I stop smashing the bad guy’s head against a mirror in the gents’ toilets for long enough to watch a flashback projected onto the wall. It’s an image of a gravestone carved with my daughter’s name – Sarah Fisher, 1985-2008 – and it’s slowly spreading across the space between two urinals. Nothing says Rest in Peace like a piss-soaked wall.
Both a brave new direction and something of a false dawn for the series, the way Splinter Cell Conviction tells its story is, most of the time, absurd. When I’m trying to get a mission briefing from a contact next to the Washington Monument, it separately plays two versions of the same black-and-white video in the background, cast onto different parts of the wall in different sizes. Later, some bad news makes Sam Fisher angry. Neither his facial expression nor gravelly tone changes, but the giant word ANGER lights up the room in three separate places, just in case I didn’t get the hint.
You could never accuse Conviction of being subtle – but replaying it now, just over nine years after its release, I can’t help but enjoy every lavish second.
Its flashiness extends far beyond the UI and into the combat. Fisher doesn’t sneak past baddies like he did in the early Splinter Cell games – he chucks an EMP through a window to kill the lights, dives in after it, knocks out a guard with an elbow and executes four more with precise headshots. The bodies hit the floor before the light bulbs jolt back to life.
In the spirit of the series, Conviction is still very much a stealth game. Fisher goes down in three shots, so getting caught in the open is suicide, and you need to stay hidden for as long as you can. But I like how everything about its design – from your weapons and gadgets to the AI – funnels you towards conflict. And when the shooting starts Fisher is lethal: a sharp knife silently slashing at his enemies and then retreating to the shadows.
It starts with your arsenal, which is all designed for fast, precise strikes. Portable EMPs knock out nearby lights and stun guards, giving you a short window to take them out. Remote mines will scatter entire groups of enemies across a room, while portable cameras will stick to walls, play music to draw enemies near, and then explode.
The most dangerous weapons are Fisher’s silenced pistols. He’s wildly inaccurate with rifles and SMGs, and Conviction is horrible as a cover shooter, as evidenced by an Iraq flashback where you sprint from waist-high wall to waist-high wall with an AK-47. Pistols aren’t much better, and nor are they powerful. But crucially, you can mark-and-execute enemies – it’s probably the feature the game is best-known for.
You tap one button on a target to mark them and, when in range, press another for an instant kill. You can mark multiple guards at once from the safety of cover, lean out and down them all in a fluid animation, muzzle snapping from head to head. It works with every pistol, but the only one I need is the five-seven. After I upgrade it with a reflex sight, I can mark and execute four enemies at once.
If you could spam the ability, it’d be overpowered. But between executions you need to takedown a guard by hand, refilling the meter. Most of my fights therefore follow the same pattern: mark four enemies, sneak up behind another one, crack him over the head with the butt of my five-seven and slip instantly into execution mode.
These combos are satisfying and – true to flashy form – won’t be stopped for anything, not even walls. You can often fire through bits of level geometry, which at the time felt awkward, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. Why let the laws of physics get in the way of a bloody, head-popping spectacle?
The enemies, like the UI, are always active, always busy. They never stand in one place, and roam around swinging their guns and torches around corners to root you out of hiding spots. I never feel like I have enough time to learn their patterns, and so my only option is to push into their midst. You can sometimes take side routes through areas, but enemies often clog up unavoidable chokepoints, meaning the only way past is to bulldoze through the middle.
Conviction turns getting spotted by enemies – usually a point of failure in a stealth game – into an opportunity for theatre. It was the first game I can remember to leave an outline of your last known location after you broke line of sight with your enemy. This has since become a staple of action-stealth genre, and I can see why. Once you know where enemies think you are, you can outfox them, repositioning to a better angle. Some of my most satisfying takedowns in Conviction happen when I purposefully let enemies see me, and then flank them as they rush to my ghostly silhouette.
Even something as simple as going into cover is an aggressive move. I love how slick it feels to zip from wall to wall: you point at a nearby location and tap a button to make Fisher dive behind a new barrier, and it’s a mechanic that has survived all the way into The Division 2. But rather than position you in the middle of a piece of cover, at the safest spot, Conviction pushes you to its edge. As soon as you arrive you’re already naturally peeking around the corner, slightly exposed, planning your next move.
It’s this sense of momentum and pace from the cover system, from the UI, from the aggressive enemies, from the lethal combat, that has pulled me through Conviction’s silly story once more. I'll say one thing for it: you're never unsure about what to do next. GET C4.
The fact that Conviction turned out so well is on one level a surprise, because it had a troubled development. At first the game was intended to showcase Fisher stripped of his tools and going against his former employers, and to this end was focused on hand-to-hand combat and physics environments. The idea was to show how deadly Sam Fisher could be, even without all of his gadgets.
For whatever reason, that version of the game (which was in development for some years) didn't make it. But the influence of this new direction can be felt in the fact that Conviction is simultaneously the least 'Splinter Cell' of the Splinter Cell games and also the most video-gamey. The ridiculous elements go hand-in-hand with the overblown spectacle and, where other Clancy games' plotlines can drag on through super-serious cutscenes about geopolitical mega-soldiers, Conviction will put you in front of a big house then whack INFILTRATE on the side in huge letters.
More than anything, Conviction reminds me of an overblown action movie. And like the best action films – and perhaps I’m being generous to the developers, here – it feels like a game that’s so confident in its own design that it can satirise itself. The next game, Blacklist, would mark a return to a much more traditional style and, y'know, it's decent but it's just not as much fun.
At some point the development team must’ve realised that displaying huge, white words on every empty wall looked ridiculous but... they never stopped doing it. Surely nobody projecting memorials onto urinals is doing it seriously, yet perhaps that's the brilliance of Conviction: you do wonder.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.