John-Paul Jones reflects upon Splinter Cell: Conviction, and how it’s not just secretly the best John Wick game ever – with a freshly emotional story to boot – but also one of the most effective friendship-killing games money can buy.
The year was 2010 and I had, at that point anyway, sworn myself off two things: chugging down Tesco Value Cider by the litre, and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series of games. In terms of the latter, and thanks in no small part to the roundly disappointing Splinter Cell: Double Agent – a game which had an irreconcilably schizophrenic design, and one that made me sure the soul of the series had departed with the third game in the series – it’s fair to say I had little hope that its successor, Splinter Cell: Conviction, would fare any better.
Simply, I just didn’t find Splinter Cell exciting anymore, which not only made me a little sad but also caused me to reflect on the question: just how do you make stealth games exciting?
Of course, the early trailers for Splinter Cell: Conviction didn’t help matters much. Showcasing a seemingly carefree counter-terrorist operative Samuel Fisher spitting out slo-mo bullets like he was trying out for a role in 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, it’s more than fair to proffer that I wasn’t overly enthused by how the fifth core entry in the Splinter Cell franchise was shaping up. Of course, what I didn’t realise right away was that I was burned out on the stealth genre as a whole, and actually had been for a while.
Welcome to the party, pal
As someone for whom the dreaded 30s would soon be a reality (they haven’t been *that* bad, to be fair), the epiphany hit me like a Brock Lesnar made entirely of hammers: I no longer didn’t have the saint-like poise and patience to be perfectly stealth all the time.
Whether it was the freewheeling ingenuity of the stealth sandboxes encompassed within the Hitman series, or the overwrought marathon narratives of that franchise that had the gruff chap wearing the bandana, it’s fair to say that while I didn’t know it at that time, I was looking for something a little different – and a touch easier on the nerves. As it turns out, Splinter Cell: Conviction was just what the doctor ordered.
It’s perhaps fitting that after the disastrous Rogue Agent threatened to derail the series entirely, its successor has the suffix of Conviction, if only because the bods at Ubisoft must have had a whacking great dollop of the stuff to implement and execute many of the design decisions that made Splinter Cell: Conviction a divisive, though ultimately accomplished, effort which showed that you really can teach an old dog new tricks.
A deeply personal conflict with stakes that mattered
Away from all the reworked stealthy and action bits, another area where Splinter Cell: Conviction sought to distance itself from its predecessors was that it actually had a proper story and, more crucially, one that I actually cared about. Quite unlike the other games in the series, Splinter Cell: Conviction had a deeply personal narrative that resonated with me far more than the territorial disputes and hacker tales which made some of the earlier Splinter Cell titles about as exciting as counting tombstones in a graveyard.
Set three years after the events detailed in Splinter Cell: Double Agent – and cast from the agency – Sam Fisher finds himself in Malta investigating the mysterious circumstances behind the hit-and-run death of his daughter, Sarah. No longer was the war in some far-off Eastern European country suffering under the yoke of an evil despot.
Rather, it was brought right to Sam’s doorstep in very personal terms that he couldn’t ignore. Vitally, no longer was Sam Fisher a blank slate upon which his myriad of handlers would impose their will for him to carry out their plans; here, he actually felt like a proper, layered human being, appearing as a flawed creature of love, rage, despondence and sensitivity that the series never allowed him to show before now.
As someone who hasn’t got any little ones of my own – but who knows the very real pain of losing a loved one to powers beyond my control – Conviction’s narrative had me glancing at current events on the news a lot more intently than I otherwise would. Indeed, the very idea that your friends and loved ones can be whisked away from your grasp underscores the notion that our world is sadly a lot less safe than we assume it to be.
Make no mistake, though; Sam was very much a much more emotive and driven figure than he ever had been before, this was still the Sam Fisher that we’ve always loved, with a decidedly acerbic sense of humour and a mountain of dry quips to be used at a moment’s notice.
Though the crux of Splinter Cell: Conviction’s narrative was invariably much more personal than anything that had gone before it, the intimacy of its plot certainly didn’t detract from the scope or spectacle of the whole affair. Sam’s ultimately vengeful odyssey would take him from the back alleys of Washington DC and into the very heart of the Oval Office itself. It was epic stuff, and brilliantly, it all felt much more exciting than the usual garish factories and facilities that were so routinely used in past entries in the Splinter Cell series.
Perhaps more than that, Splinter Cell: Conviction filled a hole I never knew I had in my gaming diet: a longing for a Splinter Cell title that embraced a much more violent spectacle, but one that was also invariably more accessible than the rigid stealth template embraced by its predecessors.
Moving away from the Splinter Cell of old
Speaking of accessibility, the biggest departure that Splinter Cell: Conviction heralded over its decidedly more stealthcore predecessors was the creative latitude that it afforded the player to deal with the majority of its scenarios.
No longer rooted to the instant fail state of being spotted – and then having to start again with the controller rattling a little more than it did before the last attempt – Conviction followed through on its namesake by allowing gamers to forge their own route to success, and not constantly punishing them because their methods didn’t always follow the letter and word of the pages from the Stealth Gaming 101 handbook.
