You can't accuse Ubisoft of resting on its laurels. In Splinter Cell it has a tried and trusted franchise with a fan base that knows what it wants: action stealth gameplay, complete with plenty of cool gadgets and a serious storyline. Lead man Sam Fisher is undoubtedly a hard man, but he's always been more about silently infiltrating bases than shotgunning someone in the face. Well, Conviction's Fisher is a broken man. He can't get over the loss of his daughter, and has left the Third Echelon - the black-ops sub-division within the NSA. When a man is this close to the edge, it seems he's a lot more willing to run up to an enemy and fire a pistol into their body at close range. Sam might have lost his trademark black outfit and night vision goggles, but he's more bad-ass than ever before.
Clearly, Ubisoft has decided that in a world where action heroes like Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, and James Bond are more than sneaky agents, Sam Fisher needs to show what a power house he is, and from the opening levels it seems like a wise move. The widely seen interrogation scene that takes place inside a dingy public bathroom is a perfect example of this new Sam. He's on a mission and will stop at nothing to get the information he needs. If that requires a man's skull to be smashed through a sink, into a mirror, and then kicked in, so be it.
You might be concerned that Conviction isn't really a Splinter Cell game at all, but instead a straight up third-person shooter with melee combat, but fear not. After sampling the first few levels of the Xbox 360 version it's clear that Ubi's latest is still very much a Splinter Cell game. Sam doesn't have his night vision goggles (at least not in the stages I've played), but he still uses darkness to stay hidden - the game using grey-scale when you're in the shadows. There's a neat cover system, too, allowing you to hop from location to location while staying out of sight. This isn't Splinter Cell of War, though, with full-on assaults still resulting in death, or at least a hasty backtrack to safety.
What you get here is more brutal stealth gameplay. You may take out some lights to give you a safe passage through an area full of guards, but spot one in isolation and Sam can quickly and easily instant kill him, using a weapon or otherwise. These up close and personal kills are incredibly satisfying and are used to give you access to Conviction's big new feature: Take Downs. A melee kill will grant you use of a takedown, and depending on your weapon this will allow you to mark and instantly kill two or more enemies. You can pre-mark targets, too, so if three enemies are hauled up in a room, you can mark the two most distant ones, storm in, instant kill the guy nearest to you, then tap Y to dispatch the others. It's over in no time at all and no-one's had time to radio in for help.
Gun-play is equally meaty. Your stock silenced pistol will send enemies to an early grave with just a single shot to the head, while semi-auto and automatic guns will let you dispatch goons should you find yourself in a situation where stealth isn't the answer. Popping out of cover to headshot an enemy feels great and performing certain moves will earn you points to spend on weapon upgrades. These upgrade stations are conveniently located in each level, and assuming you're playing the game well enough it doesn't take long to purchase a few essential upgrades to your guns' accuracy and stopping power.
Again, though, this is still Splinter Cell. You may get away with the odd frontal assault, but you're better off going with stealth wherever possible. Pipes have always provided Sam with a way to get a height advantage over his foes, and from what I've played there'll be plenty to climb up in Conviction. By combining Take Downs, well-aimed shots to the head and death from above (leaping onto a enemy below you), you can clear out a group of enemies in a fraction of a second. You'll screw up now and again, but being spotted isn't the end of the world.
Another new mechanic introduced in Conviction is what Ubisoft calls Last Known Position. If an enemy spots you, but then loses sight of you again, they'll head to the last position you were visible. The game shows this by displaying a Sam Fisher marker, and you can use this to your advantage. As long as you stay hidden, it's possible to lure enemies to that location, allowing you to circle around and take them out from behind. Of course, with large groups of enemies it's not always a great idea, but at times you can use the environment to help you out. Certain objects in the game world can be used as traps, with the opening stages featuring hanging statues and aircraft engines as tools of death.
What's abundantly clear is that Ubisoft has invested a lot of money into Conviction. There's a level of production quality (even in this non-complete build) that is rarely seen. I'm not totally convinced by Sam's new appearance (his bearded look in the original Conviction reveal suited his character more), but his model is unquestionably technically excellent. The game's levels are incredibly detailed, packed with incidental objects and people, the lighting is superb, and the animations are excellent, but it's the in-game mission objective and information system that gives Conviction a look like no other game I've played. Mission objective are projected onto buildings in the environment, while story background is often seen via videos overlaid on walls, mirrors, and the like. There's a slight concern that much of the game's visual splendour will be lost due to the frequent loss of colour, but even then it has a superb visual style.
Conviction looks set to be one of the Xbox 360's big console exclusives on its release next month. On top of the meaty campaign, the game will offer a suite of competitive and co-op multiplayer game modes, which could make Conviction the complete package. With Splinter Cell being the only quality stealth series on the market that's grounded in reality (Metal Gear is science fiction), a move to a more action-oriented experience set off alarm bells in my head. For some hardcore fans the new combat options may not still well, but from what I've played they suit the series and Sam's character exceedingly well.
Splinter Cell: Conviction is due for release on Xbox 360 and PC on April 16.