The hardcore stealth fan, the guy who's willing to attempt the same section over and over again until he can slip through undetected, is someone I've never really understood. I know it works for some people and I understand that they enjoy the methodical learning of enemy patterns, but I always just ended up frustrated. Splinter Cell provided more opportunities to fight back in its most recent iterations, sure, but it never felt like I was playing the right way. As I floundered my way through, getting spotted and clumsily battling my way out of blunders, it was hard not to feel like Hardcore Stealth Guy was right behind me, laughing into his sleeve.
But Splinter Cell: Conviction wasn't supposed to be just for that guy. This was supposed to be the Splinter Cell for all of us -- and it succeeds! ... Well, kind of. Basically. It basically succeeds.
Once again playing as Sam Fisher, you're turning the tables on your former employer Third Echelon as payback for a betrayal I wouldn't dare to detail here. Suffice to say, Sam's owed some copious amounts of murder and mayhem, and he's getting paid in full, to quote many bad action movie posters.
As a player who never quite loved Splinter Cell, the genius bits of Conviction made themselves apparent to me almost immediately. Stealth is still at a premium here, as levels are infinitely easier to clear while your location is secret. But once you are (in my case, inevitably) spotted, there's fundamentally a second combat system that's deployed.
The basis of this secondary system is "Mark and Execute." Tag enemies at any time with the right bumper and then, provided you've killed an enemy with hand-to-hand combat to earn the ability, you're able to instantly kill between two and four of your marks depending on the weapon. This can be used to clear a room, but it's also a great insurance policy, if you're tagging enemies when things get tense. Changing "Oh crap you caught me and now I'm dead" to "Oh crap, you caught me and I just straight up executed four of your dudes" is hugely empowering.
The other big combat shift is that you're able to see, via a faint outline, the last locations enemies knew you occupied -- and, by extension, where they'll be gunning for. A mixture of these two mechanics creates a fantastic and accessible take on stealth combat that makes you feel like a deadly jungle cat rather than ... well, a pussy. More over, the tension is frequently eased by some welcomed mission variety, like a straight shoot 'em up in the Middle East and a foot chase.
No matter what you're tasked with, that information is related to you totally through the game world, where objectives are frequently projected across roofs and walls. It's more than just a stylistic choice though; integrating the information into the environment makes missions feel more like Sam's internal impulses rather than commands from on high. It's a fantastic choice, and one that I'd hope to see replicated by other games if it wouldn't be such an obvious rip-off.
I had a blast with most of it, but I can't really herald this as the second coming of the series, as much as that would please me. In the game's closing hours (and it's only got around seven of them), Conviction falls into the same bad habits that necessitated its franchise's revamp in the first place. Areas swarm with opposition and are solvable only through mindless, frustrating trial and error, heck, there's even a "get spotted and fail" segment. To old school Splinter Cell fans, this will likely feel like a callback to the series' roots, but to me, someone who was just learning to love the franchise, it was something more akin to mild betrayal.
It was a letdown, to be sure, but not one that would keep me from recommending the whole package, as the good parts of the campaign (and they form the majority) are really good. There's also the co-op to consider. If "Mark and Executing" made me feel like a puma, then bringing down a small army with a friend, herding enemies away from the pack and bringing them down one by one, is probably the closest I'll ever get to being the world's greatest superhero: A velociraptor.
So, does Sam finally reach his full potential in the eyes of us Splinter Cell cynics? No, not quite. But you're going to have a hell of a lot of fun finding that out.
Editor's note: This review is based on early review code provided by Ubisoft on Xbox 360.