Sam Fisher is an angry man. For years he’s been doing a pretty angry job, murdering from the shadows under the auspices of neo-con morality, but he’s always been ready with a snappy putdown as he slips a knife around the jugular of the enemies of freedom. To a certain extent he’s still up to that – “It’s a good job all your training paid off,” he tells a young man as he separates his vertebrae – but the new Sam Fisher is a furious one, motivated entirely by his own vengeful reasons.
Conviction’s gameplay proper opens with Third Echelon info queen Grim dropping the retired Fisher a call as he’s relaxing at a Maltese street café with a mochaccino, ruining an afternoon which would otherwise have been spent doing chin-ups with his teeth in a local bed and breakfast. She’s calling to tell him that the killing of his daughter by a drunk driver was no accident – and that she knows whodunit.
Enraging a man who’s spent time with more military units than Ross Kemp might not seem like the best idea, but it’s the perfect carrot to get Sam out of retirement and back in action. It also gives Fisher a reason to get out there and be the angry badass who’s been hiding under that smoothly efficient exterior the whole time.
It’s a key factor in Ubisoft’s ’empowerment’ of Fisher, the attempt to make him feel less fragile and shadow-bound, more like a wolf rather than a trapdoor spider. It works, too. Splinter Cell is still very much a stealth game, and getting spotted can still mean a pretty swift Game Over, but this Fisher feels meaner, more ruthless – and gruffer than a Camel-smoking Billy goat.
It’s a new feel inspired, we’re told, by the three “JBs”: James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, something which certainly carries in the slick, cinematic visual presentation. This is apparent right from the off, with the cliff-hanger opening and the interrogation of one of Fisher’s erstwhile comrades providing tight exposition and back-story, a well directed sequence which feels like the opening of a classy Hollywood blockbuster. Or at least a violent one with high production values.
Empowering Sam is reflected further in that most basic of Splinter Cell manoeuvres: taking cover. When stuck to cover and aiming at a new hiding place, a subtle indicator shows that you can slip over to the new shadow with a quick tap of a button – sliding Sam across with minimal fuss and less chance of flapping about like a dizzy child in front of a dozen terrorists.
It’s smooth, and certainly helps you to feel like a deadly super-spy, enabling precise and efficient cover occupation as you approach your prey. Purists might balk a little at Ubisoft Montreal’s decision to make Splinter Cell less frustrating and more permissive, but this sort of mechanic lets you feel like the product of several intensive military training programs without needing to undergo one yourself.
Aiming from cover offers you another example of this. Instead of the clumsy blindfire/exposed aiming dichotomy which most shooters offer, Conviction lets Sam aim accurately from behind walls and crates, only popping up to take the shot. Although Sam’s default pistol can be a little wayward in its accuracy, performing this sort of snapshot from a sensible distance is almost always fatally effective. You’re a ghost with steady hands, precise and predatory, and this feels entirely appropriate.
This sort of hunting, striking noiselessly from the umbra, is very much Fisher’s forte, despite his less hard-line attitude to being detected. While running blindly round corners with a shotgun and some wishful thinking is possible, Conviction still feels at its most natural when you’re suspended from a ceiling pipe, running a makeshift trepanning facility with a silenced Mk.23.
You know when you’re fully immersed in shadow, because the colours fade from the screen into high contrast black-and-white, crisp and clinical. While this is a tremendously useful visual aid, it’s a bit of a shame that Conviction looks like it will suffer from Arkham Asylum syndrome, obscuring much of the visual splendour of its engine by forcing you to spend a lot if your time under a restrictive camera filter.
When you’re not in shadow, Conviction is quite the looker, the ubiquitous Unreal Engine 3 providing the whalebone corset for the pretty party dress of the superb lighting effects to sit upon. At its best, when mission objective movies are beamed onto the environment, or during the set-piece interrogation sequences, Conviction continues to impress with its cinematic credentials. Ubisoft’s justifiably proud of the seamless nature which the Zombieland-esque projected text and movie objectives provide, and we’re even told that they wanted Conviction to be a game ‘without any camera cuts’ – further evidence of the influence of film.
There’s an interesting seesaw balance to Conviction, provided by the excellent ‘mark and execute’ system which allows you tag enemies for quick, automatic dispatch. The marks for these executions are awarded for melee kills, stealth or otherwise, so smooth progress is often a matter of judging who to get close and personal with and where to utilise the sudden-death tools which their deaths provide.
