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Splinter Cell: Conviction Review

Posted by Kenny (more from this author)
Saturday, May 1, 2010 - 1:23 am (EDT)
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"From America with love...asshole." - Agent Archer

Boy oh boy, where do I start.

Splinter Cell, to use a Metal Gear expression, has changed.


The major ways in which Ubisoft Montreal has changed the Splinter Cell formula will probably send longtime fans' heads spinning. In the first Splinter Cell, Sam was working for Lambert at a new government agency named Third Echelon. The player was encouraged to work their way in and out of secure locations without being detected. However, Sam had a silenced F-2000 with a multipurpose launcher in case things got ugly, along with a pistol mostly used to shoot out lights. So what players did was wait and watch to figure out the patrol routes of guards, and then shoot out lights and knock them out in the dark or avoid them alltogether.

That was 2002.

Chaos Theory saw the peak of the evolution of these mechanics. Sam controlled woefully in close quarters, requiring two elbow bashes to the back of the face to knock out many guards. This was changed for Chaos Theory, as not only did he do a one hit knockout, but he had a knife he could use to kill an opponent from almost any conceivable angle. Levels got less linear, there were at least two or three different ways to approach a situation at any given time in a level. The F-2000 had modkits for different mission parameters, mounting anything from the standard issue launcher to a underbarrel shotgun to a full on sniper rifle bore and optic.

Those of you who know me know that Chaos Theory was a huge influence on my stealth game appetite. It's the one game I could go back to anytime for years and have a blast. I've cleared much of the game with a 100% stealth rating. Not all of it, because unfortunately I'm not as stealthy as I would like, and sometimes I hate having to load the same game save fifty times to get past a part I'm having trouble on.

That was 2005.

Double Agent is sitting in my steam games queue, and from my experiences with the Xbox 360 version of the game, it's more of a step sideways than a step forwards, as the mechanics of Chaos Theory were for the most part retained in many missions, but daylight stealth missions were added. This was for better (Kinshasha) or for worse (Every mission at the DAMN JBA HQ). So I don't quite count that in my history of Splinter Cell gaming.

Before playing Conviction I got the chance to play Brandon's copy of Batman: Arkham Asylum. The 2009 game kept a bold, dark atmosphere with many of the greatest Batman villains coming out to kill Batman. So Batman hid in the shadows, observed his targets, and swooped down and kicked their asses. If spotted he could use the grappling hook to zip out of sight. He had plenty of gadgets that could be upgraded along with his armor, and the game had a robust hand to hand fighting system that let you take on dozens of opponents at once. It was a bold experiment, and I loved playing every minute of it. I even freely quote myself as saying it was the new high bar for the stealth action genre.

When I got my hands on Conviction in 2010, I was under the impression that stealth games were going the way of Arkham Asylum.

I was right.

Splinter Cell Conviction can be summed up unfairly as Arkham Asylum with guns. Perhaps even toss in the "fast cover" system of "Wanted: Weapons of Fate." (Less cleverly, claim that it's Gears of War with stealth elements. Or the right way to do "The Bourne Conspiracy" or "24: The Game.") But as I climbed hand over hand, Death from Aboved guards and mark and executed the asses of potty mouthed guards wondering where the hell I was, I realized that there is a hefty pedigree I was ignoring: that of "Rainbow Six: Vegas."

It's to be expected that comparisons to that game would come up. Same studio, some of the people who worked on Vegas came onto the Conviction development team to shape up the project after the lackluster "hobo Sam" 2007 showing at E3. I was initially horrified at the prospects of Sam bashing people in the head with chairs and putting his hood up in prayer, pretending to be Altiar from Assassin's Creed. So I'm thankful that the game took this direction instead.

Point being.

This game will be either really easy or really hard. (I played on Realistic and shifted between tearing through the levels at breakneck speed, taking on entire bases full of goons from the shadows and having my ass beaten down by twenty guards who surrounded me unexpectedly. And don't get me started on the second to last mission. Moonlight is the death of Sam Fisher.) You either own or you die trying. And die frequently.

This is par for the course when it comes to Tom Clancy titles. You take a bullet or two and you're done. As in real life, you're dead. Sam can't take much heat, which is why it's important to stay out of sight. Hence, the "stealth" side of stealth action.

However, Sam's close combat has been drastically changed. He now uses Krav Maga (like his book counterpart (Yes, I'm geeky enough to own a few of the novels)) and close range execution kills as his hand to hand. Gone is Sam's restraint or non-lethal capabilities. Conviction turns Sam Fisher's world into a dark one. Everyone with a gun in this game pretty much deserves to die in Sam's book. If you're in his way, if you even think about standing in one place during your guard duty shift in any area that's remotely shadowed, there's a bullet with your name on it. IGN's review got that part down pat- "Terrorists have a new bogeyman to fear."

Indeed they should, but even so they have fairly decent AI this time around. I've been surprised at times how they would check about. I've been flanked two ways at my last known position a few times, as the guards team up to take you down and are trigger happy with flashbangs in places.

However, Sam evens the odds with the Mark and Execute system. It's pretty much what I call the "fuck you, and you, and you, and you" button. After taking down an enemy hand to hand, you gain an Execute ability. Once you do that, you can mark terrorists in your area, position yourself in such a way that you can hit them all at once, and then press a single button to take them down in a more persise and quiet version of the "Stranglehold" game's "Precision Aiming" and "Smart Bomb" Tequila Bomb powers rolled into one.