Nowhere did I personally feel this departure more keenly than in the introduction of Splinter Cell: Conviction’s completely refreshed and reworked takedown system, which allowed me to be much bolder (and by turns stupid), than I ever dared to be in any of the previous Splinter Cell games.
John Wick would be proud
In the right circumstances, takedowns could often chain into a gracefully macabre waltz of face and limb-breaking violence, as Fisher would nimbly glide from one terrified foe to the next with a slight press of the analogue stick, casually and efficiently separating them from their mortal coils with ruthless aplomb.
The feeling of pulling off such smooth feats of murder was dangerously intoxicating too, and as some sort of digital crack addict, I would seek to replicate that same three to five-second feedback loop over and over, before wondering why I was ending up with more holes than a Michael Bay script when the enemies grew wise to my ‘tactics’.
Brilliantly, Splinter Cell: Conviction’s takedowns dovetailed neatly into its ‘Mark and Execute’ system, where Sam could mark up to three targets, and depending on how many takedowns he had pulled off previously, he could execute one or all of them at once in a cinematic bit of slo-mo that even the Wachowskis would overheat at the sight of. So yeah, in case you didn’t know it already, Splinter Cell: Conviction was secretly the best John Wick game ever, and for those flourishes alone I found myself drawn to its substantial charm very early into the experience.
Stealth action rated ‘E’ for everyone
For a series that previously prided itself on making me feel toweringly paranoid and second-guess every action, Splinter Cell: Conviction’s free-wheeling, tactile approach to stealth and combat proved to be quite the jarring design approach for series stalwarts who knew little else than uncompromising, instant-fail stealth which allowed for little or no margin for error.
Don’t get me wrong; there are still some situations in Splinter Cell: Conviction which follow that old template. However, such instances are the overwhelming exception to the rule rather than the status quo. In short, Splinter Cell: Conviction had become much more accessible and far less stressful, and as someone who was on the wrong side of 30 with a thinning (now barren) scalp and an already busy work life, this change of pace was greatly welcome indeed.
It wasn’t just the hardcore nature of past Splinter Cell games that was streamlined in Splinter Cell: Conviction, either; whole systems had been removed too. Our Sam could no longer move or hide dead bodies, nor could he knock enemies unconscious. In fact, all the equipment that would support such endeavours was also missing from the game. Likewise, lockpicking and hacking minigames were also nowhere to be found in Splinter Cell: Conviction, which was just as well, since both were little more than head-scratching diversions in previous games that very often pushed me close to a self-lobotomy with a pair of rusty spoons.
Throwing out the old to make way for the new
Perhaps the most sacrilegious thing that Splinter Cell: Conviction pulled off was how it did away with Sam’s trademark shadow concealment mechanics. Gone was Sam Fisher’s iconic green, three-point night-vision goggles that were previously used to gauge light. Instead, Splinter Cell: Conviction let the player know if Sam was properly obscured in darkness by turning the screen to black and white when he was concealed in shadow.
Personally, this was one change I could have done without, but there were times where the juxtaposition of monochromatic character models and backgrounds against Splinter Cell: Conviction’s colourful Mark and Execute UI gave the impression of a Sin City style aesthetic – so it got a pass. Just.
Additionally, another new feature that Conviction brought to the franchise, which would later be used in Splinter Cell: Blacklist and other Ubisoft efforts such as Assassin’s Creed, was the ‘Last Known Position’ mechanic, which kicked in as soon as Sam breaks the line of sight of an enemy – and a visual silhouette appeared indicating the spot where the enemy thought Sam was. As you can well imagine, I had much glee when exploiting this, flanking my foes for an easy takedown. While such a feature reeked of stealth training wheels, the fact remains that both newbies to the series and burnouts such as myself could find this concession to be absolutely vital in ensuring we didn’t punch our collective television screens in the face.
Violence with a point
In functional terms, Sam’s emotionally resonant crusade found itself anchored in the torture scenes that Splinter Cell: Conviction brought to the table. Certainly, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, it would be reasonable to mistake Sam Fisher’s visceral escapades for Volition’s 2005 take on The Punisher, such is the level of sheer brutality on display.
Whether you were smashing the back of some poor fool’s skull through a filled urinal, or snapping the arm joint of some other unfortunate before slamming them through the nearest TV screen, the manner in which Sam’s rage bubbled over and manifested itself during these interrogation sequences was just one more way in which Ubisoft Montreal demonstrably made Sam Fisher appear as a wounded man, rather than the emotionally bereft and blankly blunt instrument seen in previous outings.
It’s important to also recognise that the story in Splinter Cell: Conviction wasn’t just tailor-made to tug on those heartstrings, but it also served the larger maxim that the series embraced at this point, in that like the rest of the package, the narrative was accessible because it was compelling and was filled with real stakes that actually meant something. More of this in future please, Ubisoft – this is the good stuff.
Oh split-screen campaign co-op, how I have missed thou!
