I’ve played a ton of the Splinter Cell titles, so it’s no surprise that I was psyched for the release of Splinter Cell Conviction, the fifth game in the series. And while I’m not disappointed at all, I’m extremely surprised at the direction this title took. It’s almost a complete re-boot of the gameplay, if not the series we have come to expect.
Those of you keeping score know that agent Sam Fisher has had his ups and downs. His personal life is a wreck, torn up by too many undercover ops, too many lies, and too many ruthless people looking for an edge bringing his family into places where they shouldn’t go.
The game starts with Fisher sitting alone in a cafÃ©. His daughter Sarah is dead (allegedly) and it’s been a few years since the dirty events of my (still) favorite game in the series: Double Agent. In that game you had to pretend to be a terrorist, and that meant killing innocent people and perhaps, depending on what you did, setting off a nuclear bomb. In a way it was a precursor to Metal of Honor’s "No Russian" mission, only here, practically the entire game was like that. Talk about shock value.
Getting back to Conviction, Sam has had it with the spy business. Except he still needs to find out who killed his daughter. The only problem? He learns that his old agency, Third Echelon, is probably behind it. This revelation leads his old agency to track him down and try to kill him, though they should know a lot better than do anything like that with a man like Fisher. What follows is the tutorial mission where you learn to stay in the shadows, use a silenced weapon, and attack enemies from angles that they won’t expect, like pulling people out of windows to their death.
Of all the sneak and peek type of games, Splinter Cell has always made the best use of the environment. A little table can act somewhat as cover for you, or it can provide just enough shadow so a guard won’t notice you when he passes. Unlike previous games where you relied on a stealth meter, this time the game uses color. If the world is in big bright color, it means you can be seen. If it fades to black and white, it means you are deep in the shadows and won’t be detected. It’s pretty cool when you are in a public setting like a nighttime carnival in DC, but sitting underneath the back of a flatbed truck in total shadows. The world goes on around you, just like you’re not there.
That’s a cool way to do stealth, but the biggest change is that Fisher has been completely unleashed. You’re not working for the agency anymore, so you don’t have to be stealthy. In fact, the game throws you into quite a few missions where for at least part of them, stealth isn’t an option. The first time this happened was when I was trying to escape from a private airport. Suddenly all these spotlights came on and lit up the entire place like daylight. Then about ten or fifteen armed guards came charging towards me. I was stunned. In most stealth games, Splinter Cell included, when the alarm goes up like that, you’re pretty much toast, or at least severely disadvantaged. Here, the game not only encourages the rampage type of gameplay found in other shooters, but forces you into it.
While a lot of hardcore stealth action fans, the ones who worked for hours trying to complete missions with perfect stealth scores, won’t like this change, I kind of did. I found that I could use stealth elements to improve my chances against the mobs. Doing things like shooting out lights gave me local stealth, even if it was within a very small area. Then I would cap someone with a silenced weapon, and their buddies would rush over to investigate. That’s when I would pop a frag grenade into their little group. Of course that blew the stealth right there, but by then I had evened up the odds a bit. Keeping in cover and spraying a lot of bullets downwind really saved the day after that. And I can pull the trigger on my stealth pistol pretty darn fast.
While you are battling, you might notice your silhouette for a brief second. This is your last known position where someone spotted you. You can use this to your advantage too, moving away from that area (before a hail of grenades comes in) and setting up flanking shots on your enemies. This works when you are being stealthy as well, except that when someone sees you they will either yell, shoot at you with a non-silenced weapon, or trigger an alarm. No matter what, your stealth run is probably about to turn into a full scale battle.
Another new feature that might alienate the normal stealth players is the new Mark and Execute feature. To use it, you have to first kill someone using a hand to hand move. Once you have done that, you are "loaded" and ready for the Execute. Basically you mark targets (you start with being able to Mark two people) and then when you are ready, you hit the Execute button and Sam will make quick work of them, icing them in less than a second. I suppose the developers needed to put some type of limit on that power, hence the need for the hand to hand kill to arm it, but I don’t think a lot of diehard fans will appreciate that, or they might just ignore the feature all together.
You are awarded experience points for doing all sorts of things in the game, completing missions, damaging the environment, getting a lot of headshots, using the Mark and Execute power and others. You can use these points to upgrade your standard weapons, giving your stealth pistol more bullets, making it more accurate or able to fire further. I thought this was a clever way to combine the trophy-gathering gameplay which is all the rage now with an upgraded gear rewards system.
One thing that was removed from the game was moving bodies. If you kill someone, that’s where they stay. Other guards or even civilians can come by and see the bloody corpse, which could lead to an alarm of some type being issued. But there are no negative consequences otherwise. You aren’t graded on stealth. You’re working for yourself, so you just need to complete a mission, however you want or can.
As with previous Splinter Cell titles, the graphics look amazing. A lot of this is due to the use of the Havok Physics engine. When you shoot people, they react in very realistic ways. Objects too, take damage or are destroyed as you shoot them. There are even times when heavy objects like cars or statues or even jet engines are hung up on ropes or a crane. Shooting them can unleash heck for those below, or cause a very curse-laden distraction among nearby guards. When they hit the ground, they smash, well, pretty much like you would expect something big falling from someplace high to look like. The Havok collision detection and parameters are really amazing, and go a long way to making this a 5 GiN Gem title graphically speaking.
Also, the game is dripping in graphical style. From the flashes of memory Sam sees on walls, represented by black and white movies playing, to the way you can "paint" your objectives into dark areas so you know what you’re doing, the flavor of the game is very strong.
The sound follows the graphics down the perfection trail. Of course Michael Ironside sounds incredible as Sam, but so do all of the supporting cast. And when I say supporting cast, I mean it goes really deep. Particularly when you are in public places, the voice acting is great. People will argue with their boy or girlfriends, they will talk to shopkeepers, chat away on their cell phones, whisper something important to one another. If you stand still long enough, you can really tune in on various stories being told all around you, not that you probably will, but it really makes the entire atmosphere realistic. Almost nothing is left to chance. Wherever you go on a level, something will be happening, and that something will include realistic sound. The bad guys talk amongst themselves too. Here you might want to give an ear, because it might clue you into weak points in their defenses or clues to the plot.
Taken as a whole, Splinter Cell Conviction is well worth the money. I’ve got to admit that I enjoyed the purely stealth action of Double Agent more, and I can see where traditionalists would have a lot of problem with Conviction. But for me this is balanced somewhat after a battle when you see all those dead bodies lying around and think to yourself, "Wow, Fisher really is a badass." I do dislike being forced into that type of gameplay however, which happens somewhat often here. I would prefer the game letting me know that the action gameplay exists, perhaps forcing me into it one time, and then sitting back and letting me choose how to go from that point on. I’d probably choose pure stealth, at least in the first playthrough, but wouldn’t have to do so.
Oh, and when you are finished with the single player missions, or perhaps even when your not done just yet, there is a pretty amazing co-op section for multiplayer. There are even some missions that give a bit of backstory that are only accessible via the multiplayer modes. Given that this game is a bit more skewed toward combat over stealth, a multiplayer area is a natural fit.
The quality of this game is so evident that it’s worth your time and your dollars. The jury is still out on if this "reboot" of the gameplay will be a success or not. I suspect that most players like me will enjoy an occasional no holds barred gun battle, so long as it doesn’t stray too far into titles like Modern Warfare that makes that type of thing its bread and butter. Bottom Line: Sam Fisher rides again in a very good 4.5 GiN Game title. And this time, the gloves really are off, for better or worse.