Sam Fisher is back and lets just say he's none too pleased with his former employer, the US government. For gamers, especially Splinter Cell fans like myself, we're happy and excited to see him back in action. After years of development, several delays and even a haircut scare, Splinter Cell: Conviction is ready for prime time.
Smoldering With Rage (And Not the Generic Variety Either)
As no doubt most of you know, Sam Fisher is an upset man after the events of the last Splinter Cell adventure, Double Agent. Forced to kill his best friend and most trusted ally, Lambert (I sure miss him), and dealing with the suspicious death of his daughter, Sam decides to get away from it all. Conviction begins with a cutscene that sets the stage three days after where players first take control. Sam is out of Third Echelon and trying to leave that life behind him, but an old acquaintance keeps that from happening right at the start of the game. Just when he may have thought he was getting out of this espionage business, Sam gets pulled back in.
And as the gamer, you'll get pulled back in too for another enjoyable campaign that sees Sam up to all of his old tricks again. This time, Sam is working for himself, not his government and there are no restraints. This is clearly the most action packed game of the series, which will disappoint some but please others. Thankfully, and I want to mention this early on because for me it's a big deal, load times are really brief and checkpoints are nicely scattered about. So you can perform as much trial and error as you want. In a game like this, that's part of the fun of it. I love sizing up a situation and trying out an idea, just to see if works. Even if it doesn't, with Conviction, I'm only a few seconds away from another crack at it thanks to quick death animations and an automatic reload of the last checkpoint after death. This was the first Splinter Cell I played through on a console, and coming from a PC world of quick saves and loads, it was a refreshing treat.
So how you approach a situation is pretty much completely up to you, except for a few areas where you must be stealthy. And don't kid yourself, the guns blazing approach is much tougher. I played through the campaign on Realistic mode, which I would recommend to any action or stealth fan to do as well. I found the AI to be a fair challenge, with their edge primarily coming from numbers and firepower rather than intelligence. The AI did make good use of cover and they were good at flanking, too, so they aren't completely based on brawn.
There are a few new gameplay features in Conviction that make combat easier and more enjoyable. These additions to the gameplay are implemented right from the start, too. First, the Mark & Execute (M&E) system. With this, Sam is able to target multiple -- between 2 and 4, depending on your weapon and its level -- targets, be they enemies or traps. The purpose of this new mechanic is to allow players to take out multiple enemies with relative ease and absolute certainty. When you use your Mark & Execute ability, Sam will automatically shoot the targets you've designated. Sometimes these targets will be traps, like a large object hung above an enemy walking below. Most of the time though, you'll be targeting the heads of enemies in front of you, usually from cover. On screen cues make it easy to know when you've got an enemy targeted, and by simply tapping RB, you'll Mark them. Then, just press Y and sit back for a second while Sam takes control. I like M&E for its certainty. I don't know how many times over the years with Splinter Cell I have tried to get the jump on multiple enemies and just wasn't able to get my aiming down right or something like that, leading to failure. With M&E, there's really no question to success in taking out what you're targeting -- now if the room is filled with other bad guys who will notice what you've done, then well, you've got other problems.
M&E is a powerful tool and to keep players from abusing it, Ubisoft implemented a system in which you must first perform a melee or close combat kill before you have the option to use an M&E. These close up quick kills don't have to be silent or stealth kills either, as long as you kill an enemy by attacking them with B when close, you'll earn your M&E. I admit it's kind of odd to have it designed this way, but I think it's better than other options like a cooldown timer or having a set limit per chapter or something.
Another new aspect in Conviction is how enemies track you. Players will see an on screen warning cue pop up at times, often right before another cue that reads "Detected" appears. The warning prompt is a nice aid that doesn't get necessarily you out of a tight spot, but it does give Sam that extra 'set of eyes.' By no means does this 'warning' system appear too much or disrupt the gameplay, by the way.
Both the 'warning' and 'detected' cues appear in the center of your screen and also show a small arrow, pointing to the direction where the triggered event is occurring. This is nice in that it lets you know what direction you've been spotted. Naturally, your first instinct might be to run, which isn't a bad idea since your enemies have their phasers set to kill. When you run, a transparent, ghost-like projection of you appears where you were last seen by the enemy. This is known as Last Known Position, and it's this stationary apparition that shows you where the enemy is focused. Enemies will approach the area with caution, or with gusto, or just shoot; it varies. Meanwhile, hopefully you have gotten Sam back to a safe spot or are in the process of flanking. I don't know if it was just me playing on Realistic or what, but it seemed like escaping and hiding after being detected was a taller order than in previous versions. Regardless, I think Last Known Position was another sensible and positive addition to the experience.
