‘Conviction’ is yet another so-so ‘Splinter Cell’

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It took me a while to get hold of this game, thanks to a hiccup in some unknown, probably wasteland-bound Best Buy warehouse with a single phone line to connect it to the Internet. It took me longer to get through it, as things like Comic Con, Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, Kane & Lynch 2, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Case Zero again, PAX, and StarCraft II – you know, work –  popped up. Not to mention real non-game-related life.

However, I finally hammered the last few levels of “Splinter Cell: Conviction” a day or so ago. Immediately following that, I pulled up the “Splinter Cell: Conviction” Wikipedia page to figure out what the hell was going on in the story.

Partially this was my fault. I’ve been on a protracted play arc that’s lasted about a month when “Conviction” is, at best, probably 10 hours long (and that really feels like a high estimate). As I mentioned before, spending a lot of time playing games as a freelance writer means a lot less time for games for pleasure.

Upon completing this new “Splinter Cell,” the fifth in the series and sixth if you count that tiny round turd Ubisoft dropped for the PSP a while back, I was struck by how underwhelming it was. I mean, I just stopped the end of America, after all, in quite an awesome feat of marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat and general badassery. Shouldn’t I feel more…I dunno, just more, about it?

But that’s common. The problem with “Splinter Cell” is that, for all that Jack Bauer-esque political intrigue and traitors in the organization and all the usual tropes, the games usually boil down to main character Sam Fisher getting into position to put one bullet into the head of one particular mass murdering bastard. The games do a pretty good job of making those moments, as quick as they may be, fairly cool – if not a bit melodramatic.

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The problem with “Conviction,” and really the last four “Splinter Cell” games, is that it fails to meet the high bar set by the original “Splinter Cell.” There have been games that have come close in terms of style – “Double Agent,” notably, was ambitious, and the new gameplay of “Conviction” makes the game easy to drop into with little experience. But no game has had the power of story or purpose that the first did. And that, really is the series’ ultimate downfall.

Sam Fisher is a phenomenal character, and many of the other characters in the “Splinter Cell” games are great as well. But the games suffer without villains with good reasons to do the things they do.

When I say “good” reasons, I have to qualify that as being original, non-cliche reasons. There are plenty of movies and books about terrorists and mass-murderers holding U.S. cities ransom – it happens all the time, and it’s tired. It’s especially tired if the people doing the ransoming want 1.) revenge against America, 2.) obscene amounts of money, or 3.) some combination of the two. And that’s not to discount everyone’s favorite reason – 4.) the dude is both evil and crazy.

“Splinter Cell” hasn’t had a good villain for a long time. “Conviction” is made worse – a lot worse – because it’s starting to slip into the long-view “what will our next three games be about” trap of creating plot lines and not finishing them. We get all kinds of bad guys, in the typical “conspiracy,” and most of the people pursued throughout the game are actually low-level functionaries in the bigger picture. It’s just not that engaging.

What the “Splinter Cell” series needs a swift kick in the plot. Back to the drawing board. Fisher is out in the world, his major motivations for the last few games removed, and he’s been battered by the country he previously served. We really need a story for Fisher – a story about him. Not one that’s level after level of Fisher completing mission objectives, even if they’re more personal than they used to be – a story in which Fisher is the guy running his own missions. One in which he’s no longer a tool in the histrionics of the world, but a man, finding his place and his meaning.

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It’s the story “Splinter Cell” should have told this time around. Instead it chose to create a big anti-Fisher conspiracy that Sam gets dragged through with almost no moorings, tossing out names and iconic places with little grounding. Yes, the White House and Washington Monument are cool-looking. No, that’s not a good enough reason to make them centerpieces in this game.

Ubisoft has done some interesting stuff adjusting the way “Splinter Cell” plays. If it can put that same ambition into the stories the games tell, it’ll drag Sam Fisher’s next mission out of the unfortunate rut the series has been stuck in for the last several years.

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Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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