Sneaking into a Nissen hut full of soldiers in the last level of the demo, I’m forced to plan ahead and decide who is close enough to cover to be manually extinguished, and how I’m going to take enough men out for the remainder to be marked and executed. Slipping between the materiel and boxes behind the group of five, I’m able to use the cover indicator to position myself exactly where I need to be, putting the hurt on the two rearmost men as I work forward.
As I strike from behind the second crate, however, I’m spotted as a soldier turns to talk to his comrade – indicated by a simple radial arrow growing towards the man who’s seen me, turning red as the penny drops. Luckily the M&E system allows you to tag targets before you’ve earned the marks to deal with them, meaning that a quick tap of the Y button sees two more opponents slipping off the mortal coil. One left, then – 20 yards away across a well-lit concrete apron. I’m back behind cover already, but he’s seen me – his understanding of my presence indicated by the ghostly mirage of my last known position.
Previously this would have been anathema to Fisher, cover blown, operation compromised, plausible deniability alibis already fired off to relevant sources. For Conviction, though, even being seen can be used to turn the tables to your advantage.
Being a military professional, my mark calls for backup before he begins to investigate, so I know more troops are on the way to spoil my day, but that doesn’t mean I have to let him get away with it. I fall back, staying under cover of darkness, until I’m offered a new perspective on the shining phantom of my previous position. Muggins the guard edges up to it, confident of taking down the man who wasn’t there. Before he has time to realise I’ve done a Jordan and moved on there’s a new hole in his skull and no one to spill the beans to his colleagues in the evil army.
Pulling off this sort of action also earns me partial completion of one of the game’s tracked rewards – taking down an enemy while he’s investigating your last-known position. These non-gamerscore ‘achievements’ not only encourage players to fully utilise Sam’s repertoire of trickery, but once completed they provide the player with a points reward to spend on the upgrades which form the Persistent Elite Creation aspect of the game.
Accessed in-mission from handy weapons caches, or from the opening menus, this system allows players to customise weaponry, clothing, gadgets or body armour to spruce up performance. Both these points and the upgrades you buy with them then carry through to both the co-op prologue and multiplayer modes of the game.
Speaking of multiplayer, the latest build also offers us the opportunity to have a crack at the Deniable Ops missions for the first time. These modes are available as one or two player, split-screen or online, and come in four flavours. Hunter is a room-clearing mode, seeing you downing tangos like a man on his way to pretty serious diabetes. Detection isn’t a disaster, but being seen will summon a wave of reinforcements. The flipside of this is Infiltration mode – Conviction’s olive branch to the stealthing elite – where even momentary detection is the end of the road.
Last Stand mode sits you in front an experimental EMP device, videogaming’s new nuke, as waves of foes attempt to destroy it. Let them damage it irrevocably and you’ll be back at the Job Centre, blood-soaked field dressing in one hand and P45 in the other. Lastly comes Face Off, the only confrontation mode on offer, which gives Hunter a new twist by making each other viable targets along with the AI goons.
Multiplayer adds a couple of new aces to the deck too, most useful of which is the sonar detector. Activating this with the d-pad will fling out a pulse which detects all enemies, clouding your vision with interference as it does so. These targets can then be marked with RB, even through walls, to be tracked ready for execution when you’re close enough.
Two-player modes offer another nice touch when an enemy gets the upper hand in close combat, reversing the status quo by grabbing the player as a meatshield. Once you’re held, a warning and direction indicator flashes on your buddy’s screen, letting them work their way close to attempt a rescue. Once they do you can execute that most precious of buddy-movie moments, tapping B to slam an elbow into your captor’s face or stomach, giving the other player room to take a headshot. Mis-time your blow and you’ll anger whoever’s holding you into a tighter grip, do it again and they’re likely to drop you, minus a significant quantity of brain and skull.
It’s another indicator of Conviction’s new, more forgiving attitude, another page taken from the big book of films. Fisher’s new adventure is more accessible, less pernickety, but less complex doesn’t necessarily mean less difficult. While Sam’s moving towards the light might be a bit of a blow to fans of an already slim pure stealth genre, for the rest of us it’s a path rich with potential promise.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction is due out for PC and Xbox 360 on 16th April.