I've always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with stealth games. Few other genres offer such a contrasting mix of pure buttery thrills and agonising, teeth-gnashing frustration. You see, I can't get enough of the good bits - the silent kills, the skulking about in the shadows, the crawling on your belly behind cover as a witless guard passes by. On the other hand, I can't stand those bits where everyone seems to have eyes in the back of their head, where the slightest mistake will send you waaaay back to a distant checkpoint. When this happens for the fifth time in ten minutes - that's when I reach for my revolver. As it so happens, this is one of the many reasons why I love IO Interactive's Hitman Series - because those games, you really can reach for your revolver and blow everyone away.
With Splinter Cell: Conviction, Ubisoft is employing a sneaky trick with its approach to stealth-based gameplay: it's thrown in a co-op mode. Fine, so the franchise previously touched on buddy-buddy sneaking with 2006's Double Agent - but co-op play was only available on the Xbox and PS2 versions of the game. Conviction's multiplayer represents the first attempt since then to give us a narrative-led, two-player spin on the usual Sam Fisher shtick. As it so happens, neither you nor your co-op chum will be taking control of Fisher himself. Here in multiplayer, the limelight is shared by two new characters: a Third Echelon operative named Archer, and a Russian codenamed Kestrel - an agent from the Voron intelligence agency.
The main course on Conviction's multiplayer menu will be what appears to be a surprisingly meaty co-op campaign that acts as a prologue to Fisher's single player adventures. The plot concerns the sudden disappearance of four powerful Russian EMP devices, with Archer and Kestrel rushing to find the weapons before they are sold on the Black Market. Under these circumstances some people might opt to just sit on eBay for a week, but the two agents take a more hands-on approach - sneaking and snuffing their way through four missions. The prologue campaign should last between four to six hours, depending on which of the three difficulty levels you play on, and it'll supposedly carry the story right up to the start of Sam's tragic tale - the one where he deals with the trauma of losing his daughter.... by beating people up in toilets.
Alongside the story-driven co-op missions, there will also be four other modes to sample. There's "Hunter", which finds you and a chum silently killing a pre-set number of enemies; "Last Stand", which sounds like it will take after Gears' Horde Mode, and force you to defend an EMP from incoming waves of foes; and "Infiltration", which takes a traditional, pure stealth-based approach to proceedings. Finally, there's also a competitive mode called "Face Off": sadly this won't involve the mutilation of Nic Cage and John Travolta - it's a head-to-head fight with AI enemies thrown in for good measure.
The two new characters are Archer, a Third Echelon operative, and Kestrel, a Russian agent from the Voron intelligence agency.
As cool as these standalone play modes sound, it was the campaign that really caught my attention at Ubisoft's showcase event last month. As luck would have it, it was this part of the game that I was allowed to try out for myself. The section in question represented a brief snippet from the third mission, in which our slippery spies attempt to infiltrate an intelligence archive known as The Yastrev Complex. Somewhere in here there's a Russian Army Major with info the boys need, but he's not about to hand over the data on a silver platter.
Archer and Kestrel might sound like a Butlins cabaret act, but in truth they're not the kind of guys you want to mess with - even if you're safely tucked up in an underground military base. In fact, the co-op agents have pretty much the exact same abilities Sam Fisher has. They're a dab hand when it comes to shooting and climbing, but they can also pull off the new tricks that have been added to the single player campaign. For a start, there's the Last Known Position system - the AI mechanic that leaves behind a translucent white outline when you character is spotted by an enemy. Your foes will automatically concentrate on this marker, allowing you to slip back into the shadows and flank back around. These manoeuvres work well in single player, but with an ally you can really start to toy with your opponents - leading them away from important locations or forcing them to turn their backs on your murderous chum.