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Splinter Cell: Conviction (Xbox 360)

Posted by Kuang on Thu, 05 Aug 2010.

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Over four years and five games we watched Sam Fisher fall from his position as a top black ops agent working for a division of the NSA, to being a man consumed by remorse over the death of his daughter and losing all sense of self preservation. Now Agent Fisher is back in the latest addition to the series, Splinter Cell: Conviction

The game takes place a few years after the death of Fisher’s daughter. He’s no longer employed by Third Echelon for some reason, and is trying to get away from his past when he finds himself dragged back in against his will whilst sitting in a Maltese marketplace. Conviction throws you straight into the action from this point, but is gracious enough to walk you through the first steps by means of radio messages from Sam’s ex contact in the secret service, and the unusual but stylish method of overlaying messages onto the scenery. Fans will notice that attempting to switch on Sam’s collection of spook gear will have no effect - you’ve got a sidearm and that’s it.

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Progressing through the levels feels a lot like the Rainbow Six: Vegas games, in that you have a slick and simple cover mechanism that allows you to lock onto just about any handy item of scenery. When Sam is successfully concealed in an area with dim light, the screen fades to black and white to indicate his hidden status. Any visible movement, detection by enemy torches, or muzzle flashes will reveal his location and leave a ‘ghost’ outline of his last known position. This can be used to Sam’s advantage when setting up flanking manoeuvres or drawing enemies away to conserve ammo, but does occasionally lead to some dozy attacks on thin air by the AI.

The previous episode in the Splinter Cell canon, Double Agent, saw Sam’s abilities and gadgets stripped back to the bare bones as he put himself forward for what was likely to be a grief induced suicide mission. This move didn’t sit well with hardcore fans of the series because Splinter Cell was always about precision, complexity and futuristic hardware; removing Fisher’s terrifying ability to infiltrate and clear enemy locations without detection seemed to remove what made the previous instalments so great. At first glance Splinter Cell: Conviction appears to continue this trend.

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Subtlety is still an important part of the game, but the emphasis has clearly shifted away from out-and-out stealth, and that’s where hardcore fans may start to complain. Ubisoft have been clear about wanting to make the game more accessible after the extremely hardcore Chaos Theory, but in doing so appear to have removed some of the more sophisticated options available to the player. Sam can still climb, crawl, perform silent takedowns and Batman style ‘death from above’ moves, but the wall jumps and more sophisticated technology are no more. Instead we have a range of more offensive moves such as the human shield, and a new ‘mark and execute’ system that allows up to four enemies to be taken down in rapid succession with a single button press. Your gadgets are now limited to a few grenades, sticky cameras, and remote mines - no more airfoil rounds, sticky shockers or OCP charges. There are even times when you can run and gun if you’re good enough, something that would have been unthinkable before, not to mention nigh on impossible. You can still play the stealth angle by taking out lights and hanging from balconies, but you may feel that the effort isn’t worth it because you won’t be rewarded for doing so.

So, is Conviction still worthy of the name Splinter Cell despite being such a marked departure from expectations? Yes, definitely. If may have changed in focus, but the degree of polish and drama is everything you’d expect from a title carrying the Tom Clancy name. The visual style is the sharpest yet, with the use of overlaid text and moving flashbacks contributing to a cinematic atmosphere. The voice acting is fantastic and suitably understated, the character models are spot on, and the environments offer a decent range of angles from which to approach the scenarios. It’s true that the levels are far more linear in order to fit in with the set pieces, but that allows the complex and twisting storyline to maintain a good pace and remain focused. Given that you can finish the campaign on normal level in an evening or two, it’s the impact of the experience that counts and not necessarily the length.

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There are some minor issues though. The mark and execute system feels extremely powerful, but Fisher must carry out one silent execution to earn the opportunity to use it once. There’s no real logic there and it demands the use of lethal force, whereas the pinnacle of achievement in the series so far was to complete a level with no casualties and without being detected. There are also times when the AI seems unable to learn from its own mistakes, and will send a slow procession of enemies strolling towards you to check out a noise whilst clearly not noticing the mounting pile of their colleages just where they intend to stand. Some of the restart points are a bit too distant as well, forcing you to go through lots of old ground in order to reach the challenge that defeated you previously.

These aren’t deal breakers though. Conviction is a polished, high impact addition to the series that’s definitely worth a blast. You have to forget what you know of the games so far other than the storylines and take it for what it is, but it’s a rewarding exercise once you do. Add in the brilliant co-op campaign, and the single or multiplayer Deniable Ops mode (think Vegas’ ‘Terrorist Hunt’ but infinitely more enjoyable) you have a package that’s loaded with replay value and well worth a go.