Splinter Cell: Conviction is the fifth installment in Ubisoft’s stealth-based franchise and it has a lot in common with its predecessors. You still play as Sam Fisher, a gruff secret agent who shoots firsts and lets somebody else ask questions later. But the series has gotten a makeover since the last outing, and while veterans may not like some of the changes, Conviction may be the best Splinter Cell yet.
The most noticeable differences lie in the game’s pacing and tone. Conviction is much more action-oriented than previous Splinter Cell titles and quite a few of the series’ more realistic stealth elements have been sacrificed to facilitate the shift. There’s no lock picking, and tranquilizers are apparently for sissies. Sam Fisher is much more aggressive this time around, killing everyone in his path and letting the bodies fall where they may.
The arsenal of deadly strikes at your disposal ensures a high body count. The new mark function allows you to identify and execute as many as four bad guys before any of them even know what’s happening. Sneaking up on enemies enables instant melee kills, while Sam can also pull unsuspecting guards out of open windows or drop from the rafters to deliver silent death from above. Everything can be done with the press of a single button, making for some of the most fun and fluid stealth combat ever designed. Sam Fisher is a modern ninja forgoing throwing stars for bullets, and everyone can get in on the action.
As simple as it is to carry out cool attacks, Conviction still provides a satisfying stealth challenge. Sam Fisher is far from bulletproof, so you’ll spend more time planning your next move than you will actually executing it. There’s a noticeable difficulty curve that encourages progressively more creative combat innovation. Car alarms, explosives, and chandeliers can all be used to create distractions, while shooting out lights and using cover reveals new angles and opportunities. There are fewer gadgets than in previous Splinter Cell games, but the reduced inventory means that every item will eventually prove necessary. It all combines for one the best-paced action game since Resident Evil 4, as you’re constantly shuttled from one exciting encounter to another.
There are a few flaws, but they’re mostly nitpicks that are only noteworthy because the game is otherwise so pristine. Later levels that force you into open gunfights against better-armed soldiers are less cerebral and consequently less fun. The controls are good enough to facilitate a more typical action approach, but it doesn’t take many bullets to bring you down and gun battles can be very unforgiving. At certain points you’ll die four or five times before you’ve even had a chance to register your opponent’s assault and facing troops that can survive multiple headshots is just plain obnoxious.
Even though Conviction can be frustrating, it seldom feels unfair. Staying alive is a test of skill, and passing a difficult section is incredibly rewarding because it requires an untouched playthrough. Early attempts are like trying to solve a puzzle while missing half of the pieces. Mastering new techniques clarifies the picture, and the natural progression will cause you to marvel at your prior struggles once you finally get it right.
The screen fades to black and white whenever Sam is hidden, so it’s easy to stick to the shadows. It’s a very useful gameplay feature, but the lack of color makes it difficult to navigate. A similar problem occurs with the sonar goggles, which help locate enemies while making the landscape disappear. Given the high quality of the level design, washing out the screen doesn’t seem like the best way to showcase the engine. Still, the problems only emphasize how good Conviction is. Some elements could have been better implemented, but the game is stronger with them than it would be without them.
That’s a pretty good summary of the entire game. Conviction has been streamlined nearly to perfection, so that nothing feels extraneous or unnecessary. The over the top narrative matches the game’s cinematic tone. Michael Ironside’s voice acting is unsurprisingly stellar, but all of the production work is equally top of the line. Most of the story components are pleasantly interactive, like the interrogation sequences that let you take control while Sam breaks bathroom sinks with informants’ faces. Even the in-game script adds to the experience. Snapping a guard’s neck is that much more enjoyable after five minutes of empty taunting and bravado.
The multiplayer offerings are as well designed as Sam’s solo adventure. There’s an entire co-op campaign with its own unique story. Having a teammate adds several gameplay advantages, and communication is a key component of success. Conviction places more emphasis on cooperative play than other titles, but there’s still a competitive mode for people looking to assassinate other players. The robust multiplayer adds a lot of value to the disc and makes Conviction one of the most complete packages on the market.
Like Resident Evil 4 before it, Splinter Cell: Conviction reconfigures an existing franchise with faster gameplay to deliver a more accessible (and ultimately better) action experience. Stealth purists may bemoan the accelerated pace, but when the finished product is this much fun, such complaints sound more like the entitled cries of fanboys than legitimate gameplay criticism. Simultaneously intuitive enough to attract new players and complex enough to reward the masters, Splinter Cell: Conviction has everything you’d want from an elite action adventure.