It has been four years in the making and with a complete overhaul some two years ago, Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell Conviction has finally arrived. We last saw Sam Fisher on Xbox 360 in Double Agent, which although upped the ante somewhat, wasn’t so well received. It appeared that gamers were still in love with Chaos Theory on the original Xbox which for many is still the pinnacle of the series, however with Conviction hitting the store shelves on Tuesday the 13th April, is that all about to change? Sam Fisher is back once more, although this time has a score to settle as he takes his rogue status from Double Agent one step further. With Conviction you won’t need to have played the past games, but for greater understanding it does help somewhat. In a nutshell, Sam is looking for answers, no longer an agent for the 3rd Echelon – a shadowy government agency, he is determined to find out who murdered his daughter Sarah Fisher and won’t stop until he brings his own brand of rough justice to those who have ruined his life, by taking away from him the last bastion of what he cared about (this is after killing his friend, and handler in Double Agent – the real cannon ending).
Story aside, as there will be no plot spoilers here, Ubisoft has made the decision to take a step back from previous games, take elements from them, and build something that is entirely new – it’s apparent right off the bat in the opening mission. It could be argued that due to the action nature of the game, the moniker Splinter Cell shouldn’t have been used, but once you play and understand the changes of the Sam Fisher character, you’ll begin to realise it all falls into place nicely. Sam is a changed man in this game, who still utilises the skills that makes him what he is, but this time has a more aggressive persona, unhinged from the shackles of mission parameters and barking orders via a headset from superiors. Fans have been weaned on a slow paced creep about the shadows gameplay for four games in the series now, and although Double Agent changed things around slightly, the nuances remained the same. Ubisoft Montreal has upped the stakes, kept the stealth gameplay, but injected a dose of speed to make for a more predatory stealth game, fitting for the new Sam Fisher. Ubisoft has used the term ‘stealth action’, and this really does describe the direction taken here. In past games, Sam was able to use a number of weapons and gadgets to aid him in his missions, but they always seemed like an afterthought, and never instilling any real confidence in using them. Death was always calling out to Sam, with the trial and error gameplay that meant learning the guard patterns, dying, reloading checkpoint and trying again; and usually when the shit hit the fan, a few shots and Sam was dead regardless of the massive assault rifle he was carrying, or the rather diverse number of mines and grenades on his person. Well scrap all that, those ideals are a thing of the past as Conviction heralds a new dawn in the series which you may or may not agree with at first.
Sam is able to creep around the shadows, with a new mechanic that immerses the player into the game world without having to keep a watchful eye on some screen cluttering meter. This time, when you’re in the shadows the game’s hue turns black and white. You can clearly see what areas are in the shade and what is not, and with some carefully placed silenced pistol shots at light sources you’re able to create darkness. It works well and as an evolution of old ideas is welcome and easy to understand without drawing you away from what you’re doing on screen. It’s not something you have to get used to, simply because of the way it is cleverly incorporated into the gameplay, you’re either hidden or not, simple as. Ubisoft has also ditched the mission briefings to suit the new Sam Fisher, where this time objectives are projected onto surfaces. This is a neat move and keeps the player in the game rather than sitting through cumbersome menu screens.
Creeping around is a lot more satisfying this time, because Sam moves swiftly when in a crouched position. There is only one crouch speed here, which means no more tapping the stick gently to move into position behind an enemy. In fact the speed is perfect for making decisive predatory moves, you’re either going in for the stealth kill or not, and if you’ve got a target in your sights it’s game over for that person. There’s really very little of the sneaking behind someone, only to have the AI turn round suddenly and catch you in the act forcing a checkpoint restart. This is actually a very good design choice because it means players can perform the same tasks as in previous games but in a far more concise manner, taking away the clumsy controls, and snail like pace makes the stealth feel more intuitive.
The biggest and most noticeable change to the stealth mechanics lie in the AI of the enemies. The stupidity of the AI in previous games is gone and now we have a more robust system that operates far more realistically than ever before. Shoot out some lights, and most if not all guards will switch on flashlights. Alert the guards to your presence, and they will actively search for you, looking in corners, above and below, working in teams and flanking your position. The best part about the AI, is that once you have been detected (not seen) they will enter an alert phase and remain indefinitely. This is the most realistic AI to date for the series and it’s great fun just sitting back and watching their actions. Whose idea was it in past games to have AI see a dead body and then carry on patrolling as if nothing has happened? You won’t find that here and good riddance. The AI in Conviction makes the old games seem stale and very archaic. It’s not all rosy though because there are still some instances of stupidity such as guards going to investigate a dead body one by one as you sit in the shadows picking them off. It doesn’t happen all the time, but can do on occasion and seems somewhat silly compared to their overall levels of intelligence.
