The stealth genre has faded into near obscurity with the current generation of consoles. Aside from the smattering of sneaky elements found in Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum, it’s hard to find a game devoted to stalking in the shadows. After a four year break Ubisoft Montreal continues to wave the stealth banner with the Splinter Cell series, throwing Sam Fisher back into the field with this latest iteration, Conviction.
The tale takes place around three years on from the alleged death of Fisher’s daughter, Sarah. Players find Sam in Malta, off the radar and trying to keep a low profile. Former colleague Grim manages to track him down remotely, warning him of a group of hit men homing in on his location. Once he learns that a drug runner might be responsible for Sarah’s death, Sam sets off to find truth and vengeance. In return for information surrounding his daughter, Fisher is quickly caught up in a series of rogue operations, uncovering a conspiracy involving EMPs and a plot to derail the President.
The plot moves remarkably quickly and frequently refers to code names, incidents and figures from previous games. Newcomers to the Splinter Cell franchise will feel slightly overwhelmed by the complexity of the conspiracy – by the end I found myself frequently referring to Wikipedia in order to understand the relationship between Black Arrow, White Box Technologies and Megiddo. However, it’s easy to relieve yourself of the political weight and simply relish in the plight of Sam Fisher; constantly moving forward and finding his next target, forever in the hope that he will find some kind of resolution with Sarah.
The gameplay dynamics take some getting used to, but ultimately rewards those who play with patience and strategy. Fisher is invisible provided that he keeps a low profile, highlighted by the monochrome visuals once he’s safely nestled in the shadows. Taking a cue from Gears of War, Conviction also prioritises the use of cover, encouraging Sam to hug walls and press against the sides of nearby pillars. Arrows point to other potential positions, allowing you to scuttle to a new spot with a quick button press. This allows you to move around fluidly and assess environmental angles much more easily. Occasionally you’ll find yourself unable to move to a particular wall or slinking off right in front of a guard, but for the most part it works very well.
The ‘last known position’ feature is a particular highlight. If Sam is detected, a ghostly outline will appear in his place. Guards will then search this spot thoroughly for clues, allowing you to plan a quick escape or sneak up behind them for an even deadlier assassination. I found myself allowing Sam to be spotted on purpose, just so that I could disappear and set up increasingly elaborate traps. It can feel immensely gratifying and players will be rewarded for these advanced strategies through the game’s built in UPlay achievements.
Marking and execution is another deadly addition to your arsenal. Once players perform a hand to hand melee attack, they’re rewarded with the chance to execute their opponents. By holding RB, players can then select multiple targets and take them out in one fell swoop. It can pull Fisher out of some tough situations, especially when you’re stuck in a room with a dozen thugs. This might be a stealth game, but Sam is often merciless and outright brutal. Necks are snapped and heads are smashed through tables in the interrogation sequences, eventually finishing them off in clear view. Forget about knocking out your enemies or hiding them in a closet; Sam is determined and leaves these ‘by the book’ measures firmly at the wayside.
Mission objectives are portrayed around you in bold white text, frequently shone onto the side of buildings, walls and streets. It feels impressive and cinematic, removing the need for a pause menu almost entirely. This is extended into the cut scenes, with many of Fisher’s emotions (anger, betrayal, etc.) thrown up inside the room. For the most part Splinter Cell: Conviction looks the part, with varied locations in both daylight and night time scenarios. Sam is an older, more rugged hero this time around and it shows fairly well in his character models and animations. Grey hairs, a split lip and uneven run helps to build up the impression of an aging hero. In game remarks such as “Yeah, I’ve still got it” flesh out his persona and relationships with the rest of the cast. This also relates somewhat to the realistically rapid health depletion. Fisher will hit the deck in less than three shots, making planning and movement absolutely critical. If you’re the type who likes to run in with guns blazing, expect to die an awful lot. Otherwise, the visuals are adequate, but not exceptional – perhaps a trade off for using the older Unreal 2 engine.
The campaign is relatively short, approximately seven hours depending on your play style. The campaign missions are solid and expansive though, encouraging repeated playthroughs with new approaches and smarter AI. Although I haven’t tried it out yet, the co-op mode is also meant to be fantastic. A unique prologue to Fisher’s story, two players can team up and unravel a mystery of their own. Throw in further co-op modes and a small, but interesting multiplayer suite and the package feels like decent value for money.
These days, there isn’t much out there quite like Splinter Cell: Conviction. For as long as it lasts, the campaign is engaging, fun and intellectually testing, forcing you to think on your feet and be patient with strategies. It’s a refreshing escape from the horde of ‘twitch’ shooters that are currently so popular. For those interested in narrative, this is just as good as any Tom Clancy novel, albeit slim on global context. Certainly worth a rental and an essential purchase for fans of the franchise. An extended single player experience and added visual polish would have certainly put this in contention for Game of the Year.