Review: Splinter Cell: Conviction (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Splinter Cell: Conviction
Genre: Stealth Action
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: 04/13/10

Splinter Cell, as a franchise, has evolved from a Western take on Metal Gear Solid with Tom Clancy’s name attached into a full-fledged stealth action series, largely thanks to some interesting gameplay mechanics and exceptional spy thriller storylines. The first several games in the series cast lead character Sam Fisher as a technologically enhanced super-spy in situations where one mistake equaled failure, but as the series has progressed Sam has worn many hats and the mechanics of his games have shifted somewhat. The newest game in the series, Splinter Cell: Conviction, can easily be called the most action oriented game in the series, as it focuses equally on stealth aspects and gun combat, as well as a return to basics for Sam as he goes into business for himself without the support of the agency. The good news is that the end result is a game that equally blends stealth and action elements into an experience that is fun to play and action-packed while still maintaining its tension and suspense, in both single and multiplayer play. The bad news, however, is that it might not be a game fans of the prior games are going to be excited about, mainly because the changes it makes to the series are noticeable and, in many respects, make the game a completely different animal.

There are two stories in Splinter Cell Conviction, one for the single player campaign, and one for the co-op campaign. The story of the single player campaign sees you take on the role of series protagonist Sam Fisher as he investigates his daughter’s death, as what was originally explained to be an accident ends up being a Third Echelon plot, leaving Sam on the opposite side of his former employer. The storyline in the co-op campaign follows two operatives, Archer of Third Echelon and Kestrel of Russian intelligence agency Voron (apparently meant to be Russia’s answer to Third Echelon). Their storyline revolves around shutting down Russian arms deals at various points and attempting to intercept EMP bombs for less than honest reasons. Both storylines are full of all sorts of political twists and turns, and each story ties into the other in different ways, making both worth completing and rather compelling overall. There’s a decent amount of back-and-forth subterfuge going on, though, and while most of it works and makes sense when explained, some of it doesn’t always make sense on a logical level, so your suspension of disbelief might have to be a bit high. Aside from the single player campaign and the co-op story missions, there are also four different multiplayer modes to play around with, as well as three different solo modes to play. The game lacks the Spies versus Mercs multiplayer mode of its predecessors, unfortunately, but there’s enough to do with the single and multiplayer components that you’ll be able to have plenty of fun with the game all the same.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is not the most technically impressive game on the 360 at this point, but it’s very aesthetically pleasing nonetheless. The graphics are impressive enough, as the characters are generally very clean looking, the environments are well designed and vary in appearance and complexity, and the various special effects and explosions look bright and impressive. The character animations are also well done, especially those of the playable characters. The characters move believably, and the player characters have all sorts of animations available to them as they sneak around and creatively dispatch their foes. The game makes excellent use of light effects, due in large part to the need for stealth and remaining out of sight, and the black and white effects that wash over the screen when you slip into hiding look very nice and fit the experience well. Aurally, the game is pretty fantastic all around. The music is your typical energetic orchestral score mixed with some solid electronic effects, and it fits the grand and epic scope of the game nicely. The voice acting, as expected, is excellent, primarily due to Michael Ironside and his always epic portrayal of Sam Fisher, though the various other actors and actresses also do a fine job. The random dialogue from the various grunts tends to repeat a bit, unfortunately, which can get annoying after a while, but otherwise the voice work bears no complaint. The sound effects are outstanding all around, between the ambient area noise and the various effects in battle, and this only contributes to the tense feeling the game seeks to create.

Splinter Cell: Conviction, as a stealth action game, plays like many modern third person shooters, meaning that fans of the genre should be able to learn the mechanics in no time, though actually understanding how the game works might take a little longer. You can move around with the left stick and look around with the right stick, and the A button allows you to interact with the environment, which can mean opening a door, vaulting over cover, climbing a ledge, or other such things. B is used to melee attack or hold enemies as human shields, X tosses out whatever gadget you have equipped, the left bumper crouches, the left trigger makes your character take cover if possible, and the right trigger fires at your highlighter target. The D-pad is used to change weapons and gadgets as well as enable or disable your goggles, clicking in the left stick reloads and clicking in the right stick allows you to zoom in on your target when needed. Most of the above controls should either be familiar to fans of third person shooters or should be easy enough to understand and learn, so fans of the genre should have little issue learning how the game works and adapting to the controls. For those who aren’t fans of the genre, the introductory level gives you a nice tutorial on how things work, allowing you to wrap your head around the mechanics without a problem, and once you have a good handle on how the game plays you’ll be halfway to understand how you’re supposed to play.

