No game genre experienced as rapid a rise and fall as stealth. When Metal Gear Solid introduced it to the masses, it was dramatic, loaded with tension and oozed originality. But as quickly as it ignited the gaming world, the genre's quality was extinguished by lazy clones. For a while every game with a third-person perspective seemed to include sneaking and strangling from behind, and even today it rears its ugly head in most action titles.
Once fresh and invigorating, sneakily moving past security guards quickly felt slow and painstaking, and even the mighty Metal Gear series began to falter. The only series that really made the sneak-'em-up worth exploring yet again was Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, starring the light footed Sam Fisher and his employers, the Third Echelon. But today even Sam couldn't get away with yet another corridor shuffling romp, so something new was needed, and that comes in the form of 'social stealth'.
Conviction is the next Ubisoft Splinter Cell title, and it seems to do a decent job of re-inventing stealth by turning it on its head. Most of the emphasis this time is not on using light and shadow or foot soldiers' lockers as a hiding place, but rather getting seen by as many people as possible.
That doesn't mean waving your arms in a security guard's face and whooping like a sea-lion though. Instead you must blend in with large crowds and act as innocuously as possible. The plot, which Ubisoft is keeping close to its chests, sees Sam cast out of the security of the Third Echelon, who have become his pursuers for no apparent reason. Without the back up of powerful weaponry, hi-tech gadgets and military medical supplies, Fisher is on the run as a normal civilian, attempting to evade capture whilst investigating the reasons behind his new position in what could be a classic Hitchcock tale of the chased and the chaser.
The level available for demonstration was based on a Washington DC park, and made it clear that interacting with a crowd involved far more than simply blending in. Manipulating the gathered NPCs, who can appear in groups of around 100, meant distracting them, scaring them and managing their movement. For example, stealing a mobile phone from a pocket causes them to send a security guard in your direction, allowing you to lure him from his patrol route to a hidden area where you can put him out of action. Smashing up a café, blowing up a gas cylinder and generally acting suspiciously also caused different reactions in the crowd, allowing Sam to take advantage of any ruckus he had caused and slip unnoticed into an out-of-bounds building.
Countless dynamic objects add an additional depth to this new model of stealth. Tables and chairs for example can be used to hide behind, or as a weapon, or even to block doors you have just walked through to prevent you pursuers from following you. 'Dynamic objects' is a bit of a buzzword for now, so only time will tell how many actually exist in the game world.
With all these new functions and options, you could expect the typically intricate stealth control system to get even more complex, but instead the developers have created a far simpler interface. Controls are now contextual, meaning a simple system focussed generally on three buttons has been created. Though it was not completely confirmed, it seems something along the lines of an 'attack, hide, use' type system, that has been designed to be as accessible as possible. It certainly looked like it did the job, though of course only hands-on time can prove the worth of any new control scheme.
On the 360, the game certainly impressed visually. All of the exterior elements were dripping with attention to detail, and the series' hallmark lighting and shadow effects have superseded themselves again, though it seems they will not be included in the gameplay very regularly. The characters themselves also looked great, but what really shone was the animation, or rather the adaptive changes in animation that allow intricate combinations of movement that should have a direct impact on the gameplay.
For example, running away from a police officer, whilst picking something up on the trot and turning back to place it in position as a barrier without stopping is perfectly possible thanks to some clever programming that appears to allow for a fluid combination of various moves without hindering your gameplay experience.
With an online and multiplayer mode barely hinted at, other details on Splinter Cell: Conviction were thin on the ground. There were suggestions that the game would stick to realism, focussing its attention on Washington and the surrounding area, and any rumours of a PlayStation3 version were quietly ignored.
It still remains questionable whether the market needs another stealth game when even titles as awful as Family Guy contain elements of the genre. With social stealth already featuring in Ubisoft's other big action release Assassin's Creed, it already seems the concept is turning into a fashion, which could mean a fad we will grow bored of quickly. Regardless, though the public may be tiring of the genre as a whole, Sam Fisher still seems to have plenty of fans, meaning this intriguing looking title may have something to offer a large percentage of the gaming community when it comes out in November.