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Published April 27, 2010

Playing as Sam Fisher, the legendary spy who could put Solid Snake in a sleeper hold, I skulk through the shadows of a heavily guarded airfield; the guards don’t realize that they have me completely surrounded. I’m absolutely meticulous – not a single light bulb is left intact – but I’m not sure how much longer I can keep up my silent assault. One of the guards turns the corner with his flashlight in hand, but I press the B button and knock him out before he becomes trouble. Using my execution move, I pick off two more stragglers in the distance. I’m ruthless, I’m cunning and I’m empowered. This is where Splinter Cell: Conviction shines.

I then trip an alarm, enemies start heckling me repeatedly and the A.I. goes haywire. So much for that.

Fortunately, Splinter Cell: Conviction‘s campaign is usually more hot than cold, but these inconsistencies will drive you mad as you search around the globe for the killer of Sam Fisher’s daughter. The series has always taken pride in its cat-and-mouse dynamic, but in Conviction, Fisher’s increased firepower throws all of that off-balance. Perhaps the guards weren’t all that clever in previous installments, but at least they had weaponry on their side. Now that Fisher can eliminate his adversaries without confidence, its a wonder that they don’t spend the entire game in hiding.

Of course, if you’re up to date on your Clancy lore, then you know that Fisher’s no longer bound by the Third Echelon rulebook. After infiltrating a terrorist group in 2006’s Double Agent, our bitter hero is more interested in getting a few clues about his daughter’s death than he his about whatever EMP threat currently looms. This was a wise move on the writers’ part. Tom Clancy games are usually pretty hackneyed in the narrative department, but in making it so that this time was personal, at least there’s some kind of human element involved. I’ve never cared more about Sam Fisher.

This back story also helps to keep him a bit sympathetic when he decides to interrogate his targets Jack-Bauer-style. For those of you who have resisted the shlocky allure of “24,” this means that Sam beats the stuffing out of them. He smashes their heads into electrical equipment, punches them repeatedly and puts his gun to their heads in order to get the information he needs. It’s gratuitous by the time you get to the end of the game, but these moments do get your blood pumping for the missions ahead.

Though the infamous “Hobo” build of Conviction promised huge changes, the core goals are ultimately about the same as they’ve always been. As Sam, you need to get from point A to point B while making as little ruckus as possible. However, the controls have been streamlined, which works out most of the time. While you don’t stick to cover like glue, you can target new surfaces by pointing your reticule where you want to go and pressing A. There’s also the aforementioned execution move, that let’s you take out a few baddies in one quick, automatic motion. With these new moves and increased agility, Sam is a force with which to be reckoned.

Initially, his bag of tricks is a little smaller. His signature goggles and traps unlock gradually, but the game forces you to survive without them first. It’s in these early missions that you learn how easy to break the guards’ defenses. These guys will pile up at windows one by one, ready for you to toss them to their deaths. These guys will refuse to follow you into an underground tunnels, even if the exit is within spitting distance. These guys will constantly let you know their whereabouts without knowing yours. Exceptions or not, these moments are embarrassing.

The same can be said for the multiplayer cooperative modes, but at least a human partner alleviates some of the frustrations. Here, all of those upgradeable weapons also available in the campaign will come in handy, as the game has a perk system similar to Modern Warfare. An entirely self-contained story accompanies these modes, complete with two new spies.

The extra content is appreciated and will extend the life of the game, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the famed “Spies vs. Mercs” duels that gave previous Splinter Cell games their longevity. There are moments when both players need to trigger EMPs at the same time or pry open a door together, but these levels don’t really feel like they were developed with co-op in mind (compared to something like Gears of War 2.) Unleashing double executions is neat, but these maps play just about as well in the single player “Deniable Ops” equivalent.

No, Conviction is all about Sam. He may be a different breed of “spy” from what we’re used to, but he is still able to get the job done. He’s able to listen in on a secret meeting at the Lincoln Memorial, chase down an assassin through public courtyards and hide from guns for hire, all within the same mission. Whatever gripes I have about game balance, it’s hard to resist action that’s this dynamic.

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