As Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was the last game I had played in any depth, I put Splinter Cell Conviction in the drive looking forward to a break from the FPS arena but expecting it to be hard to adjust to a more tactical/evasion-based playing mentality.
The first thing that hits you about this game is the polished design style. The production standards are consistently high throughout, from the cinematic cut scenes to the in-game objectives being projected on the environment as you progress. The music and sound design deserve a special mention, with convincing voice acting and an orchestral-industrial soundtrack which increases in aggression with the tension in each scene. The game is driven along with strong narrative techniques, using flashbacks and flashforwards in extravagant cutscenes which are smoothly integrated with the in-game action.
The main combat mechanic revolves around "earning" an execution move by performing a hand-to-hand takedown, then using that execution power to quickly take out 2 or more pre-marked enemies in a single button aim/shoot cinematic. This is supported by a remarkably smooth cover/climb system which allows you to scale the environments to mark enemies and set up the perfect execution finish in each area. Repeating this technique gets dull during long sessions, although the map layout and enemy placement changes a great deal during the campaign. The difficulty increases sharply throughout the game also requiring you to quickly assess environments for hiding places and continually be on the move.
Most weapons let you lock in two "marks", whereas some of the more advanced ones allow you up to four when upgraded, greatly increasing your effectiveness. Most of the thrills come from the suspense of waiting for your final "mark" to wander into the position you need him in to making your move without being spotted. A room of five enemies can be cleared by boldly grabbing (or dropping on) one enemy to earn your execute move, and then immediately using it to take out the remaining four before they can shoot you, provided they have been pre-marked and are within range. The thrill of performing this perfectly is a good incentive for those like me with FPS-level attention spans to spend the time crawling and climbing around first.
The game supports a range of playing styles, so patient players can choose to wait for enemies to gradually spread out and silently pick them off one by one, or go for the more direct shoot-move-shoot-move approach while they are still close together. The screen turns to black and white when you are hidden, making it easy to judge when you are at risk of being seen, and the "Last known position" feature kicks in when you are spotted and shows you where enemies think you are. When this happens, attackers will begin to flank this location so that you can position yourself in a good spot to take them out. The ability to move bodies is a feature that will be sorely missed by stealth game fans, but victims can be grabbed, moved and then executed somewhere that their body will not arouse suspicion.
The developers have paid important attention to AI and although it is far from perfect, it does a good job of adding variety to gameplay that would quickly become too repetitive without it. At first enemies' sweeps will seem to follow a pattern; but the longer you wait to make your move, the more random and widespread their searching becomes. There are very few hiding places where you will not eventually be discovered, meaning you need to plan ahead, keep moving and close in on lone enemies in a predator-like fashion when the opportunity presents itself.
The weapon and gadget upgrade system adds a little bit of variety but leaves a great deal to be desired. Using different weapons makes very little difference realistically, and often you end up using your primary pistol for long periods and forget that you even have a rifle or submachine gun available. There are quite a few gadgets available such as remote mines and throwable sticky cameras; but again it is easy to forget they are there as they are not really needed. The night/heat vision goggles do however come in very useful as they allow you to see and mark enemies through walls - a must-have for the later stages where the elite enemies are equipped with them, making it very hard to hide when your last known position is continually being revealed.
As you progress through the game you are required to interrogate suspects for information. This is played using an interactive cutscene, with a single button prompt appearing in between the dialogue which performs a punch, headbutt, throw or context-specific head smash depending on your position in the environment. For example, if you move your victim next to a car before pressing, you will smash their head through the window. These interrogation scenes are where you extract key pieces of information for your next objective and move the plot along. Although the story is delivered with a lot of conviction (see what I did there?), it quickly degenerates into the cliché huge-terrorist-plot -to-destroy-America-and-you-need-to-kill-the-entire-enemy-force-and-save-the-world-whilst-also-having-a-personal-vendetta-type scenario after a reasonably engaging start. It doesn't bother me that a game has such an over the top story, but I couldn't help feeling like such a nice narrative system was slightly wasted on the Michael Bay-like story.
The multiplayer modes offer a lot of options for playing online: co-operative play of game maps, co-operative defence against waves of enemies and a versus mode in which you need to hunt down a single human opponent in amongst AI controlled enemies. All of the game's features are carried over into the multiplayer, making it immense fun being able to voice chat strategically and give each other information about enemy positions as you play. Interestingly, the weapon and gadget upgrade system is shared between multiplayer and singleplayer games, meaning you can select all of your upgraded weapons from the campaign mode when playing online.
Splinter Cell Conviction is a really good, polished game and I am having serious trouble thinking of enough bad points to justify only giving it an 8.5/10. It's only crime is not being an incredible game, which I think is needed to break the 9 score. There are enough thrills and pleasurable moments to make this worth buying for the singleplayer mode, and the multiplayer adds a great deal of extra playing time and added value. This is also a game which you would want to play through a second time. The main drawbacks are the lack of features which feel like they should be there, such as the ability to move bodies, or more depth to the weapon upgrade system. While gamers who prefer more confrontational-style tactics will find this an accessible route into the Splinter Cell universe, all of the evasive tactics and hiding in the shadows are still the basis of the action and victory can only be won with tactical positioning and carefully planned movement. Most of the scenarios have been carefully designed to cater for a variety of playing styles, without sacrificing fun for either.