Sam Fisher is out for blood. In Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction, this normally cool cat has honed some extra-sharp edges, but that's what happens when you mess with a man's brood. At one point in the game, a voice-over tells us that the boorish brute is "pure Sam, pure Sam when he's mad," but that simple explanation doesn't say the half of it. The franchise's gruff star is a changed man, and with Conviction, Splinter Cell is a changed series. This is not the challenging stealth purebred you'd expect, but rather a more approachable kind of stealth-action mongrel. You still silently snoop about in the shadows, but features you'd expect in a Splinter Cell game, and even in stealth games in general, simply aren't present. You can't move bodies out of plain sight, you don't pick locks, and you can't choose to knock your foes out--only kill them outright. Yet the new mark-and-execute feature helps make up for a bit of that lost spark by providing tense thrills of a different sort, and fantastic storytelling will keep you invested in the campaign. But if you really want to see Conviction at its best, you should grab a buddy and sneak your way through the shadows of the cooperative campaign. The joys of coordinating attacks and wriggling out of a tough jam make co-op play a knockout, and its flexibility will keep you coming back again and again.
Sam Fisher is the gravel-voiced protagonist who is as much a part of Splinter Cell's identity as goggles and guns. The murder of his daughter Sarah has siphoned away the hope and joy in Sam's life, and he's left with a single focus: find her killer. A few old friends put Sam on the trail, but that trail isn't a straightforward one (is it ever?), and Sam soon finds himself wrapped up in a conspiracy far greater than it first appears. You encounter a few legitimate surprises along the way, though the story isn't as intriguing as the way in which it is told. The text of your current mission is stretched across walls and angled up pipes, as are simple indications of Sam's emotional state. ("Anger," indicates one display; "Guilt," shows another.) Black-and-white flashbacks play out on certain surfaces as if someone is broadcasting Sam's thoughts through an old movie projector. This environmental integration is remarkably effective, broadcasting updates and emotional states as if they are burned into his soul and then etched directly onto his retinas. Actor Michael Ironside again does a good job as Sam; some scenes are thick with his desperation and exasperation. The supporting cast keeps up with him, making it easy to identify with the old acquaintances that have his back.
That something has changed is clear from the moment you lead Sam through the initial level. Sam can still crouch and slink of course, but Conviction's stealth is centered around its cover system. You can take cover and press against any vertical surface easily, from walls and curbs to vehicles and filing cabinets. You may then slip quickly to the next cover spot, assuming the visual indicator appears at the cover spot you want to zip to next. It's an intuitive system, and you can use it to quickly position yourself in all the right ways, often so you can clock a wandering guard over the head as he passes by without being seen by his cohorts in crime. You get some good interface tools to help you get your bearings when trying to stay out of sight. If you're shrouded in darkness and invisible to your enemies, everything turns black and white, aside from targets and important environmental objects. If you're seen, a ghostly image of your form will remain at your last known location, and the AI will direct its attention there. Warning alerts appear and sound if you are caught or are in immediate danger of being caught. The black-and-white effect can obscure things a bit much sometimes, but overall, these are sensible interface elements that toss you important information with a minimum of distraction.
But you won't spend as much time in the shadows in Conviction as you did in previous games. Sam is still vulnerable; you can't just wander into a horde of hired guns in broad daylight. But in Conviction, Sam conducts business on his own terms, and as such, is far more aggressive than before. To this end, you can mark multiple enemies at once (up to four, depending on which weapon you're packing and whether you've upgraded it) and then execute them in a single astonishing move. To pull off a mark-and-execute maneuver, you first have to perform a close-quarters kill. Once you've taken down your initial target, the execution is ready, and as long as each of your targets is in range and not obscured by some object or another (you know it’s a go when the tag markers turn red), all you need to do is press a single button. Time slows a bit, the camera zooms toward each enemy in turn with a subtle swoosh, and your victims crumple to the ground, no match for a trained killing machine with a chip on his shoulder. It's a little disconcerting when a target moves behind a wall during an execution and your bullet clips right through it, but as a rule, the slick camera moves and audio cues make executions a rush. In fact, most of the campaign's best moments come from clever use of execution tactics. For example, a roomful of guards aware of your presence might be flanking your location, giving you little hope of escape. Some quick marking, a slick hand-to-hand murder, and a zoom-zoom-zoom execution is a compelling and exciting way to eliminate the threat.
