There are many things that a Splinter Cell game can be called. "Fluid", "brutal", and "emotional" were never really among them, but that's about to change. Gone is the tediousness of picking locks in the dark and methodically taking out light bulbs. Instead - while many of these traditional elements still exist - Sam is now more deft than ever, able to navigate ledges with greater speed and able to take out a room full of six bad guys in under six seconds.
I'll be honest: for me the hype surrounding this game was almost a de-escalator. Blockbuster sequels with good pedigrees tend to get a little too radical on us. Not every case departs from its original bullet points too terribly, but most sequels alienate fans in some way. Splinter Cell: Conviction is not exempt from this. Whether or not the sixth game in a series (including the PSP port Essentials) is expected to make a drastic change or not may be a matter of contention, but like it or not: Conviction brings several new dynamics to the series...and I like them.
The most prevalent change in basic gameplay is Sam's movement: climbing, traversing ledges, sliding into cover...these are all much more fluid, quick, and most importantly - simple to execute. The controls felt natural, reminding me of Rainbow Six: Vegas's control scheme with its left-trigger cover mechanic. My only real gripes were that the gun reload function was mapped to the left stick by default, and the action button was used for climbing and picking up weapons - a common problem in third-person shooters. I often find myself grabbing a fallen enemy's rifle when I should be vaulting over a barrier.
More weapons are available this time around.
Another major shift is the addition of unlockable weapons and a small amount of customization. As long as I can remember, Sam has had access to a very limited amount of guns - on rare occassion he was given something different to use, but the choice was never the player's. In Conviction, players have access to an impressive array of guns, both as Sam Fisher and as Archer or Kestrel (in the co-op modes). Any time you pick up a gun it's automatically unlocked for your weapons cache, which is available at certain checkpoints in the single player and co-op campaigns. Once unlocked, you can upgrade a weapon up to three times - up to two times for your grenades and mines - to either cause more damage, increase the range, increase accuracy, or add a "Mark and Execute" target. Not every weapon has access to the same upgrades, and you can unequip any of them at the weapons cache. It's not the most versatile customization, but it's much more than we had before.
Different uniforms are also available, and each can be upgraded up to nine times (added equipment slots, added ammo slots, or added armor), but only three upgrades can be equipped simultaneously. Some of the uniforms also have different patterns available. There are enough combinations for you to find one that you really like, and therefore feel like you have a fairly unique persona online. Ubisoft is promising new free downloadable content every week...I can see new uniforms and weapons as being the main focus for this.
Last Known Position is a great new feature that gives operatives an edge in co-op and single player.
The "Mark and Execute" and "Last Known Position" were probably the most talked-about new features pre release, and for good reason: not only are they unique, but they are effective. Performing a melee attack will fill your Mark and Execute meter, giving you the ability to wipe out multiple targets at the press of a button. This may sound like a gimmick that could potentially make the gameplay too easy, but in my experience it just added a tactical advantage when you're outnumbered. Keep in mind that five bogies in one room - all with automatic weapons or shotguns - is not uncommon in this game. You can actually Mark your targets before your Mark and Execute ability is available; perform a melee on some hapless target, and your Marks turn from gray to red. It's a sweet way to clear a room, and provides many heart-pounding moments of satisfaction. "Last Known Position" is a ghost-like image that shows you where and how the enemy last saw you. It works great, letting you literally play cat-and-mouse with bad guys (pardon the overused figure of speech).
Splitscreen support: the best way to see two bad guys getting a beat-down at the same time.
The co-op campaign stands on its own, both in length and entertainment. The story is less intricate than the single player mode, but the same great level design transfers over to co-op very well. John (Mrxknown_JG) and I relished in the moments that were specifically included for two players, such as two-man breaches and co-op Mark and Execute room clearing (incidentally, either player can Execute the other player's Marked enemies - this comes in handy). Getting downed results in a 60-second bleed-out where the downed player can either stay still or sit up with their pistol armed. Sitting up will grab enemies' attention and risk a quick death, but can be very advantageous at times. Some enemies can also put you in a chokehold, rendering you unarmed until your partner can save you. It's great fun, and two players confident with the controls can perform some awesome gameplay moments. The other co-op modes are basically extensions of the co-op campaign, using the same maps - good for short matches with high replayability. Best of all: all of the co-op modes support matchmaking.
Splinter Cell: Conviction sits right alongside my copy of Army of Two: The 40th Day - ask me to join you in a two-player co-op campaign, and I'll be equally pleased to suggest either one. With only two-player co-op modes, it doesn't top the list of co-op friendly games, but in terms of general value: I'm a fan. The close quarters combat is brutal and satisfying, the shooting elements are more than passable, and the overall appeal of two operatives fluidly climbing, sneaking, and attacking in lethal fashion together is very high.