A new Splinter Cell title, this might be the best one developer Ubisoft Montrealmade. Sam’s angry and you hear it in every grunted line of dialogue, can see it in the brutal takedowns and interrogation moves and feel it pulsating through Sam with every step. That anger, that aggressiveness is built not only into the story but the gameplay changes as well. It was a huge risk deviating from the trial-and-error style that made the series famous, but it paid off. Splinter Cell Conviction’s single player campaign is awesome. Unfortunately, as I’ll get into later in this review, the PC version isn’t nearly as strong as the Xbox 360 version.
The story takes place a few years after the end of Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Don’t worry, if you never finished that game, you’ll get caught up quickly as to what’s going on. Sam’s daughter was killed, he murdered his best friend Lambert, and he split from Third Echelon, the government agency he’d called home for years. With new evidence leading to his daughter’s killer, a tormented and semi-retired Sam Fisher is called back into action. Turns out the people responsible for his daughter’s fate are planning a major terrorist attack on Washington D.C. This is going to be one long day for Jack Bauer Sam Fisher.
Conviction sets itself apart from its predecessors with its pacing. You’re always being pushed forward, so much so that I played through the entire single-player campaign in one sitting without even realizing I’d been up all night. Ubisoft pulled off a few magic tricks to make this happen.
There are no in-game loading screens unless you die. From the moment the game starts, you never sit around waiting for something to happen. Levels are loaded while you’re watching slickly presented cutscenes. Fancy new projection technology integrates text into the scenery to point you towards your goal, and back story is shown with movies playing out on walls as you progress through a level. These things aid in keeping players immersed in the world, but the real reason things feel so fluid is the change in approach to stealth.
In Conviction, stealth is about speed.
Sam moves fast. Really fast. He can get in and out of cover quickly, shimmy across ledges faster than the Prince of Persia and beat a hasty retreat if he gets into trouble. Sam’s codename used by Third Echelon is “panther,” and that’s fitting. In past Splinter Cell games, enemies were meant to be avoided; in Conviction, Sam is a hunter. He isn’t avoiding enemies, he’s stalking them.
Sam lurks in the shadows, finds his moment to pounce and strikes with deadly efficiency. There may be a dozen men, fully armed and with extensive combat training closing in, but they’re the ones who should be worried. You feel like the ultimate badass thanks to some generous aiming assists that let you easily put bullets into approaching enemy noggins.
Keyboard & Mouse
Though Conviction controls just fine with a keyboard and mouse, the game is clearly designed for a game pad. It’s a much smoother-feeling game with a controller, but if you don’t own a game pad, you won’t have any trouble with using a keyboard. Oh, but don’t bother trying to quick save or quick load. For some reason, this doesn’t exist in Conviction. Why? Uh… Who the hell knows.
Rather than force players to eyeball a variety of meters to determine their level of stealth, Ubisoft made things very obvious. If you’re in the shadows and impossible to see, the color bleeds out and things go black and white. The minute you’re in the light, the color comes back. This easy sense of whether you are hidden or exposed enables you to move quickly through the environment and plan your route of attack on the fly.
Shadows and light are just half the stealth equation. The other half is the cover system. The cover is not at all like Gears of War, where you’re sucked against a wall. Squeeze the left trigger and if you are near an object, you’ll take cover behind it. Release the trigger and you immediately disengage, or you can hold down the trigger and move away from cover with no problem. You’re never attached to a surface. In fact, you can hold down the trigger when out in the open and Sam will crouch, doing his best to minimize his visibility.
This is the best cover system I’ve ever used. Every other game needs to change, because I can’t go back.
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Should you be spotted, the best thing to do is retreat. Get out of sight and a white silhouette appears, marking your Last Known Position. The AI will focus on this spot, because it’s where they think you’re hiding. They’ll unload some shots, maybe toss a grenade and then make their way towards the spot to see if they got you. On Realistic difficulty — the only way you should play Conviction — the AI is very sharp and won’t be fooled for long. You can use the Last Known Position to your advantage. Flank your enemies when their attention is on your silhouette, then take them out before they realize what’s going on.
Using shadows and cover, you stalk your prey, and when you’re close enough, you can perform a hand-to-hand takedown. There are dozens (probably more than a hundred) of these. They’re an excellent reward for being sneaky. My favorite is shooting a guy in the leg and as he crumples downward, popping him in the chin with my silenced pistol. But the system isn’t perfect. You bash in a door with the same button as a hand-to-hand takedown. Attempt to quietly kill an enemy near a door and you may end up kicking in the door and causing a ruckus. Occasional glitches aside, stealth kills look cool, avoid attracting attention and earn you the ability to execute.
The Mark & Execute system is probably the most controversial change to the Splinter Cell series. You can tag or “mark” enemies, putting a big arrow over their heads and then execute them with the press of a button. So long as the mark is red, you are guaranteed a kill. As it’s described, this would seem like a “win” button that would make Splinter Cell too easy. Far from it. You have to work to earn the right to execute. Use it once and you must perform another stealth takedown to activate the execution option again. More importantly, executing does not equal “stealthily execute.” If you aren’t careful, you can easily expose yourself to enemies when you enter execution mode. There are often more enemies than you could ever mark, so it’s not as if you run through tagging and killing with ease.