Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction is so meticulously crafted it’s tempting to call the game “realistic,” as if we sofa jockeys know what it’s like to be a real-life special-ops assassin. It’s more accurate to say that Conviction, the latest of the Splinter Cell stealth assault games, feels genuine to the Clancy ethos. In both the main campaign and a rich two-player mode, the trademarks of Clancy’s military fantasy world—espionage, conspiracy at the highest levels of government, surgical application of deadly force—come to life with unrelenting suspense.
You return to the role of Sam Fisher, the grizzled covert agent with a perma-squint and just enough stubble to achieve that rogue vibe without looking like a goddamn hippie. Fisher’s story is a dizzying sequence of betrayals and triple-crosses that sends him creeping through enemy outposts around the globe and culminates, like any good terrorist-killing yarn, in a White House siege. The experience is seamless. There are practically no loading screens, and instead of dialogue boxes, text directives are projected onto the environment itself—an effect out of a high-end stage production.
If Conviction were indeed legit theater, it would be an improv show. The game encourages ad-libbing with a panoply of weapons, gadgets, and strategies. Players are unlikely to play any stretch the same way twice. The most notable new tactic is “mark and execute.” If you complete a risky hand-to-hand kill, you gain the one-time ability to tag nearby enemies, and once you’re in position, assassinate them with a 100-percent accurate flurry of gunfire. That’s the marquee feature, but there are other masterful design strokes, like Last Known Position, a silhouette that shows where the bad guys think you are, setting up elaborate cat-and-mouse gambits which are especially rewarding in co-op play.
About the only missteps are the interrogations, all of which follow this sequence: “I’m not telling you anything, Fisher!”—biff! pow!—“Okay, I’ll tell you everything!” The press-B-to-bash-hostage’s-head-into-a-mirror feature must exist to humor the delusions of “enhanced interrogation” proponents, as it’s tedium in practice. In spite of Ubisoft’s pre-release hype, though, the torture scenes are rare and inconsequential; they don’t ruin the game’s tense excitement. Conviction never apologizes for its power fantasies, and most of the time, that works in its favor.