As an old-time Splinter Cell fan(atic) I’m happy to report that the new SC kicks ass big time! I was expecting the worst, because of its troubled and lengthy production (“back to the drawing board” etc…). After the demo there was much lamenting among Splinter Cell veterans, and the demo left me a bit worried as well, there didn’t seem too much left of the original Splinter Cell formula, and there was too little stealth and too much action. But after playing through the single player campaign twice now (first on Normal difficulty, then on Realistic) I think that the SC team went the right way with most changes.

At least in Realistic mode it is still very important to be stealthy, but (and that’s the important part) if stealth is broken, the game play doesn’t break down too. In previous SC’s (including the nearly perfect Chaos Theory – which by the way still looks phenomenal on the 360) I was often tempted to restart at the last checkpoint when open combat broke loose, because everything became just too messy.

In Conviction, the transition from stealth to combat and back actually works, and it’s really fun to play in this new way. That’s the one big - most important (and most risky) - change the SC team got exactly right.

What Conviction does *mostly* right is that it steers the franchise back onto a clear course which seemed to be lost after Chaos Theory. Double Agent added more and more bells and whistles (like all those utterly useless mini games) and Conviction looked like it didn’t know where to go as well before the reboot. The rebooted Conviction reduces this mess back into a nice, small set of game play features. Almost a little bit too streamlined for my liking (you can’t drag around bodies anymore, you can’t choose between fatal and non-fatal take-downs, and I actually liked that one lock-picking mini game), but the new agility of Sam Fisher, and the Mark-&-Execute feature makes up for the losses.

And sometimes there’s a workaround for missing features. For instance, instead of dragging a dead or unconscious body like in the old Splinter Cells, one can choke-hold a guard and instead of using him as a meat-shield, drag him into a dark corner and take him out there so surveillance cameras and other guards won’t find the body. But finding those new twists is probably harder for gamers who played the old Splinter Cells then for new gamers.

But once the player has learned to use Sam’s new skills without having to think about them, the game play experience is phenomenal. There’s nothing more satisfying then cleaning up half of the guards in a room with the new Mark-&-Execute, vanish again by dropping a flash-bang, flank the confused remaining guards and taking them out one by one by sneaking up on them from behind.

I have to confess that in my first play-through I often had to shoot my way out because I didn’t pay enough attention to the environment. There’s almost always a way to solve a situation stealthy, like a water-pipe on the wall or hidden passages to get above or behind the attackers. In the second play-through I already knew the basic layout of the levels, took my time to look around and explore the environment, and I was forced to plan my tactics more thoroughly because of the harder difficulty. The result was that I played much more with stealth, and always had a fallback plan in mind when the situation got out of control.

It’s also interesting to see how the big 3 Clancy games (Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon) are starting to share features that work well. Splinter Cell now uses the phenomenal cover system of the Rainbow Six Vegas games, and the Mark-&-Execute feature is similar to the Rainbow Six marking of priority targets before room-entry. I hope the next Ghost Recon will do similar things. The other 2 games could learn a bit from Sam Fisher’s agility, like jump-sliding over and under obstacles.

Story’s a bit… well, there is a story and at least it doesn’t get into the way of the actual game ;)

So all in all, really great game and I didn’t even dive that much into the Co-op and Deniable Ops modes yet…