Those who claim that you can’t teach an old dog a new trick have clearly never worked with Sam Fisher. Despite being nearly 60 years old, this formerly-elite super spy has defected from his government employers, launched a hell-bent crusade to track down his daughter’s killer, and has even found the time to learn some new moves taken straight out of Jack Bauer’s playbook. Yes, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction is a more action-packed third-person shooter than its predecessors, as the methodical pacing and tricky stealth elements of old have been replaced en masse by a fist-full of explosions and an arsenal of surprisingly accurate weapons. While this may not feel like a typical Sam Fisher adventure, put your fears to rest; Ubisoft Montreal has successfully sneak-walked the fine line between stealth and action, delivering the most user-friendly, crowd-pleasing Splinter Cell experience yet.
Virtually every aspect of Splinter Cell has been given an overhaul in Conviction. Sam’s aim has gotten much sharper; making on-the-move shooting no longer a pillow-punching exercise. The aging super spy has also gotten faster as well, so climbing pipes, sneaking behind oblivious goons, and carefully hiding in the shadows to avoid enemy detection all feels smoother and less clunky than before. Sam’s interrogation tactics have also become more unhinged, as he will now bash faces into control panels and stab suspects with all things sharp and pointy to get any required information out of them. The new mark and execute move allows players to tag up to four targets at once, which is followed by their brutal automatic slaughter at the hands of Mr. Fisher. Specialty kills, sneaky moves, and stylish attacks award the player with upgrade points, which can, in turn, be used to further empower Sam’s weapons and gadgets.
While stealth is still encouraged during most of the missions, it’s rarely a requirement in Conviction, as you can easily blow through the six hour campaign by shooting every guard in sight. Granted, this may betray the very essence of what made the original Splinter Cell games stand out, but it fits well with the game’s occasionally muddled, but overall entertaining story. Sam no longer works for Third Echelon, the spy organization that employed him in earlier titles. His daughter, Sarah, is dead, and the only goal in his sad, meandering life is to exact revenge on those responsible, which justifies his new, more careless approach to stealth. Michael Ironside once again does a great job snarling away as the voice of Sam Fisher, though the slipshod pacing and delivery of the story hastily breezes over the more emotional beats.
Conviction’s globe-trotting single-player campaign sends Sam from a high-tech, maximum security facility full of laser traps and sentry guns to the frenzied streets of Washington D.C. amidst the chaos of a global crisis. These locales are a welcome change of pace from earlier titles, which consisted mostly of musky military bases and dull factories. Each environment is jam-packed with a surprising amount of variety; from an on-foot chase through the back alleys of the Lincoln Memorial to a dreadful Call of Duty inspired Iraq level. While these consistently unique variations aren’t always successful, they do keep Conviction from feeling like yet another modern day shooter.
Unfortunately, while making Splinter Cell more accessible to modern gamers is a good thing, Ubisoft has stripped away some of the fire that made the older titles shine so brightly. Gone are the split jump, knife kills, gas cameras, shock bullets, and many of Fisher’s more enjoyable gadgets, as the simplified control scheme is tightly focused on Sam’s most critical moves. While I understand that some gamers were overwhelmed by the complexity of earlier titles, including these items as unlockable extras would have been a great way to add replay value for longtime fans, especially considering how short Conviction’s single player campaign is.
Even more disappointing is the removal of the Spies vs. Mercs competitive mode, as its strategic, gadget-based objective play offered one of the most enjoyable and clever multiplayer experiences on the original Xbox. In its place are several average two-player Spy vs. Spy competitions, as well as a four mission cooperative campaign that acts as a side-story to Sam Fisher’s escapades. The coop mode is a genuine blast to play, as the spies need to stealthily infiltrate high-security bases and extract key information while teaming up against the dozens of armed guards that populate each location. Sadly, brevity is a problem here as well, as its three hour playtime will leave each spy begging for more.
While a lot of great content has been removed, the feel of the game has been completely altered, and both included campaigns are fairly concise, controlling Sam Fisher has never been as exciting or accessible as it is in Splinter Cell Conviction, and seasoned fans will still find of plenty of stealth-action badassery to sink their teeth into. The shooting is fun, the sneaking is top-notch, and you still get to jerk people off of balconies, which equates to an instant ‘thumbs-up’ in my book. Ah Sam, how I’ve missed you.