First off, let me apologize for the latest of this review. I don't have a really good excuse - I received my review copy late and I had a hard time scheduling some online sessions, but still could have managed to get this review finished before now. But I think the fact that I dragged my feet a bit on writing about this game is telling in its own way. You see, I'd consider Splinter Cell to be one of my all-time favorite series. I've finished every game in the series (including most of the mobile spin-offs) and been lucky enough to visit the Ubisoft development studios in Montreal and Shanghai, China. I love this series, but I don't love Conviction. Don't get me wrong, I like it - a lot. This will be a largely positive review. But is Conviction the Splinter Cell game that we hardcore fans have been waiting years for? No, it's definitely not.
Splinter Cell: Conviction
Publisher: Ubisoft / Developer: Ubisoft Montreal / ESRB: M / $59.99
I'm not going to spend too much time going over the ways that Conviction might let you down if you're a fan of the older games - Owen Johnson already covered that in great detail. I'll simply summarize by saying that Conviction feels like a relaunch of the franchise, a new beginning. With that, there are many changes that have been made to make it more appealing to new players. I can understand why Ubisoft wanted to broaden the audience - The original Splinter Cell games are tough, demanding titles that require a lot of patience and while they always sold well, never reached true blockbuster status. On the other hand, Ubisoft's more recent stealth franchise, Assassin's Creed, has broken through to the mainstream audience (and made lots and lots of money). The AC games are faster and more action-focused that the old Splinter Cell games, so it makes sense that Ubisoft would move the SC series in that direction.
The Sam Fisher of Conviction is more agile and deadly than ever before. Where he once would lurk carefully in shadows, he now shimmies effortlessly along window ledges and pulls guards to their deaths. He relies more on guns, as evidenced by the new "mark and execute" feature that lets you take out multiple enemies at once with carefully placed headshots. To trigger a mark and execute attack, you have to first take out a guard with a hand-to-hand move. That decision is designed to keep the traditional stealth elements alive, but also diminishes its place in the gameplay. Think about it; your reward for using stealth successfully is the ability to shoot dudes in the face. Stealth is no longer the core of the game here. Now it's just a means to an end.
Ubisoft said on multiple occasions that it wanted the new version of Sam to feel more like the hunter than the prey, and that's a fair comparison. My moaning about the changes in stealth aside, you do spend most of the game stalking prey, feeling like a bad-ass super-spy. That in and of itself is a significant departure from the original title. The writer of the first game once told me that he viewed Sam as exceptional only in that he was still alive in a job that should have killed him years ago. He was old, jaded and lucky. This Sam is young, notorious and deadly. He's Jason Bourne when he used to be a nameless government spook. The first few Splinter Cell games focuses on Sam being tasked with missions that were about his country. Conviction is all about him. Sure, he gets caught up in a plot that would rock the country in a serious way, but he only does it for the love of his daughter.
I suppose I lied when I said I wouldn't dwell too much on Conviction's deviations from the Splinter Cell formula. Frankly, I think it's impossible not to talk about them. What was once a stealth series is now an action series with stealth elements. Fortunately, it's a pretty good one. Conviction has a smooth control scheme, strong level design and a stack of multiplayer options. There's a separate co-op campaign as well competitive and co-operate online modes. The traditional "spies vs. mercs" multiplayer is gone, as are any true co-op abilities, which is a bummer. Fortunately, the multiplayer modes that are there are pretty fun. I especially enjoyed the mode in which you and a partner defend an EMP from waves of attackers.
The bottom line is this: Splinter Cell: Conviction is a very solid action game. I had a lot of fun playing through the campaign and really enjoyed the multiplayer I've experienced so far. I'm going to keep playing it and work through more of the co-op stuff as soon as I can. But as much as I enjoyed the game, it's not the title I've been waiting on for the last several years. It's a new direction for the franchise, one that might make it more accessible to new players, and possibly at the expense of some long-time fans. But despite my grumbles about the changes, I still consider myself a life-long Splinter Cell fan.
THE OFFICIAL VERDICT: 4 out of 5
This review is based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.