We've always wanted to like the Splinter Cell series. The gritty setting, the reliance on smarts over firepower, even the voice talent (Michael Ironside!) appealed - but we could never get behind the stealth mechanic of auto-failing a mission if you trip and alarm or get seen by a guard.
So, of course, we were looking forward to Splinter Cell Conviction and its reworking of the series to a more combat-focused game, that not so much stops you from playing if you get spotted, but simply makes things tougher.
Why then, are we so singularly uninspired by it all?
Conviction's way or the highway
The plot behind Conviction is simple and straightforward - Sam Fisher's daughter is dead, he's angry, and you get to control that rage as he seeks revenge. Sure, there are plot twists galore, and betrayals and McGuffins, but at its heart Conviction's trying very hard to be a Jack Bauer-esque thriller.
This is incredibly apparent in the 'interrogation' sequences where you're expected to beat a piece of information out of someone. It might be pretty impactful, too, were it not more like a slowed down quick-time event than a real challenge - you simply walk a badguy around until you get the opportunity to mash a key. We didn't think much of The Godfather 2's interrogation gameplay, but at least it was in depth - Conviction's both mildly distasteful and pretty boring!
But that latter statement sums up the single player campaign pretty well - the locations, the plot progression... it's all Bourne by numbers more than anything truly new and fresh, and while we expect a certain amount of cribbing from games like this, it still seems rather over the top.
There's a lot of great mechanics in the game, but they all seem to be designed to make up for shortfalls in the game's design. The mark and execution system, for instance, seems a great innovation, until you realise that it takes any skill out of the game. Similarly, the move-to-cover mechanic, which lets you zip from pillar to crate at the press of a button, seems innovative - until you again realise that it's now the game that's being stealthy, not you.
The combination of sneaking and balls to the wall combat might be good if it didn't feel like a dumbed down version of Hitman - there's a game that delivered truly open infiltration and stealth-based gameplay, while at the same time giving you challenging gunfights once the gig was up. Conviction tries hard for a similar level of verisimilitude, but when you can beat a mission by simply hanging out of a window and pulling people who lean out to their doom, you know something's wrong.
Similarly, while Hitman was more than happy to let you complete a mission no matter what way you kill a guy or when, Conviction layers that with doing things in the right order. In one early sequence we needed to get into a building and rough up some interchangeable mook to learn... something or other. The direct route is merely an awesome way to get blood on the carpet; what's needed is stealthy murder! So you kill, creep, run, dangle and kneecap your way to the villain, only to be told you can't pull his pigtails yet because there's still a guard alive. Somewhere.
As it turned it, in the time it took us to find this mouthbreather (who was humping a pillar), we could have questioned the mook, apologised, bought him dinner and maybe even gotten a hug.
And then, when you do question him, uber-badguys arrive, and while you're desperately yelling at Sam to try and get him to jump out the window that is JUST BEHIND HIM, you get tranqed.
But that's the game's linear tunnel-of-fun in a nutshell - you can make tiny decisions, but ultimately to get to from A to Z you must first touch base at B, C, D and all the rest.
Thankfully, the single-player game can be finished in about five hours, so at least you're not going to be frustrated for long - unless you were actually hoping for a singleplayer game of any kind of substance.
Yes, there is a lot more to the game, and many of the other modes - co-op missions, challenge levels and what-have-you - are fun. But we can't help but think that if we had actually paid for the game we might feel we'd been a touch ripped off to get only five hours of main character padded out by add-ons populated by the B-team of the game.
If anything, Conviction feels a lot like Valve's Orange Box release of a few years ago - albeit without any charm or any game you're actually going to want to play for more than a few sessions.
Perhaps we are missing something after all. Maybe we don't have a proper appreciation for the character and its turgid backstory, or perhaps we just suck at stealth games... but for whatever reason, Splinter Cell Conviction is, in our opinion, lacking in just that - conviction.