Now, the thing about Splinter Cell: Conviction is that while it plays like, say, Gears of War, if you play it like Gears of War you’re going to get your ass shot off in record time. Your player characters are NOT hardy battle-ready meat shields, and getting shot will end you in a hurry. While the easier difficulty levels allow you a few hits before expiring, you can’t take more than a couple shots before you expire, requiring you to play somewhat intelligently if you want to live. The game places a decent amount of emphasis on stealth as a result, as hiding behind cover, shooting out lights, and alerting enemies to your presence only to sneak around behind them and take them out keeps you alive longer than charging in guns blazing, and the enemy forces generally outnumber you enough that a war of attrition will only end up with you dead. The game lets you know when you’re mostly invisible by turning the screen black and white, which is an advantageous position as it allows you to remain hidden while scouting a position, so shooting out lights and hiding behind cover becomes as much a part of your combat plans as popping enemies and clearing the area. You have many other tools at your disposal, like the ability to silently grab enemies and pull them over ledges, the ability to take human shields, and so on, which will also make your life a good bit easier in the long run as long as you use these abilities to your advantage.

One new trick the game has to offer is the ability to mark and execute opponents. Any time you melee kill an enemy, you turn on the ability to instantly execute a group of enemies by marking them with the right bumper. You can mark as many enemies as your gun can handle, and by pressing Y once you’ve marked your targets, Sam will pop out and one-shot each target, so long as they’re in range, allowing you to quickly clear out a group of enemies with minimal effort. This can remove some of the challenge involved in getting through a location, but it’s believable that your characters can pull this off, and some sections pretty much need you to make these shots in order to be manageable, especially with ten or so enemies patrolling a zone at one time. You can carry one pistol and one bigger gun at a time, depending on what you need for the mission at hand, and each weapon can be upgraded three times in different categories, which can allow you more ammo in the clip, longer range, more damage, or the ability to mark more targets, depending on the gun. You can also carry various different gadgets, such as spy cameras, grenades, portable EMP’s and so on, which can give you an added edge in battle, as you can clear out enemies, turn off the lights and sneak around, scout enemies from a distance, and other fun things. Sam can carry multiple amounts of each gadget available for the mission, while your characters in multiplayer are limited to two custom items and, in most sections, your portable EMP generator, making your choices of what to carry important.

As noted, you can upgrade your gear in different ways by expending points earned during the game, and these points are earned by completing P.E.C. Challenges. The challenges can be as simple as landing silent headshots or as complex as using gadgets to escape from sight without killing anyone and beyond, but completing each earns you points which can be used to upgrade your gear. In the single player campaign, you can mostly only upgrade Sam’s weapons and gadgets, though you can also upgrade the outfits used in multiplayer to hold more ammo, take more damage or hold more gadgets, and you can outfit said outfits as you see fit with up to three of these upgrades. The points can also be used to buy new outfits for multiplayer mode and upgrade them as well, so you can dress your character up as you see fit for fun if you wish. Speaking of the multiplayer, there are, as of this point, four multiplayer modes to pick from, and while none of them are as involved as the Spys vs. Mercs modes from prior games, they’re all still pretty interesting all the same. Hunter mode is essentially a mode where you kill a set amount of enemies to move on to the next section, Last Stand asks you to defend a location from invading enemies, Face-Off is the only versus mode of the lot and also asks you to fight enemies in addition to a human opponent, and Infiltration (which is unlocked with UPlay points) is essentially a stealth only version of Hunter. For those who liked the group versus play the prior games offered, you might be a bit disappointed, but for anyone who prefers online co-op play (such as myself), these modes are great fun. You can also play some of these modes solo for fun if you wish, though they lose something without a second player along for the ride.

The single player campaign is around five to six hours long, though there are multiple difficulties to play through that are quite well balanced for those looking for a solid challenge. The multiplayer campaign adds another two to three hours to the experience, and since you can play it on or offline with friends it’s easy to sit down and plow through, and again, multiple difficulty modes are provided. Unlocking and upgrading all of the weapons will take a good bit of time if you’re a completionist, as will completing all of the P.E.C. challenges and unlocking all of the achievements in the game. Ubisoft is also promising DLC of various sorts for the game to keep it interesting, including weapons, costumes, maps and other fun things, and so far, the DLC is completely free of charge, which is awesome and adds content to the game that will keep you coming back periodically to check out what’s new. Finally, the fact that you can goof around with the multiplayer modes both on and offline is great, as it allows you to run around silently ending people alone and with friends in multiple ways, allowing you to make use of that DLC without restricting HOW you make use of it.

