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Review: Splinter Cell Conviction

If there's one thing to take away from Splinter Cell Conviction, it's that you shouldn't make Sam Fisher angry. Bad things happen when he has you in sights. Third Echelon's top spy comes out of retirement, acting as a rogue agent investigating his daughter's death, and gets caught up in a massive government conspiracy. Accompanying Fisher's new attitude are brand new gameplay elements, including some questionable interrogation methods. The game no longer comes to an end or hits players with impossible odds when they are detected. Instead, it shifts to an action mode where players have a chance to escape or try to turn the situation around to their advantage. It's a tougher and meaner Splinter Cell experience, and a welcome change for gamers who aren't great at stealth games.

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Splinter Cell Conviction plays out like a thriller movie, with hints and movie sequences projected on building walls and other objects to help guide players through. Graphics turn to black and white when players are hidden in shadows but enemies and key objects stay in color to highlight them, which can sometimes lead to some odd effects like patrol officers wearing extremely brightly colored shoes or shirts. Although players have a reasonable chance of survival should they be discovered, Conviction still puts a significant amount of emphasis on stealth. Players have the option to shoot out lights to create shadows, sneak up behind enemies, and quietly take them out. In some cases, a silenced headshot from the shadows will quickly take out a target. However, the sound detection feel a little off, as enemies two rooms away can hear a light bulbs shattering through closed doors and walls, even when the player is using a silenced pistol. Unless there's a light switch handy, there's no way to quietly turn off the lights. Noises will cause the AI to become suspicious and it will actively start looking for the player. Players can't hide bodies, so the AI automatically goes on full alert once it discovers a corpse. That's when things get really tricky.

To help things along, players can use an ability called Mark and Execute. Put simply, a player can mark enemies and objects and press a single button to swiftly take them all out in rapid succession before they have a chance to react. Players must first take out an enemy using hand-to-hand combat before targets can be marked, and upgrading certain weapons will increase the number of possible marks. However, there's no way to store multiple uses of this ability, so whether you stealthily takedown one target or ten in a row, it will only enable one use. The ability comes in quite handy for quickly clearing out a room and requires a certain degree of skill and judgment to pull off.

Another new feature is the Last Known position, where being detected by the enemy will leave behind a ghost image of where the enemy thinks you are. Players have the opportunity to flank enemies as they focus all their attention on where they think you are. While this feature is extremely useful, it can sometimes make the game a little too easy, especially on levels where there are a lot of windows or ledges. The game starts to feel a little mechanical when you can shoot an enemy to reveal yourself, then circle around and pick off another member of the group, and repeat the process until they're all gone.

To help mix things up, players have access to a variety of gadgets that range from straightforward frag grenades to EMP grenades to blow out the lights and stun enemies. However, the lights only stay off for a short while, and there doesn't seem to be any way to permanently blow out the lights in an area except to individually shoot them. Players can also use cameras to peek under doors and mark enemies, but this device loses much of its usefulness once players pick up the sonar goggles that lets them see through walls. Fisher's entire arsenal can be upgraded for increased effectiveness and they carry over to other aspects of the game. Although there's a nice range of weapons, we really don't see the point in having guns without silencer attachments in a stealth game. While some might take enemy body armor into consideration, headshots (and sometime multi-headshots) are pretty easy.

The artificial intelligence still remains predictable to a certain extent, but enemy behavior is randomized just enough to keep players on their toes. We noticed that soldiers make subtle adjustments to their search paths as we replayed different chapters. The AI will also try to fortify a position and refuse to move forward if they think the player has set up an ambush point, or try a flanking maneuver if players pick off enemies from one spot for too long. However, holding position often seems to backfire on the enemies, since it's hardly a big deal to circle around and start picking them off one at a time.

While the main campaign is relatively short, the game makes up for with a series of Denied Ops challenges. Players can indulge their inner predator with Hunter mode, where they're tasked with clearing out all enemies using any means necessary, but detection will mean that they'll call in reinforcements. The other mode requires players to defend an EMP bomb from attackers trying to take possession of it. What really brings the Denied Ops together is the ability to work with a partner. There's even a cooperative campaign that acts as a prequel to the main storyline. Partners can work together in a number of ways. For example, one player can mark targets while the other goes to the right vantage point to take them all out. Similarly, one can draw attention while the other sneaks up from behind to take them out. Online multiplayer on the PC is handled through Uplay service, which is still a very new. The game doesn't allow players to join midway through a mission and there's no server browser, so unless you already have friends to play with or willing to use the Uplay social matching service, joining a mutliplayer game is extremely hit or miss.

Additionally, players can purchase upgrades for their costumes to improve armor or ammo and gadget capacity. However, upgrade purchases aren't universal. Players will need to purchase upgrade slots for each individual costume, but they don't differ outside of aesthetics, so there's no point in purchasing upgrades for more than one outfit. There's also little sense in upgrading ammunition capacity, since pistols have remarkable accuracy, decent range, and unlimited bullets.

Lastly, we want to address the issue of Ubisoft's always-on DRM. Normally, we'd try to overlook the publisher's methods and focus specifically on the game, but we really couldn't ignore it in this case. We don't know if it's because of a spotty internet connection or if there was some signal loss with the DRM servers, but there were multiple instances when the pause screen would suddenly appear until communication was reestablished. This is extremely intrusive in a game like Splinter Cell Conviction, where we were often either trying to execute a carefully timed plan or running away from enemies. Although the pauses were brief, interruptions like these really hurt the experience, especially if two or more occur in the same game session.

With that in mind, we can't justify recommending player pick up Splinter Cell Conviction at full price. Generally speaking, the game balances stealth and action elements nicely, even though some of the features are a little too easily exploited. If you're very confident in your internet connection or don't mind sudden interruptions in gameplay, Splinter Cell Conviction is certainly worth checking out when there's a sale, significant price drop, or if Ubisoft decides to revise its DRM technology.

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