It’s been four years since Tom Clancy’s super-spy Sam Fisher has appeared on a console. A lot has changed in those four years. Can the shadow-hiding agent keep up with the times?
The development of Splinter Cell: Conviction has been turbulent even by video game standards. After the success of the first game, Ubisoft naturally wanted to capitalize on the franchise and followed up with a number of sequels, to diminishing returns. They were all good games, but none of them set the world on fire like the original. It was obvious that Fisher needed to change up his repertoire – but how? Early builds of the game saw a bearded Sam interacting with his environment, using more up-close combat, and navigating through crowds of people on the run from Third Echelon, his former employer. But midway through the process, the team scrapped the beard and started over from square one. The final product thankfully shows the impact of the design decisions they made – decisions that will not only revitalize the franchise, but also hopefully the entire stealth genre.
What made Splinter Cell work was Sam Fisher’s relative fragility – if he got shot, it was a Very Big Deal, and avoiding direct confrontation was key to survival. But so much of the games were spent watching, waiting, and hiding, with the payoff not as important. Conviction makes stealth kills rewarding through the Mark for Execution feature, which reduces the realism but amps the adrenaline in exchange. When Sam performs a close-range stealth kill on somebody, he can ride the momentum and take out up to three additional enemies. It rewards careful positioning and timing, allowing you to open paths through the missions in a more interesting way. The revamped cover system helps you get in place for those kills, using a modified Gears of War control mechanic to make crouching, rolling and concealing yourself easy and intuitive.
The earlier Splinter Cell games were often criticized for their complex control scheme, and that has been addressed in the new game. Sam seems slightly less mobile and versatile, but his motions are smoother. You can do less stuff, but it’s all a lot cooler. That’s a trade-off I’m happy to make.
My only real criticism of the game is the relative shortness of the single-player campaign. It’s got a great narrative arc and will keep you engrossed throughout your playthrough, but it’ll leave you definitely wanting more by the time the end credits roll. Good news: the game has a set of four co-op and deathmatch modes, and they all shine. Throw in a full co-op campaign that introduces a few new characters and team execution moves and the game gets a whole lot better with a friend around. While I’ve finished the main game, I can see myself coming back for multiplayer for a good long time, a first for a stealth game.
Conviction gets Splinter Cell back on track for the next generation of consoles, and I’m excited to see where the franchise goes now that it’s gone through some tough times. Bring on more Sam Fisher!