Splinter Cell: Conviction
'Out on a personal vendetta for vengeance' might sound like the biggest action movie cliche going, but it's Splinter Cell: Conviction's central narrative conceit as Sam Fisher pursues his daughter's killer, pummelling the stuffing out of anyone who crosses him. This is Splinter Cell going less covert, more overt ditching the green be-goggled Fisher of old, for a hard-bitten, more aggressive version, shorn of gadgets and out on his own with no back-up.
This is no less than the fifth chapter in the main Splinter Cell saga, which stretches Fisher to his very limits as he's constantly outnumbered, outgunned and relentlessly hunted. Of course, the best way to deal with being hunted, is to become the hunter and it's this role reversal that is the crux of Conviction and Fisher's empowerment as a predator.
To use Ubisoft's phrasing, he's a panther, able to stalk his prey and get the drop on multiple targets with ease by moving in and out of the shadows like Batman. In Conviction, Sam simply feels at his most lethal. He has nothing to lose, and as such isn't averse to executing his enemies with extreme prejudice. And all the better if there's some bone crunching torture involved.
In Splinter Cell: Conviction, Fisher is less a gadget-toting James Bond, more Jason Bourne, resorting to ruthlessly efficient combat techniques and uncompromising interrogations in his mission. It really is no holds barred. However, the greatest weapon at Sam's disposal is choice, as infiltrations and other objectives can be approached and completed in a variety of ways, whether it's choosing to enter via a window or storm the front door, all are equally viable, making it worthwhile retrying missions using differing tactics each time.
And just because you're now rogue, on the run and no longer working for the gadget-laden Third Echelon, that doesn't mean you're any less well-equipped, even if Sam has to peek under doors with a car's stolen wing mirror rather than his trusty Snake Cam to begin with - and doesn't get hold of his trusty goggles until later on in the game. You've still got a supply of sticky cameras and various grenades that range from electronic-disabling EMP to more traditional frag and flash grenades, as well as remote mines. But none of these beat Fisher's newest ability - mark and execute.
Granted following a successful close-quarters takedown, mark and execute enables you to tag enemies in a number of ways, whether it's using the sonar goggles, sticky cam or under-door peeking device. To begin with, a maximum of two marks can be used until you spend points (earned by performing different in-game P.E.C. actions) on upgrading your weapons to add up to two more.
There's nothing more satisfying than marking several targets before kicking a door down and popping several bad guys in the head with a simple tap of the Y button, which is an occasional reward for good stealth work. It's a simple, automated method of blowing brains across the nearest wall that seems somewhat contrived given that such an outwardly confrontational assault is granted for executing a stealthy action.
Despite the out and out aggression afforded by mark and execute, sneaking in the shadows is still very much the only way to survive, so as ever, Fisher has more than a few methods of disappearing into darkness. Helpfully, there's the constant visual indicator of vivid colour to show that you're visible and black and white to show that you're shrouded in shadow. While this is massively useful, it does mean that you'll spend much of the time playing the game in monochrome, which is a shame given the richness and fidelity of the game's graphics. Consequently, Conviction can often seem like a rather drab game to look at, when in-fact, there's a nice colour palette of vivid reds and blues hidden beneath a veil of blacks, whites and greys.
Still, it's a neat touch that ensures you always know where you are in relation to light sources and whether you need to deploy an EMP to snuff out surrounding illumination. Then there's always the ability to take the higher ground to evade the attention of probing flashlights, shimmying along pipes and ledges to perform crushing 'death from above' takedowns or Assassin's Creed II style ledge yanks, sending unsuspecting enemies to the ground under a size 10 or plummeting to their death respectively.
Splinter Cell: Conviction's narrative is the usual blend of cloak and dagger intrigue, peppered with great moments and sections that don't sit as well, such as an ill-advised sojourn to Iraq, which introduces all out gunfights that simply don't work within the set parameters of the gameplay. It's a good story, well told with some excellent narrative devices such as an early flashback tutorial with a much younger Sam, comforting his daughter, telling her not to be afraid of the dark. One tense - if amateurish - home invasion later, and you're up to speed on using the shadows and mark and execute, as young Sam dispatches the bumbling burglars.
The campaign is mostly compelling stuff then, if rather slender overall and extended only by dodgy checkpoints. But this is bolstered by a quite generously proportioned co-op prologue, which lends added insight to the overall plot. Playing as US and Russian agents Archer and Kestrel, there's a quite substantial chunk of gameplay to be gleaned as well as extra story exposition. The mode also uses all of the same gameplay mechanics as the main single player campaign, meaning that you essentially play as a brace of would-be Fishers.
There's also a good four hours or so of extra game time to be had infiltrating the underground EMP bunker in co-op, as well as the four modes of Deniable Ops, which offers hours more besides. Hunter, Face-off, Infiltration and Last Stand will keep you playing long after the final credits have rolled on the single player and co-op campaigns, making Conviction a game worth revisiting more than once.
There are plenty of treats to be found in each of SCC's modes, not least in the interrogations, which are deliciously sadistic and gratifying vignettes of brutal interactive torture in which you extract information from key characters. Highlights include thrusting a knife through the palm of someone's hand, smashing a head through into a piano and pushing one unfortunate sod's nose into his paper shredder, causing a delightfully bloody mess. It's simplistic, 'press B to bludgeon' fare, but still strangely enjoyable all the same.
It might have been a long time coming, but when a game reeks of pure quality like Splinter Cell: Conviction does, forgiving delayed release dates is easy. This is a game that more than makes up for the protracted wait, with both a fantastic single player campaign and brilliantly worthwhile multiplayer component to boot. Ultimately though, it's great to see Sam Fisher fighting fit once again after a four year hiatus, proving that there's plenty of life in the old dog yet.