It’s something that’s often overlooked when discussing the Splinter Cell series, but each new installment is very rarely just “more Splinter Cell.” Part of this has to do with the fact that the stealth action genre is constantly evolving, obsessively chasing new developments in technology and game design the way dogs chase cars. If someone is doing something new in game design and tech, chances are it will show up soon in a Splinter Cell game near you.

Obviously there are two sides to this. The makers of some games believe nothing could be worse than throwing fans for a loop by radically changing the game’s design. Then again, the makers of some games aren’t so lucky as to have seen their franchises hit the six-game mark, serve as an inspiration for television shows and movie series reboots, create a character as iconic as super-spy Sam Fisher and continue to thrill audiences for almost a decade. Whatever else you can say about the makers of Splinter Cell, their approach works.

Enter: Conviction. There are elements of Conviction that will feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever played a Splinter Cell game. You can climb pipes and get the drop (ho ho!) on your enemies. You can silently stalk and eliminate them. You can shoot lights to create dark shadows. You can perform feats of acrobatic athleticism the likes of which no mere human could ever possibly attempt, let alone while carrying a backpack full of weaponry and dispatching foes with the precision of the Karate Kid snapping flies with a pair of chop sticks. For all of these reasons and more, Splinter Cell: Conviction is very much a Splinter Cell game. And yet in some ways it’s not.

Whereas previous installments have asked you to learn an array of contextual controls in order to perform stunts as outrageous as straddling alleyways and running up walls, Conviction pares the stealth genre down to the core. Gone is the black suit. Gone, the multiple flavors of night vision. Gone, the pistol that doubles as a lightbulb disabling device. Gone the bionic ears, gone the wall-climbing, gone the alley-straddling and gone the exhaustive (and exhausting) mission briefs. What’s left? Plenty of kick ass.

Conviction catches up with Sam Fisher after he’s invaded just about every country in the world, found out his daughter has been run over by a drunk driver, murdered his best friend in cold blood and retired from Third Echelon, the secret arm of the CIA that’s so secret even the president doesn’t know about it (I think). Sam, now older, wiser, less apt to straddle much of anything, thinks he’s done with the whole sneak-sneak bang-bang thing until a surprise phone call from an old friend gets him right back into the mess, chasing down a mystery that could involve new details about his daughter’s death and a plot to disrupt the entire underpinnings of the United States government.

Plot-wise, Conviction is the most exciting and adventurous Splinter Cell game yet. In true Tom Clancy form, the story covers a whole lot of international ground, introducing an array of new and interesting characters, reveals a bit of Sam’s background in the first Gulf War and relies on sophisticated mil-tech to weave a yarn about as plausible as me winning the lottery, but all in good fun. You can excuse the fact that it feels very similar to a certain television show and a couple of recently-rebooted spy movie franchises when you consider that all three of the aforementioned were heavily inspired by the original Splinter Cell. All’s fair in entertainment media.

Weapon-wise, you will have access to over a dozen upgradeable firearms, although you will probably find a favorite and stick to it. Performing Sam’s various death-dealing moves will earn you points, which you can then spend on things like a suppressor for your M4, or a laser sight for your Five-Seven, which are both nice, but as with all Splinter Cell games, while you can rely on firepower to shoot your way out of a mess, if you have to, you’re doing it wrong. And chances are it won’t work the second time.

The kill-move selection in Conviction is a bit shallower than in past titles, but apart from a few marquee tricks (wall straddling?) you’ll never miss what has been lost. In exchange for simplifying the variety of moves, the game offers a streamlined interface, allowing you to perform the right move at the right time. If, like me, you spent much of your time playing previous Splinter Cell titles bemoaning the fact it took half the game to figure out how to perform the coolest moves, then Conviction will probably grab your attention early and hold it for the whole ride.

All of Sam’s moves are now contextual, meaning a single button press is all it takes to throw a man from a ledge, or bash down a door in someone’s face, or drop boots-first onto a bad guy’s head, or climb a wall, or shimmy up a pipe or more. Playing Splinter Cell is now less about guessing and pressing and more about actually doing kick-ass shit in the game, which has been a long time coming.

Speaking of, the “mark and execute” system is worth a mention. Killing an enemy with your bare hands unlocks the “mark and execute” option, whereby you can simply hover over an enemy with your crosshairs, “mark” him with your right bumper button, then press Y to execute. You can mark up to five enemies, depending on which weapon you’re using, making it possible to perform some truly awesome room-clearing executions. You can also “mark” enemies using cameras and your special sonar goggles and chain “mark and execute” with other moves, for some really fun … er … killing.

OK, all of that aside, is it fun? By way of an answer, let me tell you what impressed me most about Splinter Cell: Conviction: I probably spent about 16 hours playing the game, in three or four sittings, and I didn’t pause the game once. Bemoan the loss of mini-maps, compasses and extended move trees if you like, but in Conviction, you don’t need them and the result is a nearly-seamless, truly immersive stealth action experience. You will (almost) always know where to go, what your objective is and at least one way of achieving it. Scout around a bit, and you’ll more than likely also be able to find a couple of more clever ways of going forward.

It seems simplistic at first, but the simplified interface hides an underlying complexity that will give you plenty of “aha!” moments as you discover a new way to approach a level and go back again and again to try it out. Couple that with what has to be considered the high-water mark in the series’ storytelling and Splinter Cell: Conviction is easily one of the best games of the year so far.

Bottom Line: Splinter Cell: Conviction is the best installment in the series. The developers took some major risks in design and presentation that paid off, resulting in a game that’s at once approachable and complex, and arguably the current last word in stealth adventure.

Recommendation: If you enjoy stealth games, you can’t go wrong with this one. If you’re new to the genre, this is an excellent place to start.

Score: [rating=5]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

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