Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction Review

By Jake Gaskill - Posted Apr 13, 2010

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction marks a huge departure from the previous four games. Sam Fisher returns in a leaner, stripped-down game that has some stealth, but is heavy on the action. Factor in a fantastic co-op mode and you've got a game absolutely worth playing.

The Pros
  • Super slick movement and combat
  • Mark and execute is a blast to use
  • Co-op story mode is tons of fun and has a great twist ending
The Cons
  • Doesn't feel like Splinter Cell
  • Mark and execute works a little too well
  • Action/stealth line hard to see at times

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction takes the acclaimed stealth-action franchise into new and somewhat surprising territory. Super-spy Sam Fisher is now a swift and vicious force of nature capable of dispatching an entire room of thugs with a single push of a button. It’s the most dramatic progression in the series so far, but if you decide to avoid the game because of the monumental change, you’re making a big mistake. 

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction Review
Classic Clancy 
As with all Tom Clancy tales, Conviction is ultimately about power-hungry individuals in positions of great influence who use weapons of mass destruction to cause widespread chaos. However, the driving force this time around is Fisher’s search for the truth behind his daughter Sarah’s death, and that adds a much appreciated humanity to the onslaught of mass murdering and neck snapping that Fisher dishes out over the course of the game. Because one of the major plot twists comes in the third of the game’s 11 story missions, I can’t really talk too in depth about the plot without spoiling it. Suffice it to say, there’s more to Sarah’s demise than Sam could ever have expected.

The general idea is that a group of some of the world’s most powerful government officials plans to use three EMP devices stationed around Washington D.C. to provide cover for a much larger and more devastating series of events. Typical Clancy narrative, but it serves as a solid enough backdrop for a series of heart-pounding and gorgeous set pieces through which to engage in tons of fast-paced and fluid combat scenarios. 
Lock and Load (and Hide)

Unlike previous Splinter Cell games, Conviction puts a much higher emphasis on action than stealth. You’ll still be spending a good deal of time shooting out lights and hiding in shadows while you wait for the right moment to pounce, but the new mark and execute mechanic, combined with a larger arsenal of more powerful and better handling weaponry, push you toward engaging enemies when you might have otherwise avoided them in previous titles. As a long time Splinter Cell fan, the shift away from the more methodical, weighty feel of the previous games is somewhat disappointing at times. No lock picking, no hacking, no knife, no vent crawling (outside the one or two instances where you’re forced to), no carrying bodies; in other words, all the little moments that were used to break up the action have been stripped out in favor of straight-up action. For a lot of Splinter Cell haters, this will be seen as an absolute blessing, and while I’m sad to see these elements go, the game still manages to deliver a thoroughly enjoyable and slick actions-stealth experience; it just ends up feeling more like Batman: Arkham Asylum than a Splinter Cell game, which isn’t bad; it’s just surprising. 

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In addition to Sam’s newfound agility, which allows him to jump out of windows, slide into cover and shimmy along ledges and pipes with incredible speed, the biggest new feature is the previously mentioned mark and execute system. To pull this off, you simply mark enemies -- up to four with the right weapon and upgrades -- take down an enemy with a melee attack and then when the marked targets are in range, you tap a button and Sam enters a slow-motion sequence in which he dishes out one perfect headshot after another. Side observation: You learn to mark and execute during a flashback sequence 20 years prior to the events of Conviction, which means Sam knew how to use mark and execute even before the first Splinter Cell game. Why is he just now getting around to putting this awesome, awesome ability into practice?
Plot inconsistency aside, mark and execute is an incredibly satisfying mechanic. However, it’s so effective and so simple and fun (and can sometimes result in you firing through walls when you clearly shouldn’t be able to) that it ends up making enemy encounters feel similar. As a result, the game can be beaten on normal in around seven or eight hours, whereas previous installments take a few hours more simply because you'd never be able to run through guns ablaze the way you can here. Yet there are times when Conviction provides painful reminders that stealth is still very much a part of the game. The identity crisis is understandable in some ways -- Ubi Montreal removed franchise-defining features to make the game more accessible to a wider audience -- but it's still frustrating when you aren’t entirely sure what kind of game you’re playing. 
Spy Angry! 
Stealth is no longer indicated by a meter on the screen or a device strapped to Sam’s body. Now, when Sam’s hidden, the onscreen color desaturates. It feels more natural than previous games, but it also mutes many of Conviction's gorgeously rendered environments. And while you do eventually acquire a new sonar-based version of Fisher’s classic night-vision goggles, the earlier levels (when you don’t have them) are much more intense, since each enemy isn't mapped out for you. In fact, the initial stages in which you toil with limited resources were some of my favorites because they forced Sam to rely on his world-class spy skills rather than high-tech gadgets, a much more coercive change of pace than the amped-up action.
Sam can also interrogate enemies now. These sequences are quite brutal, and effectively convey his rage. Speaking of Sam’s emotions, the game employs a nifty technique of projecting mission objectives and information on various surfaces (walls, floors, Washington Monument, etc.). The system is visually appealing, but there are instances when Sam’s inner feelings are projected, and these come off as a bit melodramatic, if not unnecessary. I don’t need to see “anger” scrawled across a wall when I can hear Sam yelling as he tosses a computer monitor across the room. 

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction Review
Kill Together, Die Alone (And/or Together) 
Like its predecessors, Conviction features competitive/co-op multiplayer and a five to six hour story-based co-op mode that serves as a prequel to Fisher’s story. The competitive multiplayer modes take all of the main game’s action and bundles it into several distinct packages, which are solid enough distractions. However, co-op is the real gem here, as it not only tells the story of how one of the EMP bombs found its way to Washington D.C., but it also features some of the most thrilling and joyous moments of the entire game. And that’s all before the fabulous twist ending, which is executed brilliantly and is one of the most heart-pounding gaming moments I’ve had in a long time.
Coordinating attacks as the spy duo of Third Echelon’s agent Archer and Russian operative agent Kestrel is inherently cool, and thanks to the slick mechanics, and the ability to share mark and executes for simultaneous kills, you’re able to swiftly and efficiently take down rooms of enemies in all manner of acrobatic and brutal ways. Strangely enough, the game’s faster pace and feel fits better in the co-op mode, because it tells the story of two young spies, who would naturally be lighter on their feet than an aging agent like Fisher. 
Splintering Off 
Splinter Cell: Conviction represents the most significant evolution of the series to date. While it sacrifices a lot of what made the franchise unique -- picking locks and hacking are out -- it fills in the gaps with some of the most enjoyable and fluid gameplay you’ll find this year. If you’ve avoided Splinter Cell games in the past because of the rigid gameplay, Conviction is the most likely the game you’ve been waiting for. For longtime fans, there’s plenty to love here. It also helps if you don’t fear change.