Sam Fisher is mad--and after playing the PC version of Splinter Cell: Conviction, you might feel a little cranky too. Conviction tells Sam's conspiracy-driven story in a brilliant way, and its slick execution moves are fun to perform, particularly in the game's cooperative mode. Unfortunately, these sharp strengths are dulled by a number of issues that will have PC players feeling like second-class citizens. The co-op play that made the Xbox 360 version a winner is seriously injured here due to the mind-boggling omission of voice and text chat, and the precision of the keyboard and mouse controls dissolve much of the tension the short campaign tries to generate. Glitches and bugs, some related to Conviction's stringent online-only copy protection, also undercut the goodwill the game's memorable moments inspire. All of this white noise obscures the great game lurking behind it, making Conviction the latest console-to-PC port that fails to do its platform justice.
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Sam Fisher is the gravel-voiced protagonist who is as much a part of Splinter Cell's identity as goggles and guns. The murder of his daughter Sarah has siphoned away the hope and joy in Sam's life, and he's left with a single focus: find her killer. A few old friends put Sam on the trail, but that trail isn't a straightforward one (is it ever?), and Sam soon finds himself wrapped up in a conspiracy far greater than it first appears. You encounter a few legitimate surprises along the way, though the story isn't as intriguing as the way in which it is told. The text of your current mission is stretched across walls and angled up pipes, as are simple indications of Sam's emotional state. ("Anger," indicates one display; "Guilt," shows another.) Black-and-white flashbacks play out on certain surfaces as if someone is broadcasting Sam's thoughts through an old movie projector. This environmental integration is remarkably effective, broadcasting updates and emotional states as if they are burned into his soul and then etched directly onto his retinas. Actor Michael Ironside again does a good job as Sam; some scenes are thick with his desperation and exasperation. The supporting cast keeps up with him, making it easy to identify with the old acquaintances that have his back.
That something has changed is clear from the moment you lead Sam through the initial level. Sam can still crouch and slink of course, but Conviction's stealth is centered around its cover system. You can take cover and press against any vertical surface easily, from walls and curbs to vehicles and filing cabinets. You may then slip quickly to the next cover spot, assuming the visual indicator appears at the cover spot you want to zip to next. It's an intuitive system, and you can use it to quickly position yourself in all the right ways, often so you can clock a wandering guard over the head as he passes by without being seen by his cohorts in crime. You get some good interface tools to help you get your bearings when trying to stay out of sight. If you're shrouded in darkness and invisible to your enemies, everything turns black and white, aside from targets and important environmental objects. If you're seen, a ghostly image of your form will remain at your last known location, and the AI will direct its attention there. Warning alerts appear and sound if you are caught or are in immediate danger of being caught. The black-and-white effect can obscure things a bit much sometimes, but overall, these are sensible interface elements that toss you important information with a minimum of distraction.
Nice boots. Know where I can get a pair?
But you won't spend as much time in the shadows in Conviction as you did in previous games. Sam is still vulnerable; you can't just wander into a horde of hired guns in broad daylight. But in Conviction, Sam conducts business on his own terms and is therefore far more aggressive than before. To this end, you can mark multiple enemies at once (up to four, depending on which weapon you're packing and whether you've upgraded it) and then execute them in a single move. To pull off a mark-and-execute maneuver, you first have to perform a close-quarters kill. Once you've taken down your initial target, the execution is ready, and as long as each of your targets is in range and not obscured by some object or another (you know it's a go when the tag markers turn red), all you need to do is press a single button. Time slows a bit, the camera zooms toward each enemy in turn with a subtle swoosh, and your victims crumple to the ground, no match for a trained killing machine with a chip on his shoulder. It's a little disconcerting when a target moves behind a wall during an execution and your bullet clips right through it, but as a rule, the slick camera moves and audio cues make executions fun to pull off. In fact, most of the campaign's best moments come from clever use of execution tactics. For example, a roomful of guards aware of your presence might be flanking your location. Some quick marking, a slick hand-to-hand murder, and a zoom-zoom-zoom execution is an effective way of eliminating the threat.
Conviction tries its hand at other explosive moments, but these don't come together in such a dramatic way. You can occasionally use environmental objects as tools of destruction--shoot a chandelier so that it falls on a foe's head, or shoot an enormous explosive tanker, for example--but the rarity of these opportunities makes the scattered few that exist seem like a tease. More of a tease are the few interrogations you perform on key witnesses. In these highly scripted scenes, you grab your target and bash the answers out of him by jamming him into environmental objects clearly waiting to be splattered with blood. Unfortunately, the first interrogation you perform--a bloody bathroom beatdown--is the best in the entire game. In the rest, the invisible walls that hem you in and the "hey, look at me" nature of three or four conveniently placed objects make interrogations more predictable than provocative. Had they been more interactive, they could have been extraordinary; instead, they're violent but shrug-worthy.
That marked fool won't know what hit him.
Many levels do grant you welcome flexibility in how to approach the task at hand. You might shimmy up a pipe, throw a remote camera (one of a few gadgets for you to use), lure nearby guards to it, and detonate it--always a good way of getting two or three hostiles out of the way. Or perhaps you'll hang from a ledge and use one of your silenced pistols to thin the crowd with a few well-placed headshots. The flexibility is nice, but Splinter Cell: Conviction is remarkably easy. Even with the overzealous mouse smoothing, which makes camera movement feel a little laggy, the keyboard and mouse provide pinpoint precision when compared to an Xbox 360 controller. If you play on normal difficulty, you'll breeze through most levels so easily you might forget you even have gadgets and alternative routes, since you'll never need them. The hardest difficulty level offers more challenge, but even then, Conviction doesn't generate as much tension as you'd expect, given the series' pedigree. And without tension, even the most skillful executions don't offer as much of a rush as you'd want. You can plug in an Xbox 360 controller of course, but you'll need to use the wired variety because the button mapping on wireless controllers is broken and cannot be adjusted.
Splinter Cell: Conviction does go out of its way to throw in other kinds of variety, and fortunately, it hits more than it misses. Many levels, such as an early one in an art-filled mansion, look colorful and may be approached in a number of ways. A jaunt through a fairground, a secure checkpoint surrounded by innocent bystanders, and an excursion through an airfield are also particular highlights, because they offer plenty of room to slink about and prepare some executions. Others don't work out so well, such as a flashback level that removes many of the elements that make Conviction unique and plays out more like an awkward third-person shooter. A level at the Lincoln Memorial includes an exciting chase sequence--but also an overlong eavesdropping session involving a lot of boring dialogue. Nevertheless, most campaign missions play fine, thanks to careful level design and enemies that are quick to flank when they've spotted you, and quick to spread out when doing so puts pressure on you. The AI isn't always spot-on; your adversaries are sometimes slow to respond to grenades tossed directly at their feet, for example. But security contingents are still unpredictable and adaptive, if not exactly threatening.