Review – Splinter Cell: Conviction (Single-Player)

After an almost four year-long hiatus, Sam Fisher is back. The previous entry into Ubisoft’s stealth series, Splinter Cell: Double Agent failed to enthrall audiences in the same way the first three games did. While it made important steps in updating what was becoming a formulaic series, many felt it still didn’t reach the level of greatness set by Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Sam’s latest thriller, Splinter Cell: Conviction, takes the series in a bold new direction and manages to return it to a position as one of the best games on Microsoft’s system.

The game opens some time after the events of Double Agent. Sam’s boss, Irving Lambert is dead, shot by Sam while deep undercover with a domestic terrorist organization. His daughter Sarah has been killed in a hit-and-run by a drunk driver. With the two people that really mattered to him gone, Sam has left Third Echelon and set out on a quest for revenge, searching the globe for any clue to the identity of his daughter’s murderer. At the game’s onset we find Sam in the the White House with his former handler, Grimm. Some kind of devastating event has clearly occurred as the building is in shambles. A simple line of text reads “74 hours later” as Grimm pulls her sidearm and takes aim at Sam. The camera, mimicking the handheld-feel of a Bourne film, zooms in on Grimm’s face. A single shot is heard and the screen blacks out.

The player is transported to where the tale begins, with Sam in the small island nation of Malta. He has heard rumors that his daughter’s killer may be a powerful weapons smuggler currently residing in the nation. As he sits outside a cafe Sam receives a cell phone and earpiece from one of the waiters, on the the other end of the line is Grimm. She has information regarding Kobin, the criminal Sam is currently tracking. Grimm knows that Kobin is the one who drove the car that killed Sarah but there’s more to Sarah’s death than Sam knows. With this piece of information in hand and with Grimm guiding him once again Sam’s violent and thrilling quest for revenge and closure begins.

Splinter Cell: Conviction easily has one of the best presentations ever seen in a video game. There are no pre-level load times, instead the game’s narrator Victor Coste tells Sam’s story to a pair of interrogators as the player gets a fly through of the current level. Coste, who fought in the first Gulf War with Sam, gives insight into not only what Sam did at each location, which in turn gives the player their objectives, he talks about Sam’s motivations. The old friend knows Fisher well and provides great insight to the now tortured character. The plot is constantly moving forward, paced like a very good season of 24. Sam’s search for the truth behind Sarah’s death and a major conspiracy threatening Washington D.C. are intricately woven together. The story is always moving forward, driving the player to become more and more immersed in plot. In addition to the slickly edited cutscenes, the story is helped along by flashbacks and important phrases projected onto in-game surfaces. For example, early in the game there is an interactive interrogation scene in which Sam brutalizes one of Kobin’s thugs. As Fisher grills the goon about Sarah’s death black and white footage of the hit-and-run is displayed on the walls. At other points Sam’s own thoughts and emotions are displayed during in-game cutscenes.

The projection technique is also used to display objectives over the course of the game. They pop up on an easy to read surface when Sam is given a task and can be manually brought up at any time by pressing the ‘Back’ button. It’s a great way to reduce Splinter Cell‘s traditionally complicated heads-up-display but it does present a small issue. If Sam is facing a cluttered or multi-leveled surface it can be difficult to read the objective. This is only a minor issue though, as the player can just face another surface and bring up the objective a second time. The HUD has also been cleared of any kind of stealth indicator. In the past a meter showed how far into the shadows Sam was, allowing the player to gauge if enemies could see them or not. This system has been completely replaced by a simple color mechanic. When Sam is hidden all color drains from the world leaving a black and white environment. As an added bonus it’s easier to see dark sections of levels while hidden thanks to the color change. Remaining hidden is easier than ever due to the addition of an intuitive cover system.

Holding the left-trigger pins Sam to the nearest object and allows him to move along it’s length quickly. By aiming at another piece of cover and pressing ‘A’ he quickly moves to the next position. Sam can run, roll, jump and slide between hiding places with ease. The system is fluid, easy to grasp and above all else, is incredibly useful. The speed at which Sam moves between objects is indicative of the new direction Ubisoft has taken the franchise.

While stealth is still Sam’s greatest weapon he can finally fight back in brutal and effective ways. Weapons and gadgets are now upgraded via the use of points earned for completed various challenges. Some take an effort to unlock but most challenges are set up so that players will earn points for playing the game well. Sam’s melee skills have evolved beyond simple choke holds and pistol whips. Enemies can be taken down from cover with hand-t0-hand kills or grabbed and used as human shields. Doing so gives players the ability to use one of the most important tools in Sam’s repertoire; Mark and Execute. This new feature has the player using the right bumper to identify up to four enemies, depending on the weapon equipped, and taking them down in one quick attack. Once marked, an opponent has a gray marker over their head. When the enemy is in range of Sam’s weapon the marker turns red. By marking foes and moving to a position where they’re all visible and in-range, a press of the ‘Y’ button drops them all with headshots.

Near the midpoint of the game Sam gains access to a set of Sonar Goggles. This replacement for the series’ traditional night vision goggles allows Sam to see through walls via sonic pulses. Regular objects are rendered fuzzy and indistinct while enemies show up as bright white silhouettes. Using the goggles Sam can mark enemies through walls making the Mark and Execute ability even more useful.

The fantastic campaign is only marred by a few minor missteps. For a single level early on the game becomes a straight-up third-person shooter. It makes narrative sense but it is easily the weakest section of the game. Later the game briefly takes a undesirable page from the original Splinter Cell and requires you to complete the opening of a level without being spotted. If Sam is caught the building goes into lockdown and it’s back to the starting point to try again. Again, the choice makes perfect sense within the context of the game’s story but it’s briefly frustrating to see the progress the series has made thrown away. Thankfully, after the section is completed the level goes on to be the best of the entire campaign. Finally, the objective marker used throughout the game is a little to precise. When searching for a specific object or location the marker pinpoints exactly where you need to go. This removes a bit of the challenge from the game. The marker can be turned off in the options menu but when it’s off it becomes a little too difficult to find your objective. It’s unfortunate no middle ground could be found. A marker showing the general area of the next objective would have been ideal.

These minor complaints can easily be overlooked due to the unwavering quality of the rest of the game. The new gameplay mechanics, coupled with an amazing story and presentation moves Splinter Cell back to its place among the best of the best. It’s still a stealth title, but every facet of the series has been tweaked and improved. Excellent artificial intelligence keeps Sam in the shadows but that’s always where he has been the most dangerous. In earlier Splinter Cell games it often felt like Sam was being hunted, now Sam is the hunter and his enemies should fear him.


Splinter Cell: Conviction was reviewed on the Xbox 360. The game was developed and published by Ubisoft and is available in North America on April 13.