Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: Xbox 360, PC
Scattered reboot succeeds in spite of itself
There is an identity crisis at the heart of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction that can best be addressed by answering the following question: Why is this game called “Conviction”? After all, the stealth-action adventure contains no references to our nation’s legal process—no judge, no jury, no court rulings. Perhaps the title is meant as an homage to protagonist Sam Fisher’s unwavering certainty?
The real answer, of course, is that Splinter Cell: Conviction was originally a radically different game than the one Ubisoft just released. Sam was to have been convicted of murder and on the run from the law, and the game would eschew its shadow-cloaked heritage in favor of an open-air sandbox approach akin to Ubisoft’s other stealth franchise Assassin’s Creed.
But after years of development snags, Ubisoft pulled the plug and ordered a complete design overhaul. Surprisingly soon afterward a much more conventional Conviction has made its way to store shelves, still in possession of its no longer relevant name.
For the most part, Conviction’s gameplay adheres to the familiar Splinter Cell formula. Most levels involve guiding Sam quietly through a series of dark, enclosed areas, carefully clearing each one of guards before moving on. The game’s pace, however, has been dialed up significantly. Sam is usually outnumbered, and players are forced to keep moving at all times to keep ahead of the smart, aggressive enemy AI. This is especially true on the highly recommended “realistic” difficulty level.
In support of Sam’s newfound need for speed, Splinter Cell: Conviction offers some of the most well-designed third-person controls I’ve ever encountered. This is due in large part to Conviction’s elegant cover system, borrowed from lead designer Maxime Béland’s previous game Rainbow Six: Vegas. It is as flexible as it is intuitive, and is a welcome change from the yet-to-be-perfected “sticky” cover found in most third-person action games.
A few gameplay twists shake up the old formula, as well. If Sam is spotted, a ghostly “Last Known Position” outline pops up where he was seen. This reference point allows alert players to quickly move to flank incoming foes, neatly flipping a tactically weak position into an advantage.
Even better, the “Mark and Execute” system lets players mark up to four unsuspecting enemies for a fairly badass one-button instakill. The catch is that Sam must perform a melee takedown before he can execute the move. It’s a contrived limitation, but it helps mitigate what would otherwise be an overpowered ability and adds a welcome layer of strategy to each scenario. Clearing a room in Conviction is a fun, empowering mix of stalking and pouncing reminiscent of last year’s excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum.
But although Splinter Cell: Conviction’s solo campaign is generally well-designed, its presentation is significantly flawed. Character models look ancient and blocky and their lip-synching is puppet-like and strange. In addition, the writing is mostly awful and the guards’ super-macho, profanity-laced dialogue is just embarrassing.
The story, such as it is, doesn’t fare much better. There is a half-hearted attempt to frame it as some sort of revenge odyssey, particularly during the game’s frequent and unskippable interactive torture sequences. But between the straight-faced absurdity of the plot, Sam’s sarcastic quipping and a gutless early plot twist that removes the motivation for his anger, most of Conviction’s edginess feels forced and juvenile.
Fortunately, after wrapping up the six-hour solo campaign, multiplayer-minded gamers can fire up a variety of two-player modes online or in split-screen. The meatiest of these is a five-hour standalone co-op campaign, and it is here that Splinter Cell: Conviction finally comes into its own.
Within minutes, complaints about plot contrivances and bad writing melt away and the shadowy rhythm of the hunt takes over. This is the game I’d been hoping for, the challenge I remember. The only thing more satisfying than silently taking down an entire room of heavily armed dudes is doing so alongside your best friend. It’s really too bad Conviction doesn’t allow for in-game high-fives.
By scrapping Conviction’s original design and going back to basics, Ubisoft seems to have actually found room for some subtly ingenious innovation. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the finished product has a bit of a patchwork quality to it. The surprise is that even as it stubbornly wears the name of a game it never became, Splinter Cell: Conviction touches brilliance by embracing the game it has always been.