Sam Fisher is back. And he is really, really mad.

To anyone that had played the older Splinter Cell games, this would be reason enough to celebrate. Except for one little detail. This time around, ol Sam is up against a foe that renders him helpless. This time, the enemy is so abhorrently vile that even a hard ass like him can do little but look skywards and scream a litany of curses that would make a sailor go crying home to his mommy. I am of course, referring to publisher Ubisoft and its implementation of what must be the worst DRM ever conceived. I ranted about this in detail earlier but it bears repeating. This thing is obtrusive, insulting, horrendous and just plain wrong.  Before getting into the review of the game proper, I must get this out of the way. Splinter Cell : Conviction has the sort of DRM that can render the game unplayable. The only time I could play through it was at night when my ISP wasn’t as “busy”. For some reason, Ubisoft thinks that looking at this every 40 seconds (I am not exaggerating) is fun:

So there. It seems Ubi has learned nothing from the Assassin’s Creed 2 backlash. For the record, I tried playing the game across 3 systems and 2 separate internet connections (both Airtel broadband) and the result was the same. It was impossible to play during the day. Period.

So, if you are ok with this and STILL want to know more about the game itself, read on.

Sam Fisher (the hero of the Splinter Cell franchise) is nothing if not a modern day ninja. As an operative for Third Echelon, he has access to the kind of weaponry and gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. He’s acrobatic, athletic, has more close quarter moves than Steven Segal and can snap necks like twigs. Hell, slap a cape on him and he could serve as a replacement for Batman.

However, the Splinter Cell series has always been about stealth above everything else. Gizmos and bad assery aside, an ideal mission would have Sam going deep inside enemy territory, getting the job done and then get the hell out without anyone even knowing he was there. It’s here that Conviction takes the franchise in a new direction. Yes, you still have to stay in the shadows but, this time Sam is out for blood. It’s no longer about remaining unseen to hack a computer. It’s about remaining unseen till the time you decide to unleash hell. Sam is not an undercover operative but a panther stalking its prey. This might upset die hard Splinter Cell enthusiasts but does make for much more action oriented style of play. It’s interesting that most of those who came down hard on this change would not be bothered if the game lost its “Splinter Cell” tag. It is also important to note that most of the stealth is centered around finding cover, i.e., sticking close to objects a la “Gears of War”. To those of you who are rolling their eyes at the words “action oriented”, fear not, stealth is still of vital import. Going in guns blazing will get you killed almost every time. If you are still unconvinced, take comfort in the fact that there are parts where being seen means an instant mission fail.

Conviction does a passable job with its story. It’s typical of the franchise, i.e., conspiracy, technological doomsday and back stabbings aplenty. Don’t expect anything that stands up to close scrutiny however. Where the game shines is in its presentation. Conviction nailed this one. Gone are the old load out screens and mission briefings. This time, there is nothing to take you out of the action. Objectives are projected onto the scenery in a visually pleasing way complete with occasional flashbacks. It’s something that’s never been done before and is undoubtedly cool. Even the trusty old “light meter” is gone. Now, if Fisher is hidden, the game switches to black and white (except for targets and important environmental objects). The engine is pretty and the moody lighting adds to the overall somber feel of the story. Lip syncing could have been better but this is a small gripe. The soundtrack is superb and adds a whole new layer to the tension prevalent in the game. Voice work is excellent and Michael Ironside as Fisher is awesome as ever. Production levels for the game are obviously very high.

The controls for the most part are smooth and adapt well to a mouse and keyboard set up. The only thing that annoyed me a little was the fact that since almost all object interaction takes place with the space bar; the player needs to be very mindful of where Sam is looking. I frequently found myself opening a door instead of “peeking under” as I wanted to.

Sam is just as agile as ever, his repertoire of moves is now complemented with the ability to trigger “executions”. Essentially, mini quicktime events that when triggered by the player, result in instant kills. Players earn “execution points” whenever they take out an enemy with a stealthy melee attack. These points can then be used to “mark targets” (to a maximum of 4 depending on equipment) for instant headshots with the press of a button. This comes in very handy when you have a few machine-gun toting bad guys behind a door you absolutely must go through. It might seem like a gimmick but is pretty much essential as it is virtually impossible to go through most missions without leaving at least a few corpses behind. Plus, it looks cool as hell. As I mentioned earlier, stealth is important and a carefully timed execution can mean the difference between a text book mission and having every alarm in the joint go off. Especially when you consider that bodies can’t be carried anymore (WTF?!).

In the event you are seen, you still have a chance of evasion. The game will show a ghost image of your last known position that enemies will approach. This can actually be used as an effective baiting technique for more aggressive players. The AI is surprisingly competent and goons will often try to flank you and gain some sort of tactical advantage in combat. That being said, they can act as lobotomized morons on occasion. One thing that began to get old real quick was their constant chatter. Listening to repetitive sound clips is not exactly immersive. I actually ended up killing a few of these potty mouths just to shut them the hell up.

Unlike the earlier versions, you can’t interrogate anyone you want. Close quarter take downs will result in either instant kills or using someone as a human shield. The interrogation is reserved only for key NPCs that you will end up beating the crap out of. Objects can be used to interrogate people, usually by bashing their heads into them. It’s something similar to what was seen in the “Punisher” title a few years ago only, less gory. My only complaint here was that none of the interrogations were as visually shocking as the first one you carry out in this game. This seems like a missed opportunity.

Level design is good. With the whole game being set in urban environments, I was a little concerned that different levels will end up looking repetitive. Thankfully this is not the case as Conviction takes the player across varied urban themes. Industrial warehouses, hi-tech buildings, war torn areas, commercial offices, amusement parks, even daylight city areas and more are covered. Add to this the multiple ways in which Sam can approach objectives and you have good incentive to go replay most levels and try different things. This is a good thing as the main single player campaign only lasts about 5-6 hours.

The game meshes the single player achievements nicely with a point system that carries over its rewards into the multiplayer side of things. The player earns points for many actions in the game, taking down targets with executions for example. These points can then be used to upgrade weapons and equipment in the single player campaign. The upgrades will then be available in multiplayer. So if you really like that fully upgraded MP5, you can use it in multiplayer.

Sadly, useless matchmaking and pointless DRM prevented me from sampling any of the multiplayer action. Whatever I have heard about this on the console side of things promises to be enjoyable but the complete omission of text or voice chat is unforgivable.  It becomes even harder to take when you consider that this only applies to the PC version. It’s a pity because I was looking forward to the co-op campaign more than anything. As it stands, however, I have been unable to connect with anyone online. Even if I do, I see little point in teaming up with someone I can’t even communicate with. I will try convincing one of my buddies to give this a shot on LAN and report back if this changes.

All said and done, I enjoyed the time I spent with Conviction. The single player was short but fun. If it wasn’t for the fact that as of now, the multiplayer is just not playable, this would be well worth the money (DRM will not affect my score). As it stands, it’s merely good. A bit more polish and this would have been truly spectacular.

Sorry Sam ol buddy, sometimes even victory can taste like ashes.

Final score : 8.2/10