedown of another guy, you’re free to use it again! I stayed away from this mechanic for much of the game, and probably caused myself some frustration in the process, but making things too easy in this manner just dilutes the entire experience. It’s a neat idea, but automating the headshot process is more streamlining than any game — not just this one — is in need of.This time around, Fisher’s without any sort of night vision for the majority of his mission. Eventually he’ll get his hands around a pair of sonar goggles that are useful for the small amount of time that he has them. They can see through walls, and ignite any kind of enemy with a bright glow. There are some other little gadgets as well, like sticky cameras, flashbang grenades, and a portable electro-magnetic pulse that acts as a sort of “easy button” with a limited number of uses per mission. You have a lot to work with here, and there’s really never a whole lot of need to use it through the majority of the game’s six hour campaign.
There’s a multiplayer component to Conviction, but it’s not the spies-versus-mercenaries that I know so many would like to see return. Instead there are some cooperative missions to take part in together with a friend. There’s something of a story here; you’ll play as either Agent Archer or Agent Kestrel in a few stages that focus quite heavily on the whole cooperative aspect of the mode. Mark-and-execute is present here as well, and each player can execute the other’s marks, allowing for a crazy-high body count with a single press of one button. There’s some stuff exclusive to this cooperative campaign. Enemies can grapple you or put you in a headlock, and you’ll have to rely on whoever you’re playing with to save your skin. It’s a bit gimmicky, but really it works pretty well, and depending upon the type of person you partner up with, this might be most fun you have with the game.
The few other multiplayer modes are pretty throwaway, but there’s some entertainment to be had from them. None of them really pit player-against-player with the exception of Face Off, which has each of two players chasing the higher score by eliminating both non-player guards and each other. In my own experience, the most excitement of the online stuff came out of Last Stand, which is essentially just a survival mode done Splinter Cell style. You’ll be tasked with defending an EMP against waves of enemies, each wave more brutal than the one before it. At this point in the existence of this kind of game mode, I’m sure you know the drill.
Splinter Cell: Conviction feels like the right direction for the series. It skips over the burdening trial-and-error gameplay of those before it and opens itself up to a more relaxed audience. There are some mechanics that could use refining or even removing, but there’s definitely something worth your while in this package. The radical changes might be a little too divisive for fans of the old school Splinter Cell titles. Those peeking in cautiously should find a flawed but enjoyable experience awaiting them, and possibly a franchise for which to keep an eye out in the future.