In the past, Splinter Cell was never as clear about when Sam was undetectable as with Conviction. When Sam is hidden, the entire screen turns black and white, and when he's not, you get the 'normal,' full color treatment. The switch is instantaneous as you would expect, and while jarring at first, I came to like the system quickly. I'm the kind of gamer that prefers as discrete a HUD as possible, but I still I want to be informed about how detectable I am in a stealth game. I think that's what the devs had in mind with this stealth-lighting system, and I think it was a good move. Furthermore, you won't be putting your night vision on and off a million times in Conviction. Instead, Sam uses natural lighting and the visual aid of his Sonar Goggles later in the game to get a view.
Another interesting change that some gamers may notice and others might not is the ability to hide bodies. I don't think I'll be the only Splinter Cell fan to be surprised at the removal of that feature. I suppose the lack of ability to move dead bodies to hide them from sight goes along with the fact that Conviction features the most rage-infused, action-oriented Sam Fisher we've seen to date. You might see this as forcing the player to play with more stealth or with more action. In many ways, that's up to the player to decide and figure out for themselves. Also absent are non-lethal takedowns.
Interrogation scenes are another hyped up feature of Conviction. In practice, yes it's cool, but they feel a little stiff. Sam will interrogate important NPCs by grabbing them and using the surrounding environment to punish them. This definitely adds to the whole angered-Sam idea and it's fun seeing what Sam will put these characters through to get his answers. The first interrogation scene is the one you've probably seen in trailers and commercials -- where Sam is questioning someone in a bathroom, using a toilet and a sink to ring the NPC's bell. What part of the environment Sam will use is dependent upon where players are standing when they press the Interrogate button. These moments are not quick time events, but rather interactive in-game cutscenes if you want to call it that, whereby players press a button to further the event.
Conviction also changes how weapons and upgrades are handled. There are a variety of weapons in Conviction from the classic silenced Mk 23 pistol to Desert Eagles, H&K carbines, AK-47 assault rifles, and even a SCAR rifle. Each weapon is separated into its own category including pistols, assault rifles, carbines, and a couple of others. Players can upgrade their weapons and change their loadout (which includes just two weapons) by locating weapon storage boxes. These are labeled very clearly in the game world so you can't really miss them. When you access these, you're taken to a screen where you can upgrade your weapons or change them out. Upgrades are comprised of the standard variety of goods like hi-cap mags and stabilizers, and players can also purchase an upgrade that allows them to target more when doing an M&E.
This type of weapon management system isn't a bad idea and it makes more sense from an immersion perspective especially when compared to a loadout screen in between chapters. That said, I'm not as pleased with the purchasing system, which requires players to unlock funds by completing Plan and Execute Challenges, or PECs. Players can view the full list of PECs in the Pause Menu at anytime. Here, you can see the categories and requirements of PECs that include things like killing so many enemies by using a window, or by dropping on them from above. Other challenges include using frag grenades and escaping after being detected. These Challenges play out an awful lot like in game Achievements, with a visual cue that pops up to show progress and completion of the Challenges. There are 38,000 points that can be earned from the PECs, with most yielding several hundred points, if that gives you an idea of how many there are.
My problem with PECs is that you have to do them to earn the funds you need to make purchases at the weapon storage lockers. In a way, that forces you to play the game in such a way to complete PECs so you can upgrade your gear. I think that's a mistake in design, but it's not a huge problem -- just something I don't agree with.
Other Modes & Presentation
I've spent the majority of my time in the campaign, taking my time to play through it as it's only about eight hours long, depending on how efficient you are. For me, thanks to the quick load times, I often find myself just experimenting with different tactics. Some tactics surprise me, other make me laugh at how poorly they work out, and for me that's part of the fun in playing these types of games.
There are also challenge modes in Conviction, i.e., Hunter and Last Stand. Hunter is cool and has you facing off against 10 enemies. You need to neutralize them covertly or more bad guys will be added to the mix making your job much harder. There is also Last Stand, a much more action packed challenge whereby you must defend an EMP from increasingly larger and tougher swarms of enemies. These modes aren't necessarily original, but they're fun and a great way to enjoy the game in between other modes or when you only have a little time to play. You can play these with a friend cooperatively too.
A full co-op campaign is included that you can take on with a buddy. I haven't played a lot of this mode yet unfortunately but what I have played and read has been positive and it'll likely become the most enticing part of the experience since the campaign is rather short. If co-op play isn't your cup of tea, Face-Off pits you in a 1 vs 1 mode against another player.
With the campaign only running about 6-8 hours, and not offering a heck of a lot of reason to comeback, these additional modes definitely help keep Conviction interesting and in your console.
Finally, in terms of presentation, Conviction impresses. Based off of an Unreal engine, you can beat the visuals are crisp and visceral. You may not agree with their decision to change the colors to black and white while you're in hiding, but, I think it works. I'm also a big fan of how the objectives are displayed in the game world rather than having to be brought up in Pause Menu or other method. The audio is very good, with Sam's voice being as gruff as ever. I do miss hearing Lambert in my ear throughout a mission, but we all know why he's not in the game.
With that, let's get to the summary...