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After a long and protracted development cycle it seems as though Ubisoft has lost track of who and what is Sam Fisher...
It seems that Sam Fisher did such a good job of slipping under the radar after the events of Double Agent that even Ubisoft lost track of the former Third Echelon agent. Four years after the original announcement (and 29 months after its intended release date) Fisher is finally back, albeit in a considerably different form than the French publisher had originally planned.
Still stricken with grief from the death of his daughter in Double Agent, Sam's no longer working for NSA's ultra-secretive subdivision having killed the former Third Echelon leader Irving Lambert. The only thing left for Sam is to find the culprit and avenge her death, before presumably retiring from it all to sip tequila sunrises on a warm beach - all that crouching and sneaking plays havoc with the bones.
Plot has never been a strong element of the Splinter Cell series, it was usually merely a background to playing with cool gadgets and sneaking around in the shadows. NSA, CIA, JBA, WMDs, NOC... at times Splinter Cell seems little more than a jumbled mess of government acronyms, double crosses, cyber terrorists and shadowy organisations. And let's not forget the fact that Double Agent appeared in two different manifestations on the last and current generation, each offering a different portrayal of the same storyline. To trace a coherent plot through the series is tougher than trying to complete the original game without making a single kill! With Splinter Cell: Conviction there's a feeling that Ubisoft is attempting to put more emphasis on Fisher and the role of the story in general, but ultimately it's the same confusing mix of elements that fails to provide any attachment to the plot. Tragically it's just hard to empathise with Fisher's plight. Perhaps it is time to put the old dog down.
From the opening sequence in a crowded market, Conviction stands out as a highly stylish experience. Ubisoft Montreal demonstrates an understanding over camera movement that is distinguished, hard to fault, and helps to suck you into the game. Unfortunately after the short single player campaign is over the impression that this is a game that puts style over substance is hard to shake. Ubisoft had earlier explained the way in which they wanted to move away from Splinter Cell's staple light/dark gameplay, fearing that waiting in the shadows didn't exactly make for stimulating gameplay. As a result Conviction is a high octane experience all the way; an attempt to appeal to an action-obsessed audience that doesn't have the time or patience to wait around.
The events of Splinter Cell: Conviction are told in a flashback form by a character held at the customary shadowy, nondescript government building. "The Sam Fisher you know is dead, America killed him," the character claims early on in the game. A fitting metaphor for the fact that Conviction is quite unlike any Splinter Cell before it and representative of the fact that the series as a pure stealth experience appears to be over. After an experiment with giving Fisher an emo look and tasking him with crowd control that was deemed a little too close to Assassins Creed, Fisher's latest escapades appear to be heavily influenced by the likes of Jason Bourne (a backpack replaces the Third Echelon stealth suit) and a reinvented James Bond. The result, an action driven experience that eschews many of the series' staple elements.
The game is largely geared around the Mark & Execute system, an area that for Splinter Cell purists at least could be the source of the most disappointment. For starters it's a dynamic grounded in the realms of fantasy that completely pulls Conviction out of reality. Each weapon has a varying number of Mark slots: the number of opponents that can be targeted for one shot executions. In order to carry this out, however, Sam must firstly complete a melee kill. This just seems odd. Can you really imagine a stealth operative being given instructions to make sure he kills somebody in close combat before he can use the most effective technique at his disposal?
We can get over the implausibility of the system, but it's the fact that it ultimately feels a little cheap and tacky; a feature that is nothing more than a novelty broken by some pretty serious flaws. Sam seems to have no problems eliminating opponents that have stepped behind the cover of solid concrete walls. Equally the flow between a melee kill to gain the Mark & Execute token and actually carrying out the executions just isn't as cinematic and fluid as we originally saw when this version of Conviction was first unveiled. Ultimately the one shot instant kill makes things a little too simple for our liking and completely removes any element of skill. In order to facilitate the Mark & Execute system, it seems many of the stages have been scripted to allow for the technique. You'll start a level and a guard will handily arrive on time for Sam to pull him over the ledge, providing him the ability to Mark & Execute the group up ahead of him. Splinter Cell games have often been staged in such a manner, but it seems as though Conviction really does reduce any freedom to plan and execute a strategy.
