Admittedly, Ubisoft Montreal’s series of Splinter Cell games has never enticed me enough to be involved with them more than as a casual curiosity. There is a level of intimidation that is hard for a “gamey” gamer such as myself to get around; that is, the temptation to mess about and not take myself seriously during a game’s mimesis outweighs the gravity that my sometimes foolhardy actions will have on the structure of the mechanics themselves. And the Splinter Cell titles are made for the invested, not the curious. The success of main protagonist Sam Fisher, the gruff talking battle-wearied agent of the “Third Echelon,” a fictional black-ops branch of the U.S. National Security Agency, rests solely on your ability to engage with the games’ earnest shadow play, hiding from direct human contact and utilizing improbable spy tech with the utmost sincerity. Which isn’t to say that video games aren’t capable of being heavy or dramatic, but giving the player any semblance of freedom while simultaneously dictating a specific attitude they must possess carries with it some obvious challenges in design.
What interested me in Conviction and led me to play through the single-player story mode of this chiaroscuro sneak thriller was the marked stylistic shift from the slick black-suited trifocaled Fisher that dominated the earlier Splinter Cell titles to a more haggard and beaten-up character, preoccupied with the death of his daughter (a continuation of the story arc from the previous game, Double Agent) and forced to improvise more on location—in other words, a tad more flawed and human. Double Agent introduced a darker, grittier tone to Splinter Cell, but Conviction has solidified it, also bringing impressive production values that reinforce higher storytelling over spy-op gameplay catered solely to the hardcore.
Conviction does introduce some new play mechanics, but their aim is ultimately to make the game more accessible to those new to the series or who want a simplified interface to deal with (such as myself). One of these is the “Mark and Execute” command, in which the player can tag individual enemies and booby traps, so that when the timing is right, a quick tap of the “execute” button ensures that Fisher will automatically hit his targets perfectly, with a stylistic flourish worthy of any action superhero. It’s a smart feature, as players of any skill level can pull off next-to-impossible shooting maneuvers and feel rightly invincible, and it actually encourages you to assume the role of silent assassin and plan strategically more often, as stealth kills are the only way to earn the ability to actually execute your marks. Other elements, such as an automatic cover system and a goal marker, visible at all times, keep the experience linear and streamlined (almost too streamlined; I was able to complete the single-player story in less than a weekend, and the two player co-op mode is even shorter than that).
Another major component of Conviction are the “Interrogation” scenes punctuating Fisher’s interactions with Non-Playable Characters (NPCs) crucial to the story, which is an interesting and brisk narrative of political conspiracy and shady government security contracts. Needless to say, Fisher’s methods of “questioning” are particularly brutal and violent, opening up sadistically enjoyable options to the player, but the actual control over these events is disappointingly limited; Fisher’s freedom of movement is restricted to conveniently enclosed spaces, and there are only so many objects you can fling the NPC into before they quickly cave and release the information required to press on.
Gameplay tweaks aside, with Conviction, the emphasis is on a more seamless, cinematic experience. Gone are the light and ambient noise meters (gauges that required constant monitoring and finagling in order for Fisher to stay effectively hidden), replaced with more simple and integrated visual cues: When Fisher is lost in shadow and invisible to enemies and bystanders, the screen fades to black and white, returning to full color again when the player is exposed by light or detection. This lends Conviction an almost noir-like quality, in tune with its own filmic aspirations. Likewise, clues, information, and even short expository movies are projected onto walls and objects within the game world rather than displayed on a pop-up menu or as subtitles, the intention no doubt to eschew fourth walls as often as possible.
The ironic thing about this stylish presentation is that while fluidity is the end product, the actual process of reaching the next cutscene or plot development can at times require constant trial and error, as Fisher’s route of attack and order of action must be well thought-out and executed. These are the “stealth” moments that the Splinter Cell series is well known for, and for good reason: Lurking in darkness, carefully observing the movement patterns of each soldier and quietly eliminating them one-by-one is undeniably satisfying, made all the more enjoyable by enemies’ panicked and profanity laden reactions when they realize you may be nestled amongst them. Still, I only felt more comfortable and immersed in the story when I bumped the difficulty down to “Rookie,” as some of the later, more difficult sections wore too thin after attempting them multiple times. When a video game is trying so hard to be cinematic, a consistently broken time-stream makes definitive milestones in the game’s narrative more of a relief than anything else.
Repetition aside, however, some of these moments are indeed thrilling: A chase through cluttered media tents in and around a famous Washington D.C. landmark, for example, feels cribbed straight from an unreleased Bourne film, kinetic, polished, and gripping. The game’s climactic set-piece battles are likewise as tense and exciting as any other action game to date. It certainly helps that the Splinter Cell series is known for the quality of its atmospheres and inspired use of lighting, and Conviction continues that fine graphical tradition.
By the time I had reached the end of the single-player campaign, I knew that it was a fleeting but satisfying piece of spy fiction and a perfect entry point for those new to the Splinter Cell franchise. While Conviction demonstrates that the practices of storytelling and game-playing are still tentatively circling each other, unsure of how to fuse together, credit must be given to Ubisoft Montreal for their admirable attempt to craft a game meant to be both watched as a spy-action film and played as a spy-action game—even though there is still a long way to go before these lines of reception are blurred.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction. Publisher: Ubisoft. Developer: Ubisoft Montreal. Release Date: April 13, 2010. Platform: Xbox 360. ESRB: Mature. ESRB Descriptors: Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence. To purchase, click here.