Conviction tries its hand at other explosive moments, but these don't come together in such a dramatic way. You can occasionally use environmental objects as tools of destruction--shoot a chandelier so that it falls on a foe's head, or shoot an enormous explosive tanker, for example--but the rarity of these opportunities makes the scattered few that exist seem like a tease. More of a tease are the few interrogations you perform on key witnesses. In these highly scripted scenes, you grab your target and bash the answers out of him by jamming him into environmental objects clearly waiting to be splattered with blood. Unfortunately, the first interrogation you perform--a bloody bathroom beatdown--is the best in the entire game. In the rest, the invisible walls that hem you in and the "hey, look at me" nature of three or four conveniently placed objects make interrogations more predictable than provocative. Had they been more interactive (think takedowns in 2008's The Bourne Conspiracy), they could have been extraordinary; instead, they're violent but shrug-worthy.
Many levels do grant you welcome flexibility in how to approach the task at hand. You might shimmy up a pipe, throw a remote camera (one of a few gadgets for you to use), lure nearby guards to it, and detonate it--always a good way of getting two or three hostiles out of the way. Or instead, perhaps you'll hang from a ledge and use one of your silenced pistols to thin the crowd with a few well-placed headshots. The flexibility is nice, but Splinter Cell: Conviction isn't much of a challenge, a few tough sequences aside. (Series veterans will want to start on the hardest difficulty setting straightaway.) It's a shame the campaign doesn't make better use of these gadgets. Sonar goggles are nice, but you only need them for bypassing laser traps a few times; otherwise, unless you're having a hard time finding any straggling enemies, you may forget you even have them. You could say the same about the other gadgets in your arsenal, or even the extensive array of weapons you earn and upgrade. That's a disappointment, given the ease of the short six-hour campaign--seven, perhaps, if you prefer silence to stridence--and how well previous Splinter Cell games made your various hi-tech tools seem so indispensable.
Splinter Cell: Conviction does go out of its way to throw in some variety, and fortunately, it hits more than it misses. Many levels, such as an early one in an art museum, look colorful and may be approached in a number of different ways. A jaunt through a fairground, a secure checkpoint surrounded by innocent bystanders, and an excursion through an airfield are also particular highlights, because they offer plenty of room to slink about and prepare some exciting executions. Others don't work out so well, such as a flashback level that removes many of the elements that make Conviction so convincing and plays out more like a slightly awkward third-person shooter. A level at the Lincoln Memorial includes an exciting chase sequence--but also an overlong eavesdropping session involving a lot of boring dialogue. Nevertheless, most campaign missions are solid, thanks to careful level design and enemies that are quick to flank when they've spotted you, and quick to spread out when doing so puts the most pressure on you. The AI isn't always spot-on; your adversaries are sometimes slow to respond to grenades tossed directly at their feet, for example. But security contingents are still unpredictable and adaptive enough to keep things interesting.
The single-player campaign is very good in spite of its inconsistencies, but Conviction truly comes into its own when you add another player to the mix, whether you do so via Xbox Live, system link, or split-screen. The co-op campaign--a separate story involving a Third Echelon agent and his Russian counterpart--is the game's finest feature. Coordinating attacks leads to remarkably exciting moments, created in part by the ability to pull off dual executions. These allow you to perform executions when one target may be in sight of one player but not the other. Perhaps one of you is hanging from a window ledge, while the other silently flanks from within. The two of you might mark your targets in advance, the first player will yank an unsuspecting guard from the window, and the second will trigger an execution. A few seconds later, you've taken out four or five enemies together in a flurry of slow-motion zooms and profane yelps from your victims. Exhilarating triumphs aren't always planned, however. You might be cornered, only to have your companion appear out of nowhere and snap your predator's neck; or you may discover that the foes descending on you were marked by your buddy, letting you escape from the jaws of death by performing an execution.
A few other dynamics lend even more tension and variety to co-op play. Should an enemy take you down, your teammate gets a bit of time in which to revive you--a fairly standard mechanic in cooperative games. But you aren't stuck waiting helplessly should you fail: you can sit up and take shots with your pistol if necessary, though doing so clues your enemies in to the whole "playing dead" routine. Should you get clobbered after you've sat up, you're done for, and the game reverts back to the most recent checkpoint. Enemy chokeholds also add variety and unpredictability. If you aren't careful, your foes can pull you into a hold and use you as a human shield. Your partner then gets a limited time to set you free by shooting your attacker, and you can assist by feigning an escape attempt, which distracts the assailant and hopefully gives your buddy a clear shot at him. The co-op play's most suspenseful stretches come when one player is down and the other is taken into a chokehold. If you coordinate things well and everything comes together, the downed player can sit up and take a shot at the grunting goon, freeing up his buddy to come revive him. Pulling off this dual-savior act is a rare rush that you'll relish each and every time.
