For the fifth game in a series that has always been a beacon of excellent stealth design philosophy, Splinter Cell: Conviction is a surprisingly terrible stealth game.
In fact, I’m not even sure Conviction is a stealth game at all. As a man who has been referred to in various official media as “the greatest stealth operative in the world” for quite a while now, Sam Fisher is either being spectacularly misrepresented, has lost his touch, or simply doesn’t give a shit anymore.
In the previous games, Sam was never the all-guns-blazing action hero. He was the grey man, staying in the shadows and using diversionary tactics and his surroundings to isolate his enemies. He was a specialist, granted, but his speciality was keeping out of sight and out of reach.
In Conviction Sam is a completely different character. Now he has no allegiances and no rules to follow, so he has no qualms about killing everyone that stands between him and where he needs to be. To make matters worse, he now has the tools to be able to do that without the need for stealth, which breaks the concept of the Splinter Cell series altogether.
Tonally, this is the direction the series has been heading in for quite some time, and it isn’t altogether unwelcome. Double Agent toyed with elements of dubious morality and frequently placed Sam in typical anti-hero situations, culminating in the murder (potentially at his own hand) of his best friend and boss, Irving Lambert. As a character arc, the inexorable downward spiral from consummate professional to remorseless killer was unavoidable and expected.
My problems with Conviction stem from the fact that this attitude has spilled over into the mechanics, many of which not only fail to conform to, but actively rebel against, the traditional stealth tropes upon which this series has built itself. I’m not too far in yet, but the first three or four missions I’ve played have been significantly hampered by these problems, so I wanted to use this space to identify them. Maybe we can even suggest some potential solutions.
Firstly, and most importantly, the way handguns work is a huge, game-breaking issue. The default pistol is suppressed, and has unlimited ammunition. It can be blindfired totally accurately from behind cover without Sam having to expose himself at all. It can be fired from ledges, pipes, behind human shields, and if the camera is angled correctly, it can occasionally be fired through solid objects. It can be replaced with better models, which can in turn be upgraded individually. This is a massive problem.
In previous instalments, Sam has always carried a pistol around. On the harder difficulties, it had very limited ammunition. It was horrendously inaccurate, it didn’t do much damage to anything other than an exposed head, and it was cumbersome to use. This is preferable to me. In Conviction, it is all too easy to stay behind a single piece of cover and pick off everyone in the room.
The solution here is remarkably simple: either remove the ability to blindfire with 100% accuracy, or make the pistol’s ammunition finite. Either of these changes would significantly alter how the game is played; forcing the player to move into advantageous positions in order to eliminate enemies hand-to-hand, or encouraging them to avoid hostiles entirely in order to save ammo and minimize risk.
These issues segue into those inherent in the Mark & Execute system, which is new to the series and requires some brief explanation. Whenever Sam dispatches an enemy using a melee takedown, he is granted the ability to “Mark” a number of targets and then “Execute” them all at once using a single button – each takedown equating to a single use of the ability. They don’t stack, however, which means that when the ability has been used, the player must use another “Takedown” (which is the proper Splinter Cell nomenclature, apparently) before they can use M&E again. This is a smart, well-balanced system which allows for tactical play. However, each weapon type offers a different number of potential “Marks”, with the pistol offering the most, further eliminating the need to use any other weapon at all. This fundamentally undermines the system, which could easily reward experimentation by, say, giving handguns the least number of potential Marks, and non-suppressed weaponry the most. That way, the player could remove up to four enemies at a time, but only by giving away their position.
What all this stuff essentially boils down to is a complete lack of the welcome vulnerability which typically characterises stealth games, which is a shame. The Splinter Cell series until this point has always handled that very well, and along with its fluctuating focus on both lethal and non-lethal styles of play, the overall experience in each of the preceding games has been almost exclusively excellent.
I understand the logic behind a lot of these decisions, and I don’t think Ubisoft is necessarily incorrect for designing the game in such a way that Sam’s personality and predicament are expressed and emphasised through the mechanics. Following the ending of Double Agent, Sam’s emotional scarring, mistrust in his own government and desire for vengeance are his primary motivations, and these gameplay elements (which focus on fast, brutal aggression far more than slow, intelligent subterfuge) reflect the development of his character in the time between the two games. While Conviction is inherently a bad stealth game and a bad Splinter Cell game by virtue of its vast departure from the established style and tone, it’s still a perfectly competent, above-average action game in its own right. It has a number of lovely aesthetic quirks, a great cover system, a new interrogation feature which completely embodies the development of Sam’s character, and the mechanics work reasonably well when the game is approached with action rather than stealth in mind. I’m not far enough into the game to really be able to judge the whole thing properly, but these are some of the issues that came to mind in the first few missions. I have at least one more post to write about this game in lieu of a full review, so hopefully between now and then my opinions on it as an example of stealth will be sufficiently challenged. Here’s to hoping, folks.