Review by Evil Dave

"Ubisoft should allow poor Sam Fisher to retire."

Despite being the latest installment in as popular and recognizable a franchise as the Splinter Cell series, few videogames in recent memory have undergone as tortuous a development process as Splinter Cell: Conviction. After its initial announcement in early 2007, years of development time passed with nary a peep about the title from developer Ubisoft Montreal. Rumors of internal debates on the direction and quality of the project circulated the industry, and even some of the series' most ardent fans began speculating as to whether or not it would see the light of day. When it finally resurfaced at E3 2009, the title's scope and gameplay had changed drastically from what had been presented at the outset of its development. This rethought Conviction generated a great deal of positive media buzz, though, and Ubisoft was able to harness that publicity wave to generate momentum for the title all the way up to its recent release.

Conviction represents what is unquestionably a daring new direction for the Splinter Cell franchise. Both series protagonist Sam Fisher and the trademark Splinter Cell-style stealth gameplay have undergone a heavy amount of revamping, while the title's multiplayer offerings have taken on a decidedly quirky new hue as well. Not all of these changes result in a net positive for the title, however, and the end result is a game that in many ways fails to capture the essence of what has bestowed the series with such lasting cachet. Considering that the game also proffers significantly less value for your purchase than prior titles in the series, Conviction will for most gamers likely be a very disappointing experience.

One man that never fails to disappoint is Sam Fisher. Back for what is now his fifth Splinter Cell title, Sam faces an uncertain world in the wake of the emotional double-whammy of losing his daughter and departing his spy-agency employer in the last game in the series, Double Agent. Conviction picks up with Sam operating as a free agent as he works to find out just what happened to his daughter while trying to avoid the penetrating glare of his former outfit, Third Echelon. Conviction's plot feels like it advances only in fits and starts, leaving players devoid of information for long stretches occasionally interlaced with spurts of advancement. Eventually, though, things pick up for both Sam and the larger narrative, giving players an emotionally resonant (if cliched) reason to continue playing through the game's campaign.

It's definitely a good thing that the plot is so enthralling, too, because players are likely to tire of the gameplay fairly quickly. Conviction's ‘new direction' on stealth can be boiled down to this: players now are able to employ an entirely new set of combat tactics that are equally viable with the stealthy stuff. In theory, this of course sounds like a great idea; after all, anyone who has played the first few Splinter Cell games with their arbitrary limits on alarms knows just how frustrating it feels to be shoehorned into a specific gameplay style. In practice, though, Conviction's new, ostensibly freeform gameplay actually results in the complete opposite circumstance by obviating stealth almost entirely.

One of the main culprits for this is Conviction's ‘mark-and-execute' ability. This gameplay device allows the player to target and simultaneously execute up to four enemy characters once the player has performed a hand-to-hand takedown. At first, mark-and-execute admittedly feels pretty cool, allowing players to perform some outrageous moves on the fly; however, it never shakes the feeling of ‘easy-button' gimmickry, and after only a short time it ends up pervading the gameplay with a totally contrived feel. Not helping matters is the fact that the system never changes, leaving Sam stuck in an endless rinse-and-repeat procession of similar instant-kill attacks. With mark-and-execute in Sam's back pocket, would-be stealthy encounters have virtually all of the intrigue sucked right out of them.

Not helping matters is the liberal dosing of gadgets placed throughout the campaign. Each level has at least one or two checkpoints with a weapon stash that refills Sam's spy gadgets and ammunition (which is ridiculous in its own right). On top of that, by the end of the game, Sam can carry quite a number of his toys, and many of them – in particular the remote mine and the portable EMP – are extremely powerful. What this means is that the quickest way to progress through many enemy-saturated areas is to simply spam gadgets at your foes until you've laid waste to all of them – not exactly a technique they teach at secret agent camp. Add to that the infinite amount of ammo Sam always possesses for his sidearm (and the infinite mark-and-executes that this implies) and you've got a veritable shooting gallery full of dumb bad guys.

Actually, dumb might be too lenient a descriptor for the clowns Sam is burdened with dispatching. To be fair, there are instances when Sam's opponents will act with a reasonable amount of discipline and self-preservation, such as when they refuse to enter into a room where the player is surely hiding to spring an ambush. Most of the time, though, those brain-dead generic mercenaries exhibit all the military bearing of a hyperactive two-year-old, rushing to stare out windows or over ledges from which several of their comrades have recently and mysteriously plunged to their demise. Even when they're not playing lemming, the bad guys never perform any sort of tactical maneuver more involved than standing in place with their gun trained on the spot where Sam was spotted ten minutes ago. They're also downright prolix when it comes to hunting for Sam, loudly and annoyingly detailing seemingly every aspect of their behavior short of the consistency of their most recent bowel movement.