Conviction has stealth covered very well. It’s fast, furious, sneaky and from a gamer point of view very accessible, tense and satisfying – all the ingredients you need to make a stealth game. The only real difference here is that should you get caught out it’s no longer game over – although there are some parts where it is. Ubisoft have improved the action elements of the series, so that weapons are actually useful this time, and Sam is more like the trained person you’d expect him to be. He’s got years of experience, so why have such a wussy character? It made no sense, and so in this game Sam is as badass and well trained as you expect him to be. Along the way you’ll score various weapons which you can now pick up from the fallen and add to your supply cases which are littered around the levels. They range from the usual silenced pistols, to loud shotguns and assault rifles. What’s key here is being able to spend points – which are earned by performing various tasks across all modes of the game (PEC Challenges) so that you can improve accuracy, damage etc. The game’s combat adopts a more action like approach similar to other third person shooters, so while you’re still able to run back to the shadows to escape and rethink your strategy, if you’d rather dispose of the few guards in an area the less stealthy way, then you can let the guns rip.
A new feature is the Mark & Execute, an optional device which allows Sam to clear out enemies with a touch of a button. By taking down an enemy hand to hand style, you’re then able to use the feature and tag up to four targets (depending on weapon equipped). Once tagged a simple press of the Y button when their tag icons are RED and they’ll drop like flies as Sam shoots in a cool John Woo slow motion style animation. This is a cinematic feature which is optional, although in a number of cases due to the design is supposed to be used. The game often throws scenarios at you where the use of the feature is paramount to success although for purists there’s still that slight option to ignore it. For those looking to 100% stealth through the game might be a little disappointed because although you can sneak it, the design is such in some areas that the end result has to be the death of those around you, stealthily or otherwise.
When moving around the game world Sam is able to interact with objects using a context sensitive system, which highlights that you can jump here, take cover there, etc. It’s automated to a degree and works very well, especially when moving from cover to cover, as you hold the LT to stay in cover, move the cross hair to where you want to go, and if the distance and surface is right, a simple press of a button and Sam slides on over. The context actions don’t always work out though and offer some fiddly moments at times, for example, you might want to switch off a light switch that is next to a door, and end up closing the door instead. Or things like trying to pick up a weapon near to door, ends up opening the door. It can be frustrating and is perhaps the only real negative to the whole system, as everything else works very well.
Conviction features some additional modes for the lone player in the form of Deniable Ops where you can take on AI in three game types. Hunter, Infiltration and Last Stand. The aim in Hunter and Infiltration is to kill a set number of enemies before moving on to the next area. In Hunter mode, should you raise an alarm, then more enemies will begin looking for you, thus slowing down your progress. It seems that this mode is designed for time based play but the absence of any online leaderboards is a shame, where the only real challenge is to set the time limit to 5 minutes to keep the tension. It’s a shame Ubisoft didn’t add more restrictions in this mode rather than leaving it up to player to set their own. Infiltration mode is for purist stealth fans whereby once you’re discovered it’s game over. The objective is still the same as Hunter, except there are added camera and trip lasers. These two modes alone are worth the price of entry as there’s a lot you can do here over the various maps and stages. Gamers can tweak the options/loadouts to make things more challenging or easier to suit their skill levels. What’s really neat is the fact that enemy placements change each time you play, coupled with the more intelligent AI routines in general and you’ve got some great sandbox environments to stealth or action your way through. The final mode here is Last Stand, which is more action orientated and has you defending an EMP device against waves of foes. It’s not so easy for the lone player, and certainly tests your playing skills as you utilise stealth and action gaming.
Conviction features some neat graphics in general, although not the best we’ve seen this generation. There are some really cool interrogation sequences where Sam’s brutality is showcased (we won’t spoil them for you here) and where you can get an up close look at the characters, which are pretty impressive. Sam’s movements are generally acceptable, but it’s the enemy animations that really stand out. There’s a real air of believability to their movements, which are excellent compared to the somewhat robotic looking enemies in past games of the series. Sam could have used more fluid animation but you can’t complain too much especially as there are a number of rather cool hand to hand moves he uses. The only quirk that seems to take you out of the game (other than a defective mirror view – ed.) is when Sam throws enemies, who look to be as heavy as a bag of feathers, or implies that Sam has the strength of one hundred and fifty grizzly bears.
You’ll be spending quite some time in the shadows, depending on how you play, and so the black and white hue will become a prominent feature. It does take away from the game’s overall look but on the flip side, makes those moments where you’re in full colour all the more pleasing on the eye. The sandbox level design is very good, and makes good use of the 3D space which you’re beckoned to explore.
