"What happens next is up to you." The Ubisoft UK PR who has led me sheep-like to my private E309 gameplay demo of Splinter Cell: Conviction departs with the same words Sam Fisher himself used at the end of the spectacular showing during Microsoft's media briefing. What I'd seen at the press conference blew me away. What I'd seen blew away all my preconceptions about the Splinter Cell series. What I'd seen grabbed me by the scruff of the neck as if I was one of Sam's hapless victims, and shook me to the very core. Now I was about to see, first hand, what game of the show material is all about.
Up close and personal, it's even clearer how much of an influence the Bourne films have had on this makeover of Sam Fisher. Of those Conviction reminds me most of the third and final (perhaps) Bourne movie, Ultimatum. In that movie, Matt Damon's Bourne is a man driven to the edge by the relentless pursuit of him by a shadowy US government. Everyone he knows and loves has either been killed or is gone. Bourne's enemies orchestrated his creation as a super soldier, but crossed a line to kill him. Now he's done running.
In Conviction, Fisher shares much with Bourne. He's a man driven to the edge by the murder of his daughter. Everyone he knows and loves has either been killed or is gone. Fisher's enemies orchestrated his creation as a super soldier, but crossed a line to kill him. Now he's done running. The E309 trailer says it best: "Like any man, when he's pushed to his limits, he's capable of anything. When someone strikes at the ones he loves, he will take any steps necessary. He's looking for answers, for the truth. He'll stand by his convictions." He's done fannying about, basically.
What does this mean for you, the player? Fisher is now a more brutal, aggressive fighter. As an agent gone rogue and on the run he doesn't have access to all the fancy gadgetry that has held him in such good stead down the years. His trademark three-sensor night-vision goggles, for example, are nowhere to be seen. Instead he'll use his environment to prey on his enemies. Cracked wing mirrors for snake cams, that kind of thing.
On the plus side, he's faster and more agile. We see this at the very beginning of the demo. Sam is in a Maltese toilet. He wants information from a bald-headed man. The man pulls a gun on him - Sam quickly, coldly, efficiently, grabs the gun, empties it of its magazine and presses the fingers of his right hand deep into the man's neck. The graphics at this point look too good to be true, but then, astonishingly, without a loading or menu screen, the game puts you in control. This is how the game looks. You're controlling Sam, moving the thumb stick to move the bald man about the toilet as you bash him into submission. The transition has been seamless. This is what Conviction is all about.
Then we get brutal. Sam smashes him into a cubicle door and knees his slumped body in the head. It opens, the man inside, startled, runs out. "Who killed my daughter?!" "Kobin." A movie projects on to the toilet wall. We see Kobin firing a gun. He drove the car that hit her. You need more information. You drag him towards the sinks then slam his head into the toilet mirror. "Where can I find him?" He slumps, blood trickles down the plug hole. The camera follows it with a whoosh and we're transported somewhere else. "In the city. The old mansion on King George Street." This is where we are. As the pathetic mess of a man tells all, we see the mansion, guards out front and on the sides. Fisher is already standing in an alley waiting to infiltrate. You are immersed in the word, the story has moved at a blistering speed. There are so many interesting techniques on show here that we can forget about Splinter Cell taking inspiration from Bourne. How about the next Bourne film, if there ever is one, taking inspiration from Splinter Cell?
Wow. Just... wow. Breathless stuff. But we haven't got time to breath, because Conviction has already whisked us off to the streets of Malta, enveloped by a clear night sky. Here we see another new storytelling technique - Fisher's objective, to infiltrate the mansion, is projected in real time on the mansion itself. Again, no menu screen. It appears as you walk through market stalls and among chattering locals. This kind of thing - objectives projected as headlines on the environment - will characterise the Conviction experience.
There are more gamey tweaks to the core Splinter Cell experience, however. There's a new dynamic stealth system that saturates the colours on screen whenever Sam's concealed by darkness. Objects and enemies, however, remain in full colour, enabling Fisher to plan out his actions from the safety of the shadows and stealth kill at the perfect moment. You're able to drag people into water while hanging on ledges, for example, or fall from ceiling pipes onto hapless goons, plunging knives and god-knows what into weak flesh. These stealth kills are important, because they fuel another new gameplay technique: Mark and Execute.
Fisher is able to mark a number of enemies, putting dots above their heads, for termination, almost like queuing up instant kills. Then, with the press of a button, Fisher executes - firing bullets with unnerving precision. We see this ability used a number of times - bursting into a room through a door, and crashing through a first floor window - both times having marked two goons previously. It's satisfying to watch, especially when the gratuitous slow motion is applied (this is governed by the player - hold down Y on the 360 pad - and is just for kicks).
You might be thinking, surely that's an overpowered ability. What's to stop you spamming mark and execute till the cows come home? Well, Ubisoft Montreal's of course thought of that. Mark and execute can only be triggered following a stealth kill. In this way, you're encouraged to play Conviction stealthily, at least in part. You can go in all guns blazing if you want, as we see when Fisher charges through a door into a room guarded by goons who know he's coming, but it'll be a much harder game. The idea is that you mark, stealth kill, then execute.
In any case, just because you've marked a target, that doesn't mean it's a guaranteed kill. If a red circle appears above the mark's head, it is. But often it won't be red, instead varying degrees of whitish colours. This tells you how likely it is that your execute will instakill. It's dependent on the weapon, and the range. Your weapon choice affects the number of targets you can mark at once, too. So, as you can see, there's a great deal of strategy to the combat.
And finally, Fisher is able to play a game of cat and mouse with the AI with the Last Known Position technique. It's a sort of aggro system, where you're able to attack the attention of bad guys, break line of sight and leave an outline of yourself for your own visual reference of where they think you are. We see this in action as Fisher leaps out of a window as the face off against Kobin gets ugly. His guards head over to his... you guessed it... last known position. Meanwhile, Fisher scrambles towards another window, leaping in from the outside in a surprise attack. It's all for naught though, as troops storm the building just as Kobin's about to spill the beans. He doesn't, and it looks like you're captured. Whatever will happen next...
What's clear is that Ubisoft Montreal has re-jigged Fisher so that he's as much of a predator as, well, the Predator. He's incredibly powerful - his increased speed, agility and new techniques afford him the power to take on scores of bad guys in the blink of an eye. Conviction is of course grounded in reality - he's no superhero - but you do get the impression that he's more than a man. Not quite human, not quite mutant. Somewhere in-between perhaps.
Ubisoft Montreal has also incorporated elements from the hugely successful Assassin's Creed. While the game is structured in a linear fashion, with a story that plays out at blistering speed, each level is designed to be a mini sandbox, allowing players the space and freedom to tackle objectives in varied ways. The way he scrambles up walls and free climbs across the sides of bridges, it's more than a tad reminiscent of Altair's antics. A light and shadow path has been moulded into each level deliberately to facilitate this play style. It's up to you to find them.
And, of course, it looks absolutely stupendous. It's up there with the best at E309, up there with Heavy Rain, Assassin's Creed 2, Alan Wake and Mass Effect 2. The term production values is one we game hacks like, but Conviction seems to like it more. The graphics, combined with non-stop, in-your-face action and a blistering, relentless pace that does some genuinely innovative things with storyline, suggest a game that really could be not only what Splinter Cell fans have been waiting for, but what Bourne fans have been waiting for, too. "What happens next is up to you." Is dribbling an option?
Splinter Cell: Conviction is due out for Xbox 360 and PC this Christmas.