The other two-player modes are more straightforward but still enjoyable. Aside from the co-op campaign, Hunter mode provides the most interesting experience. Here, you and your partner traverse a map broken up into smaller chunks patrolled by a set number of guards you must eliminate. Silence is truly golden in this mode, for should either of you get caught, reinforcements rush in, raising the number of enemies you need to take out. What makes this mode compelling is its variety and flexibility. Stealth is ideal, but it's hard to see the price of failure as a punishment; after all, once the jig is up, you can use your entire bag of tricks with abandon, marking and executing foes as you and your partner see fit. Last Stand is Splinter Cell: Conviction's battle-waves-of-enemies mode, in which you defend an EMP generator against the infiltrating hordes. This mode is an incredible challenge once large numbers of more powerful enemies start streaming in, though a touch of predictability lessens the impact. Guards might flow through a single doorway en masse, allowing you and your partner to dramatically reduce their numbers with a few grenades and mines. Last Stand isn't as special as the stealthier modes; the tension comes from the aggressiveness of your enemies rather than from the need to coordinate attacks from the shadows. Yet it offers some short-lived fun, and the smooth difficulty curve as you move from one wave to the next provides welcome momentum.
Face-Off is Conviction's only competitive mode and is the least interesting of the multiplayer offerings, because it removes some of the elements that make the co-op matches such a delight. Here, you and a single opponent attempt to take down roaming guards, as well as each other, while accumulating points for kills. It's satisfying to identify your opponent without being seen and to take him out as you would any other foe, particularly if you're sneaky about it. But the competitive nature of this mode eliminates dual executions and chokehold escapes, the very facets that make the other modes so fascinating. Nevertheless, hunting the most dangerous enemy in the game (an actual human being) gives this mode some urgency, as does trying to surpass your opponent's point total. For what it's worth, you can tackle the co-op maps without a partner through the Deniable Ops menu, and as always, it's great fun to string a few close-quarters kills and multi-enemy executions together. (You might cry out in glee when things come together so beautifully.) But once you've played these maps with a buddy, it's hard to shake the feeling that something is missing when you're on your own.
Conviction looks surprisingly dated but nonetheless attractive, a likely consequence of the older Unreal 2 technology that brings it to life. Fuzzy textures, some blocky geometry, and plenty of jagged edges betray the engine's age, yet you get the sense that developer Ubisoft Montreal squeezed a good deal out of it. Smart use of color versus the deepness of the black-and-white stealth effects makes certain environments, such as a carnival outside the Washington Monument, really stand out. It's best not to look too closely at the grainy textures when traversing war-torn streets, but the abandoned vehicles strewn about and a decrepit-looking fuel station make the dusty level feel uncomfortably--and appropriately--hostile. Sam looks good, if somewhat blurry (you could say the same about the rest of the game); he's got the expression of a man who has taken his punches. He quickly slides from one cover spot to another, and slick animations make his moves look authentic and feel satisfying. Your standard enemies, on the other hand, don't move so smoothly, and models are frequently reused, so expect to see a few familiar faces as you skulk through hallways and peek through windows. The most disappointing aspect of the presentation, however, is that the cinematics are overly compressed and suffer from distracting dips in the frame rate when the camera pans across the environment.
The soundtrack deserves special mention. You won't walk away humming any tunes--this isn't that kind of music--but it's impressive for how well its electronic pulses, trembling violins, and hi-tech warbles weave in and out of the action. You won't notice it often, but that's what makes it so effective: it enhances the tension without overwhelming it. Sound is an important part of Splinter Cell: Conviction. Guards will consistently taunt you when they are aware of your presence, even reminding you of the actions you took in previous missions. In fact, those reminders are so frequent that they get predictable after a while; it's a contrived dialogue trick that doesn't immerse you so much as it calls attention to its own cleverness, especially considering that the same voice actor was clearly used to record so many of the lines. But you sometimes rely on those calls to warn you of approaching guards, and you'll appreciate many subtle details in the audio, from the squeal of your sonic goggles when you turn them on, to the subtle whines of nearby security cameras.
This isn't the Splinter Cell of yesteryear. Sam Fisher is losing patience, which in turn translates into speedier stealth and a lot more bullets than before. It's hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment if you're a fan of the series. Sam's newest adventure doesn't offer the challenge you may be expecting, and recent stealth-action hybrids like Metal Gear Solid 4 and Batman: Arkham Asylum provide much more satisfying single-player experiences. Yet stellar storytelling, fantastic co-op play, and rewarding executions make Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction a legitimately great game that delivers frequent surges of excitement. Between the brief thrills of freeing your partner from a chokehold and the sharp adrenaline rush of a bloody execution, Conviction will leave a mark on your memory.