The audio is pleasing on the ears and with a returning Michael Ironside who voices Fisher, and the lovable Grim being voiced by her original voice actress adds much correspondence to the past games. You can’t really fault Ironside’s performance, as he seems to have taken in the character’s changed perspective very well. More often than not you’ll hear some rather humorous remarks being made when Sam performs hand to hand moves on the unsuspecting, which is great for a game filled with much seriousness. The most staggering of audio comes from the colourful language of the enemies who will often shout obscenities at Sam to the point of it ridiculing the character. They often refer to him by name and taunt him, making snapping their necks even more satisfying. In all honesty, the AI voices are probably the best in the genre, as they refer to past levels, talk tactics and generally are believable. It’s incredible hearing the number of lines they have been given, although on a downside, more voice actors could have been drafted in to add some variety, as it seems you hear the same voices over and over.
The rest of the game’s audio is as you would expect, with the usual ambient sounds, gunfire and explosions letting rip throughout the game. Set alongside a rather cool soundtrack which suits the pacing and action and you’ve got an excellent contrast of varied sounds to suit the environments and nature of the game.
Conviction offers a solo story mode comprising of 11 missions with one being a tutorial of sorts. The total playtime when playing on normal difficulty is around 5-6 hours or more if you turn off the Waypoint Indicator in the options. There is an additional Realistic setting for those of you wanting to replay again with added challenge, but the real fun begins when you use the level select to replay standalone missions, using different tactics and weapons/gadgets. The sandbox nature of the game means that there’s more than one way to do things, and with the PEC challenges which require various ways to play means there’s always something to work towards. Getting the 1000 achievement points is going to take quite some time for this game.
If you’re wanting to take a break from the solo antics of Denied Ops and Sam’s story you can embark on a prologue co-op campaign with two new characters Kestrel and Archer who represent US and USSR operatives. The co-op campaign is well thought out and occurs in different levels to the main story – sadly this option is reserved for Split Screen, System Link and Online play only. The co-op story adds more hours on to the overall play time, and when hooked up with friends means you’ll be able to play it many times for differing experiences. The co-op also extends to the Denied Ops where all three modes are available for you to play with a team mate. To add to the package there is an adversarial mode for two players called Face Off. This mode pits two players in levels filled with random AI. The aim of the game is to rack up points killing the AI and the opposing team-mate, however, if you’re killed by the opposing human player they gain many more points and you lose points. It’s a virtual tug of war and very tense especially when there are things like gun turrets and such like in the levels. It’s a very intimate offering, but works really well and is a lot of fun especially when you crank the AI to realistic difficulty as the game then plays with you because killing AI might give away your location to the other player, who in turn could get the drop on you whilst you’re preoccupied. However, if you simply sit in the shadows, the other player could be racking up vast numbers of kills and gain a substantial lead. What’s neat is being able to turn the AI off if you like and hold contemporary 1 vs 1 spy deathmatch games which offer their own set of rewards. For those who want the ultimate spy experience, the option to turn gadgets off makes for a chilling online experience of pure stealth, although finding the other player is a little tough without the sonar goggles. Sadly the options can only be tweaked within private match as opposed to the Matchmaking which is open to all Live players. Face Off is a really cool mode to mess around with, it’s just a shame it’s limited to just two players. Upping the player count to perhaps 3 or four could still work, although would lose some of the intimacy and make way for more frantic battles.
Splinter Cell Conviction has turned the series upside down for the better, ditching the archaic gameplay of old which to be frank has gotten stale. The all new action stealth approach feels so much better and a lot more rewarding. It’s obvious Ubisoft are aiming at capturing more casual players, but the reality is they have kept elements to keep fans of the older games happy as well. You can’t really call yourself a fan of the series if you’re going to miss too much things like hiding dead bodies, throwing cans or bottles and the very slow nature of movement. That said, it is shame that there are no end of mission ratings and the inclusion of instances which require you to use action even if you don’t want to, but then again if you’re after a pure stealth experience you can choose to replay the levels which allow it many times over, or opt to play the Denied Ops in specific user created challenges.
As a game based on its own merits, Splinter Cell Conviction delivers a well rounded package offering plenty of value for all types of gamers. The story mode is excellent, with great set pieces, and a chilling take on such a familiar character. Some missions are definitely up there with the best of the series that’s for sure. The co-op campaign and adversarial modes are awesome additions, but the real smash hit has got to be the Denied Ops which players can sink many days and nights playing until Ubisoft release some more maps. This game certainly has game of the year qualities written all over it, and as long as you ditch any preconceived ideas at the door before entering, you’ll be greeted by an stealth/action experience that will most likely not be surpassed for quite some time. It seems with 4 years in the making Ubisoft have done good with the series and propelled it into a new realm that’s ultimately for the better, Conviction rocks!