Tied into this new concept is the Last Known Position, a ghostly apparition of Sam that highlights where he was when detected. It's a device to aid the player, but in our opinion provides a little too much assistance and brings its own share of problems, but more on that later. Conviction does however succeed with the cover system. Sam snuggles up to objects and the environment effectively, moving between cover to cover with a streamlined setup that removes any ambiguity from the process. It's one of the finest covering systems around and provides at least a semblance of stealth based gameplay.
Instead of the light/dark and sound gauges of previous Splinter Cell games, Conviction employs a visual trick that renders the game in black & white when Sam is concealed under the safety of darkness. It's a concept that just doesn't sit well, as playing in the shadows is still a worthwhile exercise and for purists the only way to play the game - but do we really want to be playing a game in black & white? People have spent hard earned cash on HD screens; the reward of playing Conviction at its most effective is black & white visuals!? We're being slightly persnickety to be fair as it is a sound concept that probably works better than the gauges of older titles, but we can't help but feel Ubisoft Montreal could have created something a little more stylish and more befitting of this generation.
Gradually the Splinter Cell series has grown more accessible with each new title. Let's not forget the frustrations of the first game in the series where simply leaving too many bodies in the open was enough to warrant a mission failure. To this extent, Conviction abides by a rigid rule-set governing the AI, which can at times appear anything but intelligent, particularly compared to the hallowed patrol routines of Chaos Theory. Because of this and the increased ability to take an action approach, Conviction fails to deliver the lulls in action that the series was originally famed for; criminally there's a complete lack of tension and suspense that should always be the dominant characteristics of the game.
The flip-side to this change is the fact that such rigidity to the rules allows players to know exactly where they are. It's far less a trial-and-error experience than before, but in our opinion not really a pure stealth game any longer.
Features such as the Covering system and Last Known Position play up to this. Provided Sam is in cover and moves to another using the system he'll safely pass by even if it's right next to an opponent. Equally the Last Known Position system often creates dubious situations, such as moving slightly away from a detected position and watching on aghast as the opponents continue to pummel that position into submission despite the fact that you're standing only a few feet away. Considering the adaptive AI epitomised by Chaos Theory (and good stealth games in general) these could be considered traits of a poor stealth title; we do, however, feel it's a wider symptom of Ubisoft's intent to make the game less frustrating, an ambition that has evolved the series since the start.
There's a sense that in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, i.e accessibility, Ubisoft has appealed to the lowest common denominator. We enjoyed the Splinter Cell series for its complexity, but like Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six before it, such elements have been removed completely. This is a point demonstrated by the relative lack of options and gadgets at Sam's disposal. Without the support of Third Echelon, Sam has to make do with an array of guns and grenades. The only fan favourite remaining is the Sticky Cam; gone are the airfoil rounds, sticky shockers, split jumps, sound meters and anything else deemed a little too complex.
The fact is, Splinter Cell: Conviction just really isn't a stealth game anymore. I'll admit here to being a fan of the pure stealth genre and bemoan the current state of affairs. Kojima kick-started the trend, it's his fault. In the continued absence of a new Hitman game, stealth fans have got to be hoping that Eidos Montreal won't be tempted to mess with the format too much for Thief 4 - the thought of Garrett as a last action hero is a chilling one.
Conviction's conclusion comes around surprisingly swiftly. Fortunately the misgivings we have about the single-player are made up for in the game's co-op mode. Offering a more traditional Splinter Cell experience, the co-op mode chronicles the events that lead up to the main campaign. Taking on the role of Archer and Kestrel, both of which are infinitely more appealing than Conviction's Fisher, co-op offers exactly the experience we were left craving for after the single player. Having two players even manages to expand upon the Mark & Execute technique, opening up the scope for more strategy with the ability for both players to target independently and act together in dual executions. With five large stages, the co-op mode packs more content then we'd expected and really provides a strong, atmospheric experience that relies on co-operation.
Beyond the co-op, Conviction also offers a range of additional multiplayer game types in the shape of Hunter, Last Stand, and Face Off. While Hunter and Face Off find you running through maps killing opponents co-operatively and competitively, Last Stand is a variation on Gears' Horde as you defend an EMP bomb against wave after wave of attacks. Strangely we couldn't find the Infiltration mode which was demonstrated to us at a previous event, which presumably could appear as DLC later down the line. The big question, however, is where is Mercs vs Spies? Another staple element of the Splinter Cell series that is strangely missing from Conviction.