"Where Conviction diverges from its predecessors is in pacing. Guards in previous titles didnít know what they were up against; at the playerís discretion, they often didnít even know they were up against anything at all. On the flipside, Fisherís enemies in Conviction know exactly who he is. They know his reputation. They scream profane threats at him when they can feel him in their midst. They donít like him, but the feeling is mutual. Fisher is no longer a patient, calculating government agent. He is a rogue operative uncovering a conspiracy involving the death of his daughter and heís out for blood."
Having spent far too long in the development cycle, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction has landed somewhere that has left a large portion of the seriesí fanbase more than a little worried. Sam Fisherís latest venture has him turning on the very institution that served as his home for so many years, and replaces his traditional spy garb with a dark cardigan, a satchel and a less militant haircut. He looks more like Jason Bourne than Sam Fisher, and his exploits play out accordingly. There's less focus on subtlety and more on fast-paced action through the use of a cover system, that ubiquitous defining attribute of a post-Gears of War game industry. Yet despite all of this, I urge fans not to worry too much. While Conviction is indeed an entirely new breed of stealth action game, the common assertion that this series is no longer about stealth is ludicrous.
If Fisher takes more than a couple of bullet wounds at once, heís dead. Even with the aid of automatic weapons, engaging directly with the enemy will almost always end badly. When guns are used, they are applied methodically and with great care. When shots are fired, they are suppressed and are advisable only if the player has an opportunity at a clean headshot. Despite Fisherís notable lack of night vision goggles for the majority of the campaign, he remains deadly in the cover of darkness. Most playtime is still spent out of enemiesí sight. When adversaries are taken out, itís done quietly, so as to attract as little attention as possible. The game only erupts into full-fledged gunfire when Fisher is spotted, and good players will do their best to ensure this doesnít happen often.
Those mechanics had all been established in the four previous Splinter Cell games. Where Conviction diverges from its predecessors is in pacing. Guards in previous titles didnít know what they were up against; at the playerís discretion, they often didnít even know they were up against anything at all. On the flipside, Fisherís enemies in Conviction know exactly who he is. They know his reputation. They scream profane threats at him when they can feel him in their midst. They donít like him, but the feeling is mutual. Fisher is no longer a patient, calculating government agent. He is a rogue operative uncovering a conspiracy involving the death of his daughter and heís out for blood. Players are no longer encouraged to keep a low profile. Combat in Conviction is not simply recommended; it's often downright mandatory.
Convictionís newfound focus on straight-up action wouldnít have worked as well as it does without the implementation of what is unquestionably the best cover system that Iíve ever used. When the player holds the left trigger, Fisher hugs the nearest wall and continues to shimmy along it. When the trigger is released, Fisher remains crouched until the player tells him otherwise. This makes navigation through environments with a lot of cover virtually seamless. Even more convenient is the fact that when the player wants to move from one cover point to another, he need only point the screen at his destination and tap the 'A' button. Fisher bolts to the spot on command. His new role as a predator means that moving through levels quickly and efficiently is just as important as staying out of sight, and Conviction does an amazing job of tackling that middle ground.
The result is perhaps the fastest and most invigorating stealth-based gameplay that Iíve ever experienced. Fisher preys upon his enemies, staying out of sight and awaiting the opportune moment to make each kill. A skilled player can use melee take-downs to eliminate a group of thugs one by one, before any of them even realize their friends are missing. Those who prefer less subtlety can shoot out light sources and toy with enemies using sound cues before pulling out the firearms and putting them down from the safety of darkness. While Conviction certainly doesnít encourage players to run in with guns blazing, great effort was made to ensure that combat is a constant thrill. A big factor in that success is the far more aggressive AI. Nearly all of your enemies have flashlights (meaning assaulting them from the front isnít advised). Their movement is unpredictable enough that finishing Conviction is more a feat of pure skill and less an exercise in memorizing movement patterns.
Convictionís single-player campaign is perhaps a little too convoluted in the story department, as is par for the course with a Tom Clancy game, though the whole thing is a mere five or six hours long. Too much time of that is wasted on an ill-conceived flashback sequence in Iraq that Ė however briefly Ė ditches all semblance of stealth and transforms Conviction into the full-fledged duck-and-cover shooter that fans had hoped the game wouldnít be. Aside from this misstep, the campaign remains thrilling throughout, if only because there are so many approaches to combat with none of them feeling like any other action game on the market.
If none of this reassures you, however, and youíre yearning for old-school Splinter Cell, then I can only hope you have a friend who feels the same way. Conviction includes a separate cooperative campaign that retains the mechanical changes presented by the single-player game but falls more in line with previous titles in terms of pacing and tone. The Sam Fisher we see in the main storyline isnít the same man who took down Nikoladze, Sadono and the like. Heís less professional and more resourceful; in one of the early missions, he peeks under doors not with the classic optic cable, but with a side-view mirror he ripped off of a nearby SUV. The operatives who serve as the co-op protagonists, on the other hand, are garbed in traditional black wetsuits and glowing goggles. They follow orders and play by the rules. Theyíre splinter cells to the bone. Iím happy to report that while the solo campaign is a bold, successful experiment, the multi-player portion of the story is a far more conventional affair.
The biggest difference between the two modes is that the latter is paced more slowly and leaves less room for error. That's because checkpoints are incredibly scarce, just as they were in the good old days (compare this to the solo mode, in which checkpoints are made far more forgiving to keep the game moving). What I like most about the mode, besides its reliance on constant interplay between the two players, is that it tests some of Convictionís less publicized experiments Ė like projecting objectives onto the environment to avoid HUD clutter, or ďmarkingĒ enemies for instant kills Ė in a more traditional stealth environment and makes them work. Whether the series from here on out ultimately tilts in favor of action or seeks the middle ground found in its cooperative mode remains to be seen, but either way, Conviction makes tantalizing promises. As if desperate to prove Double Agentís naysayers wrong, Ubisoftís statement here is that the series is far from growing stale, and theyíre absolutely right.
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