Now, the flaws in Splinter Cell: Conviction that will most likely sour fans of the prior games on this one are two-fold and simple: the game is a lot less stealth based than its predecessors, and it lacks the competitive multiplayer that many of its fans enjoyed. In the case of the former, while the game does reward you for stealthy actions, and on higher difficulties playing WITHOUT stealth is supremely fatal, Splinter Cell: Conviction is much more forgiving of your mistakes and much more geared toward broad accessibility than its predecessors. Put simply, the game is much more action oriented, and fans of the preceding games may not like the shift in direction, though new players will more than likely appreciate this. In the case of the latter, the multiplayer Spys vs. Mercs mode was a big selling point of the more recent entries in the series, largely because it was a pretty solid multiplayer mode. The mode was challenging and involved, and made for an experience more engaging than that of a simple Deathmatch mode simply because of its execution and design. To say that the multiplayer modes available in this game aren’t good would be unfair, but for players looking for versus play involving more than one player, you’ll be out in the cold. As such, for fans of the prior games, Splinter Cell: Conviction is, in some respects, not the sequel they’re looking for.

Beyond those complaints, though, the game is flawed universally in a couple other ways. While it’s nice that the game offers you a good variety of guns, unless you’re picking up weaponry off of dead enemies, there’s no reason to ever equip a non-silenced weapon at any point, as this just draws unnecessary attention to you and makes your life far harder than it needs to be. While some of the unsilenced weapons and gadgets can be useful for earning P.E.C. Challenges, for the most part, there are a decent amount of weapons and such that you will never use unless you have to, which is unfortunate. The context sensitive actions that pop up routinely don’t work as well as they should, either, meaning it can be hard to make the game pop up asking if you want to jump up to something or vault an obstacle, which can get annoying in a hurry. The game also feels short, as the single player and co-op campaigns combined last less than ten hours, and the multiplayer, while fun, isn’t varied or in-depth enough to really sell the player on coming back for more. It’s not that the multiplayer modes are bad in any sense, so much as that they are mostly limited in their variety and entertainment value when only two players can partake at any time, especially considering that the prior games offered some more robust versus play modes.

While Splinter Cell: Conviction is a good release and a solid exclusive for the 360, it’s not as fantastic as it could have been and could have benefited from some more polish and variety. The story is interesting to follow, if a bit convoluted at times, and the visual and aural presentation is generally quite nice all around. The game is simple enough to play and manages to be a strong mix of action and stealth elements, and as such it should be fun for people who weren’t so interested in the heavy stealth elements of the prior games. There’s a decent amount of variety to the game, the P.E.C. Challenges and upgradeable gear options are interesting, and there are multiple multiplayer modes available both online and off to keep you coming back if the core game interests you. Fans of the prior games may find the game a bit too forgiving in some respects, the inclusion of non-silenced weaponry often seems pointless, the context sensitive actions don’t always make sense and the game lacks any really robust multiplayer modes, which may put off old fans and new players alike, unfortunately. That said, Splinter Cell: Conviction is a fun time while it lasts, alone or with a friend, and if you’re interested in a stealth action game that doesn’t too heavily emphasize one element of the genre over the other, it’s worth picking up all in all.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: GREAT
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: CLASSIC
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GOOD

FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Splinter Cell: Conviction is a fine, if not entirely faithful, entry in the series that should be easily accessible for new players and fans alike, though it’s not entirely going to please the fanbase for a few reasons and isn’t quite as awesome as it first appears. The story is interesting and complex, the graphics look good overall and the audio is top notch from start to finish. The game is simple enough to pick up and play and is a good mix of stealth and action gameplay without being overpowering one way or the other. There’s a good amount of content and variety to the game, thanks to the different challenges and upgradable weapons and such, and between the single player campaign and the multiplayer modes, there’s enough to be interesting to the game all in all. Fans of the prior games will not be impressed by the shift from a more stealth-specific experience or the lack of the multiplayer versus play prior games offered, and between the odd variety of non-silenced, generally pointless weapons, the odd context sensitive action issues, and a lack of variety overall, the game may not appease everyone. If you’re willing to overlook these issues, however, Splinter Cell: Conviction is generally a pretty good time all around and is well worth checking out.

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