Only you can't shoot anyone in the testicles with it.

Beta versions of the game had Sam using a more realistic version of M&E that takes up more ammo, using real world techniques such as the Mozambique Drill to disable foes in quick succession. In some ways, I wish the developers had taken that route. Then it would have surpassed "24: The Game" as the easiest game to pull that kind of shooting off in. Even so, you can't say that four perfect headshots in the space of mere seconds isn't *awesome,* right?

Despite this, I experimented heavily with this new feature. Instead of simply camping out rooms with it, I took different approaches. Many times I saved executes for times when I needed to quickly take down an enemy if I was in danger of being spotted (such as marking guards, doing a Death from Above on a target directly in front of another guard, and then hitting Y to blast the other guard before he could call for backup.), times where there were many guards in one area and I could take many of them down from a shaded location (such as an overhanging pipe, as in the Michigan Reservoir demo), or simply to watch the patrol routes of enemies to get a feel for when I should make my move. If anything, M&E is a brilliant addition by virtue of it's being able to track patrolling enemies. It's effectively a natural evolution of the MGS Solutron Radar System, only instead of a minimap you simply track enemies by marking them and watching the marks.

Last Known Position is the other side of Conviction's new bread and butter game mechanics, allowing Fisher to use enemies' perception of his last known location to reposition and catch them with fire from their blinds side. As is the case with M&E, LKP works but isn't always realistic. But hey, it's a video game. This is the game where Fisher becomes the ultimate badass that he's been cracked up to be in all the previous games.

Even so, you can't hide bodies anymore. This can prove problematic for players who wish to play pure stealth. A workaround is taking a human shield, dragging him to a quiet, dark corner, and snapping his neck or smashing his face into a wall if you so desire. However, I really wish I could move those bodies. Maybe then I wouldn't have had such a time playing a classical Splinter Cell style mission later in which you briefly cannot be detected or leave any bodies laying around for a guard to find, otherwise the area you want to get into will be locked down and you will fail the mission.

Personally, I think Ubisoft Montreal put that there as a wink to the fans, as if to say "You would REALLY go back to the old game's style? Here's why it sucks." And they put that mission in.

Ubisoft's real kicker with Conviction is the slick new projection system. They did an excellent job with it, showing objectives and flashback videos being played on walls in the game world. It's very stylish and reminiscent of graphic novels in the manner of it's presentation. At least, to me. To other people, it's giant white letters saying "INFILTRATE the MANSION." What's nice is that you can check the objective at any time by pressing the back button. This will project the objective on the floor in front of the character for easy reading. The projections self-shadow over characters, so as Sam or others walk over it, the projector light will play across their bodies.

Now imagine for a moment what Hideo Kojima would have done with such a game mechanic. He probably would have the guards notice it and become alerted, breaking the fourth wall.

Good thing he wasn't making Conviction, eh?

From what little of the co-op I've gotten to play, it's a great evolution on Chaos Theory's co-op mode, using team tandem M&E moves and such to progress. Wish I could play more of it, but few of my friends own the game and even fewer have stable connections.

And Agent Archer somehow reminds me of Brandon in terms of voice and witty quips. The game's dialog as a general rule is well done, but the guards sometimes sound too similar. However, they swear up a storm.


Shoot a light "Mother FUCK!" Shoot another light "Oh shit! We've got to find this-" kill a tango "Fucking hell! Spread out and find him, he can't be far!"

I was half expecting one to belt out "Say hello to my little friend!" like in Chaos Theory. No such luck. These are certainly the Rainbow Six Vegas terrorists- foul mouthed and heavily armed.

Longtime fans will no doubt take issue with Conviction's action oriented focus. I simply learned to adapt. Hiding bodies is as simple as shooting out local lights to coat the area in darkness. And instead of sounding alarms on finding a body, terrorists will fan out and search the area (except for that DAMN Third Echelon mission). So if anything, leaving bodies around is good because it puts them all in one place. Then you can EMP their asses, whip out a silenced SMG, and level them all. (The MP5-SD3 is currently exclusive to the Limited Edition. One of the best guns in the game, it's invaluable for taking down opponents silently at range with a 2x scope. Apparently people will get it later as DLC. If you're lucky.)

Ultimately, Sam is at home in this new environment, and Michael Ironside puts on an interesting performance, taking Sam's character to interesting places. A pity the facial animation isn't all that great- the segments where Sam was angry didn't seem as convincing as they should have. Color me spoiled by Half Life 2's amazing choreography for characters, but this is something that could have been touched up before release.

Conviction is a pretty damn good game. It's not your old school Splinter Cell, but it doesn't need to be. Ubisoft Montreal set out to transform the franchise, and they did it and made a fun title for their trouble. Here's to hoping that Sam's next adventure is longer.


categories: game, splinter, cell, conviction, reviews

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vecima said:

Great Review!

I've only played the xbox360 demo, but the impression I got was that they were straying away from the brutally punishing stealthiness.  Some would argue that it's taking away from the franchise.  Not me though.  While I liked the original Splinter Cell games, that very same punishment eventually drove me away from all of the ones I've tried.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010 - 12:24 am (EDT) login to reply

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