Sam Fisher is pissed off. When we last left him, he had just killed his best friend, discovered that his daughter had died in a car accident, and decided to quit Third Eschelon after years of selfless service. He had every right to be in a bad mood.
The single player story picks up just after Double Agent's ending, with Sam trying to live out his retirement in obscurity. As you might expect, things don't go as planned. Before long, Sam is pulled back into the Tom Clancy universe of government conspiracies, gadgets, plots to kill the president, and double-crossing betrayal.
It turns out, I found the overarching story much less interesting than Sam's internal motivations. He is the titular man of conviction, motivated less by the need to save the president and more by the hope that his daughter is alive after all. Now that he's no longer Third Eschelon's tool, he's free to track down the truth about his daughter by any means necessary. And he uses all those means. He'll snap vertabre, turn innocent environments into torture chambers, and blow stuff up to get the truth. If it happens that he saves the president and democracy as we know it along the way, well . . . good for them.
This all amounts to Sam's most personal story, a point the developers make obvious when you experience the touching tutorial. In a scene that seamlessly ties into gameplay, Sam remembers comforting his young daughter when she's too afraid of the dark to go to sleep at night. By explaining how the dark can be your friend, Sam comforts his daughter while also telling the player about Splinter Cell's key game feature.
In fact, Conviction does a surprisingly well-polished job of integrating UI, objectives, and background story into the game's world, thereby keeping you invested in the moment and avoiding a break in the tension. You're never asked to press pause and go into the menu. Instead, your objectives are projected onto the world's geometry, like an extension of Sam's internally made decisions. They're as black and white as Sam's moral compass, and just as easy to ignore if you care to.
Stealth plays a big part in Conviction, just like the previous entries in the series, but Sam is a more direct character now. The dark is no longer a safe place for a cowering spy to hide. Instead, it's an ally and a weapon used to unleash Sam's barely contained rage. Eventually, you'll find him engaging in open gunplay with a variety of enemies, though the gunplay never gets as good as what you might see in Uncharted or Gears of War. Instead, better to emerge from the shadow and silently take out your adversaries with a hand-to-hand move reminiscent of Jason Bourne. That'll earn you a "Mark-and-execute" command, which is Splinter Cell's biggest advance over previous entries in the series.
Initially, you'll think the mark-and-execute feature a contrivance -- a melee attack gifts you with super-human gun-fu abilities? -- but in practice, the feature is a fantastic mix of strategy, stealth, and auto-aim gunplay. Instead of the traditional notion of aiming down a crosshair, the player's interaction is displaced to setting up the most effective mark-and-execute opportunities, then watching the action play out in a bloody display of super-spy efficiency. Mark four foes dispersed around a room and see if you don't grin wildly as Sam executes them with style and grace.
But the fun doesn't end with Sam's story. Conviction gives you a solid co-op campaign (which is a prequel to Sam's adventure) and brings back the multiplayer action I missed so much in Double Agent.
And thank goodness for that. I've always held Splinter Cell's multiplayer (the best examples of which were in Chaos Theory) as a shining example of how developers can still innovate in the multiplayer space. Too often lately, we see multiplayer modes treated as unnecessary senseless additions, created to satisfy the marketing folks who want to put another bullet point on the back of the box. Rarely are they thoughtful, innovative takes on the conventions presented by the single player game.
Conviction's multiplayer, however, doesn't have this problem. The cooperative story introduces a new dimension to the mark-and-execute feature and shows how a spy duo can be an unstoppably deadly force. The versus multiplayer gives the game tons of replay value with modes like endurance (waves and waves of AI controlled bad guys come at you and your co-op friend), and the modes seen in Chaos Theory. Spy vs. Mercs is missing, though I don't see that as a great loss.
While it has its flaws (that laser tripwire sequence was a frustrating chore and some of the full-on shooting sequences felt out of place), all told, Splinter Cell: Conviction is a great evolution of the series and a fantastic return to form. Its polished visuals, thoughtfully implemented mechanics, touching personal journey, and unique multiplayer implementation make it a rare experience.
Game Title: Splinter Cell: Conviction
Platform: Xbox 360
Release Date: 27th May 2010