While the gameplay is a disappointment, the brevity of Sam's campaign is downright insulting. Even on the highest difficulty setting, most players will finish Conviction in fewer than seven hours. This would be acceptable if the gameplay was at least entertaining, but the combination of low play difficulty and highly repetitive levels renders the story mode little more than a poorly conceived joke. Adding injury to insult is the complete lack of replay value, save for one entirely meaningless plot-driven player decision just before the credits roll and a half-hearted character-advancement scheme called Personal Elite Creation. The fact of the matter is that there is little redeeming value to be found in the campaign mode.

Not all is a total loss with Conviction, however, as the game also includes a cooperative mode that blows away the facile single-player experience. Cooperative gameplay has a long history in the Splinter Cell series, and this game adds a worthy successor to that lineage. Available for play through XBox Live, system link or the venerable split-screen setup, co-op play in Conviction features the same basic gameplay as that found in the solo content. While this might not seem an auspicious idea, the addition of a second player subtly transforms some of the game's weaknesses into strengths, allowing players to finally achieve the feeling of being a badass super-spy instead of a professional turkey shooter.

True, the enemy A.I. is still as dumb as a box full of rocks, but the co-op game throws many more of the dunces at you and your partner, which does a surprisingly good job of masking their inadequacies. Having a buddy around also allows players to employ actual tactics in dispatching those moronic opponents, sparing gamers the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel monotony of the story campaign. The design of the cooperative play levels is another highlight, showcasing some extremely well put-together arenas that lead to a number of genuinely tense gameplay moments. Rushing through a hail of bullets to rescue your downed or captured partner is as exciting as it gets in Conviction, and the cooperative mode is the only place where you'll be able to experience anything this interesting.

Co-op also offers Conviction's only true replay value, thanks to the inclusion of something called Deniable Ops. These missions strip the storyline pretenses away from the campaign levels and allow players to purely experience either the stealth facet of the gameplay (in ‘Hunter,' where players must cautiously kill enemies to advance) or the action aspect (in ‘Last Stand,' where players are tasked with protecting an EMP bomb from waves of attacking enemies). Unfortunately, the only adversarial mode available in the game, Face-Off, pales in comparison to the multiplayer offerings of prior Splinter Cells, though die-hard fans of those games might find something to like about its unique spy-vs.-spy setup. Regardless, the real bulk of gameplay time and value in Conviction is found in the cooperative campaign and cooperative Deniable Ops, each of which is enjoyable enough to merit an enthusiastic recommendation to series fans. Your character improvements from P.E.C. also carry over into the cooperative mode, which should provide players a small incentive to suffer through the solo game.

On the production side, Conviction generally meets the lofty standards set by its predecessors in the Splinter Cell franchise. The game clearly looks like one that has been in development for a few years, as the visual presentation generally looks a little less appealing than other high-profile games that have come out recently. There's nothing outright negative about the aesthetics, however, and their presentation is done well enough that they never become an issue. Audio, on the other hand, is superb in all areas. Michael Ironside once again imbues Sam Fisher with just the right amount of gravitas and menace, and the supporting vocal performances are all up the task of keeping pace with the game's star. Rounding out the package is a nice, restrained score that frames the action without ever overwhelming it.

Ultimately, it's quite clear that Ubisoft Montreal's intent with Splinter Cell: Conviction was to reposition the Splinter Cell franchise so that it appeals to a larger fan base. Well, mission accomplished: Conviction feels more like an action game than a stealth game. For fans of prior titles in the series, this will undoubtedly end up as a source of disappointment, as much of the gameplay philosophy that had come to embody what Splinter Cell meant has now been excised and forsaken. What's left is a game that feels like it just goes through the motions of relating the entirely too brief next chapter in the Sam Fisher story, opting for gimmickry and flash over substance and heart. While there's a lot of good to be said about the direction that Conviction's cooperative mode takes, players who are looking for an exciting single-player experience simply won't find it here.

Fans of the Splinter Cell series should approach Conviction very cautiously, noting that both the single-player and multiplayer experience are extremely different from that which they found enjoyable in prior games. Fans of cooperative games, on the other hand, shouldn't hesitate before investing in a copy of the game. Finally, any player looking for anything more than a mediocre action game with a strong cooperative component and a decent plot should seek entertainment elsewhere.

Score: 6/10

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Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 05/07/10

Game Release: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction (US, 04/13/10)


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