Once a month, every month and usually on a Friday night, my long-time (and long-suffering) friend would make the trip up to my Devonshire abode from his home in deepest, darkest Cornwall. Showing up to my door with a mile-wide grin and clutching a portable MP3 player stuffed with all sorts of ear-rending rock and metal songs, an armful of booze (not including any Tesco Value Cider, pointedly) and a spare Xbox 360 controller, the trajectory of such nights were wonderfully predictable: we were going to be playing Splinter Cell: Conviction in split-screen co-op and get hopelessly sloshed in the process. Huzzah!
You see, Splinter Cell: Conviction’s split-screen campaign lent itself extraordinarily well to gauging just how shitfaced you were. My friend and I would start out all stealthy and poised, playing the game correctly as we shot out lights to mask our approach, took down foes in complete silence and dual Mark and Executed multiple enemies with the sort of smooth synergy that we felt like we were Sean Bean and Pierce Brosnan in the facility bit of GoldenEye before everything went tumbling down the swanny. Bohemian Rhapsody was playing in the background, there were still some cool original flavour Doritos left and everything was fine.
Naturally, however, the toll of Jack Daniels could not be ignored by even the hardiest of human bodies for long. As one might well expect, the devolution of careful, pin-drop stealth into AC/DC-blaring, door-kicking and shotgun-blasting mayhem ended up being something of an amusing, and sadly frequent, highlight. Again, just the simple fact that Splinter Cell: Conviction allowed this sort of reckless yet successful abandon was a testament to just how accessible and enabling the game was in its very design.
Co-op multiplayer with a fiendish sting in the tail
Oh! And speaking of Splinter Cell: Conviction’s split-screen shenanigans, it also had a sting in the tail which very few games have managed to match before or since its release. Once you reached the final co-op mission, you found yourself turning on your partner in a battle to death.
“We have to kill each other now?”
“Nah, the game’s having a josh.”
“No, no it’s not.”
As soon as my friend and I discovered this for the first time, the effect was both immediate and traumatic. Initially unsure as to what was going on, we turned off the budget MP3 player that was spitting out non-stealthy rock anthems all evening, and instead turned to look at each other with a kind of dull, gormless shock that clearly indicated to any observers that we were both not only hilariously drowning in liquid sin, but also on the verge of experiencing a series of mini-strokes.
Events took their course and due to distinctly haggard set of circumstances, I ended up being the last one standing (it wasn’t because of skill, trust me). Glancing over to my friend, he seemed to be happy with the result, which to me was odd because he seemed the most surprised that we would have to face off in the first place, though later I would learn that his desire for revenge was just extremely well concealed.
You see, after our session on Splinter Cell: Conviction (since referred to as ‘Fishering’), we popped off to our local rock club where they had massive great kangaroo boxing suits that you could climb into, with the end result being that two sloshed folks would provide endless flailing entertainment to onlookers. Naturally, being more like a pair of sentient alcohol elementals than human beings at that point, we obliged the audience, got into our suits and went at it like a pair of Ric Flair impersonators who’d just discovered happy hour.
After a minute or so of desperate flailing, we both took a rest and it was here that my ‘friend’ would exact his revenge – tackling me mid-drink at waist height and causing me to crash through the nearest table. Thus the lesson, in case you missed it, is that Splinter Cell: Conviction is the murderer of friendships, though in our case I think we were honestly too sloshed to care.
Even today, Splinter Cell: Conviction’s co-op multiplayer remains a mainstay, and one which still begs us to throw ourselves against to see which will last longer – our wits, or our alcohol. If we played today, I expect the result to be as predictable, and no less thrilling, than it has been in all of our previous encounters.
A blueprint for the future
As we eagerly await Ubisoft to do the right thing and resurrect Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell for PC and the current generation of consoles at E3 2018, it seems extremely likely that many of the radical design decisions made in Splinter Cell: Conviction will bleed through into the DNA of whatever the next Splinter Cell effort ends up being called.
As it turns out, and though it became ultimately divisive, Splinter Cell: Conviction is still my example of how you make a stealth game exciting, and it was the first Splinter Cell in a long time that had been crafted with conviction despite the developer acknowledging the inherent risk involved with changing up the series’ seemingly stagnant template. And that, that is also how you make Splinter Cell exciting again, too.
So, all’s well that ends well. I was no longer sworn off the Splinter Cell franchise, my Cornish friend and I still have seemingly endless fun with Splinter Cell: Conviction’s fab split-screen co-op modes, and I still haven’t touched a drop of Tesco Value Cider, despite having enough Clubcard points to fund (and then sink) my own battleship. Yay me, right?
- Playing through the local co-op campaign with a friend remains an evergreen pleasure
- Sam Fisher finally felt like the tactile killing machine he was always supposed to be
- A story with substantial emotional heft that just wasn’t there before
- Provided a welcoming and accessible gateway into the stealth genre
- Quick-shoot system can sometimes make encounters too easy
- Missing stealth elements will frustrate series and genre veterans
An imperfect but ultimately deft refresh of the franchise, Splinter Cell: Conviction remains a muscular offering where tactile design and emotionally charged narrative combine to open up both the series and the stealth genre to a larger audience than ever before.