After a half-baked Double Agent, and above all, a 2-year-delay, Splinter Cell: Conviction has finally arrived on Xbox 360. It is therefore with some apprehension, but mostly with a lot of questions that we have reviewed this game many fans of the franchise have been longing for since it was announced.
The Splinter Cell series is without a doubt one of the major symbols of the original Xbox, with Chaos Theory easily in the Top 5 most owned when it comes to Microsoft's old cinder block. Double Agent, released earlier this generation and developed by Ubisoft Shanghai, was not as convincing, particularly due to radical changes in play style – seeing as many missions took place in daylight. Conviction was announced pretty quickly and presented to the press, once more showing a complete overhaul of the gameplay's style, this time comparable to the Jason Bourne series. In this version of the game, Sam Fisher had to use environmental elements to eliminate his preys and went from being the hunter to being the fugitive. It's fair to assume that this approach was a disaster, since the game we have now have in our hands is a semi back to basics, and, as you will see it's one that takes pride in its action moments aswell as its stealthy infiltration.
Conviction wants to be the direct result of the events of Double Agent, where we learned of the accidental death ( is it really?) of Sam Fisher's daughter and where our hero was forced to kill his only friend and superior at Echelon 3, Lambert. So it is a changed – and emotionally deeply scarred - Fisher that we control in this new opus. More surly, more fatalistic, but more importantly; much more violent. No more pure and hard stealth, Sam Fisher does not care whether or not he's identified because he has but one purpose: to discover the truth about his daughter's death and avenge her.
Unveiled at E3 last year, interrogation scenes are a perfect example of this change. Where in Chaos Theory a single gun put to an enemy's head was enough to make him talk, here we must often manhandle our victim while vigorously rubbing his face on the various elements of the scenery until he divulges the desired information. They are spectacular scenes and particularly well done, which have the advantage of giving the game a new tone and direction right from the beginning.
The gameplay itself has evolved, towards a clever mix between the old stealth and hard-line action. Afficionados of pure stealth, pulling things off under the guards' noses, will surely find this one lacking. For the others however, this change in gameplay will probably be greeted as a blessing. In fact, Fisher proves to be much more handy with a gun - or bare hands – than he ever was before, and the new cover system - how the hero goes from one cover point to another - is a nice innovation. As a casual gamer, and particularly not very deft when it comes to be discreet, this new direction is welcome for me, even if we can only regret that it is now impossible to move the corpses of our enemies, which can sometimes make some distance murders risky.
However, even if the change is significant compared to the elitism of the first three games of the series, it is impossible to play this game without showing at least prudence, or being completely silent in some sequences. The enemies are indeed very alert, and detours into the light will immediately prompt them to ring the alarm. Triggering the alarms is very often synonymous of death within a few seconds, so it is impossible to play the game using 100% action. You must always plan your movements and step out from the shadows to discreetly get rid of a guard who's blocking a passage. All this is especially true on the "realistic" difficulty setting where the patrols are much more alert than on normal or easy.
Each enemy killed quietly gives the right to use one of the most controversial new features of Conviction: the possibility to Mark and Execute your targets. It is possible to mark a number (from 2 to 4 depending on the weapon and its upgrades) of enemies, and eliminate them immediately with a simple push on Y, as long as they are within shooting range of course. This new feature could have made the game much too easy if the designers had not taken it into account when creating the levels. In the last part of the game, it is indeed rare to meet a group of enemies that we can get rid of fully with the Mark and Execute option. The survivors are of course particularly dangerous after an attack like that, and before acting, you must carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach. The observation becomes important, and you have to pick the best approach to avoid succumbing to the number of enemies.
It is not uncommon to meet a dozen enemies in the same place, where a clever mix of infiltration, silent action and going all guns out is necessary if you hope to survive. The AI of the opponents is generally convincing, and frequently you find yourself nose to nose with a guard who had the good sense to walk round to take you from the rear. The approach of the stealth part of the game also recalls the one of Batman: Arkham Asylum, because Fisher can play with the nerves of his opponents when he manages to eliminate some of them while remaining invisible. The AI then simulates the panic and paranoia of the opponents, and as they get more nervous, they start to fire anywhere in hopes of hitting their target.
Conviction is a game where downtime is extremely rare, and where the vast majority of the level elements are there for a reason: to provide an alternative route to Fisher, as the player wants to opt for a silent approach, or a more confrontational one. This has the effect of making the game extremely compact and intense, and there are few moments where you can get your breath back. The developers have decided to not pad the game by re-using actions and set pieces, a praiseworthy intention but that makes the game rather short, despite the dozen levels you need to cover to finish it. We ended the game in 7 hours and 30 minutes the first time, medium difficulty, and then again in 7 hours, in realistic difficulty. That is indeed short, especially seeing as there's no real reason to restart the game, apart from the opportunity to finish the game in a higher difficulty. And yet, with these few hours we've been round a bit, from Malta to Washington and its suburbs, passing through Iraq. The adventure has also provided us with a maximum of variety of situations: stealthy / action missions, 100% action sequences or a very successful on-foot chase at the Lincoln Memorial to name a few examples and to leave you to discover and experience the majority of them for yourself. A variety that we don't find often in other titles, and honors the expertise of Ubisoft Montreal.
The short replay value of the single player campaign is made up by the cooperative mode, as well as Live modes (some are playable in solo). The cooperative mode, which takes place before the events of the main story, is very successful and proves to be an excellent surprise. It certainly could have been expected after the one of Chaos Theory, although some players didn't hesitate to express a few doubts when the removal of the famous Spies Vs Mercs mode of the previous games was announced. It adds 4 to 5 hours of gameplay, and additional modes, like Hunter mode - where you'll furtively kill a dozen targets, alone or coop - can prolong the pleasure in a consistent way. An infiltration mode, requiring the players to be 100% stealthy, is available for 40 Uplay points or directly with the collector edition. In the end, even if the coop modes are very successful, one can only regret the demise of the excellent Spies vs. Mercs mode which made the heyday of the series since Pandora Tomorrow.
Chaos Theory will be remembered as one of the most graphically stunning titles of the Xbox, and is still to this day particularly pleasing to the eyes. Conviction therefore had to raise the stakes, and even if it does not reach the same heights as his ancestor, we can still claim that it is a game with an accomplished direction. The light and shadow effects, essential for a game of this kind, are particularly polished, especially with a SSAO (more info here) rendering highly realistic lighting. However, it is somewhat regrettable that the majority of the game is in black and white, as the team at Ubisoft has chosen to use this that effect to indicate when Fisher is invisible to his enemies. The framerate is generally very good, but with a bit of tearing from time to time. Aliasing is discreet thanks to soft lighting and only one level taking place exclusively in the daytime really shows the weaknesses of the engine at that level.
Splinter Cell: Conviction is a very good game, short but particularly intense. Some fans of the series will undoubtedly be disappointed by the disappearance of the hard-line stealth in favor of a more hybrid style between infiltration and action, but the other players will certainly enjoy this title at its fair value. The co-op modes and other alternative modes add a pleasant replay value and our only and real regret is the strange absence of the Spies vs. Mercs mode.
As usual, enjoy our video showing the first 10 minutes of the game!