Splinter Cell Conviction was one of the hottest revelations at E3 this year, but since then the game has been keeping as low a profile as a secret agent who's decided to go rogue. Ubisoft's demo in LA offered an intriguing taste of a new approach for the franchise: a darker and meaner Splinter Cell, featuring a broodingly cinematic aesthetic and Sam Fisher in full-on crazy nutjob mode. After such a tantalizing first bite, most of us were keen to get stuck in to a second helping of the game. Obviously, that's a metaphor - it would probably be rather unpleasant if you actually bit into the disc. You'd probably cut your cheek open with a shard of DVD. And then you wouldn't be invited to anymore preview events.
In any case, those of you waiting to see more of Conviction will have to wait a little longer, because Ubi's first showcase merely afforded us an opportunity to play through the E3 level. Well, I say merely - but when the demo in question is as exciting as this, it's hard to find much to grumble about. If you saw any of the footage that went online in June, you'll know the score: Fisher has abandoned Third Echelon, and is now in Malta, hot on the trail of the scumbag who killed his daughter - supposedly a drug dealer named Andriy Kobin.
It's somewhat unusual for a game demo to begin in a toilet, but that's where our story kicks off today. But Fisher isn't here to "snip off one of Bungle's fingers,"; he's a bereaved parent, and he's madder than Jack Bauer with mad cow disease. Our hero has cornered a man who knows something about Sarah's death, and so he interviews this chap through the subtle medium of Extreme Violence. The player uses the left analogue stick to drag the poor sod about the bath room until he's in front of an interactive hotspot. You can ram his face into a mirror, smash his head through a sink, and throw him through the wooden door to a cubicle. It is, needless to say, a lot of fun - and once our new friend has had enough punishment, he gladly spills the beans.
If you did see the E3 demo, you may have assumed that stuff had been cut out of the game for the sake of maintaining a fast n' fluid presentation. That doesn't appear to be the case, however: as soon as Sam learns what he needs to know, the game warps forward in time to a point where he's about to infiltrate a heavily-guarded mansion, with a voice-over from the toilet victim serving as both an introduction to the area and as plot transition. It's a remarkably fresh approach, even when you're seeing the game for the second time: there's no faffing about with load screens or with lengthy cutscenes, just the visual equivalent to a skip, hop and jump.
The next section of the game felt a bit more like classic Splinter Cell, albeit with a colder and more violent tone. It's late evening, and there are a series of market stalls between you and your objective.(in case you'd somehow managed to forget what you're supposed to be doing, the words INFILTRATE THE MANSION are beamed onto the building's walls). There are several approaches you could take, but the most sensible choice is to jump over the edge of a nearby parapet, allowing Sam to climb around the edge of the market without being spotted. As you inch along the edge you're able to eavesdrop on several guards who are talking about Fisher being on the rampage. It's always rather pleasing when games pull this trick, as it makes you feel like an unstoppable badass - a feeling that is then further boosted when you insta-kill a bad guy leaning against the ledge with his back to you. At the touch of the button, you reach up and pull your foe over the drop.
The body count starts to accelerate as Sam enters the compound. As our renegade spy climbs to the top of a handy drainpipe, he spots two goons through a window. This unlucky pair represent a perfect opportunity to test out the new mark-and-execute system. Depending on the weapon you're holding, and provided that you've charged up the ability through close-combat takedowns, Conviction allows to select a number of enemies who can then be killed in a single attack. You simply use your aiming reticule to mark your targets, then wipe them out by hitting Y. If you're feeling macabre, you can even hold the button down for a slow-mo murder.
Ubisoft says that the gameplay in Splinter Cell Conviction will be built around a three-part cycle that they're referring to as "prepare, execute, vanish". This strategy is fairly obvious in broad terms - make a plan, do it, and then get the hell out of Dodge - but it seems as if you'll have a fairly wide degree of choice over your approach to a given situation. If you watched the E3 videos, you'll know that things kick off once Sam gets inside the mansion - resulting in a situation where he has to square off against a whole team of heavily armed bad guys with guns. During the LA presentations the demo players chose this moment to go Rambo (or perhaps Jason Bourne), but from what I can tell it should be possible to tackle this moment in a quieter, more stealthy way.
That was the theory anyway. In practice I wasn't quite agile enough to pull off the Tenchu approach, but it certainly seems that the basic tools are there: you can still shoot out the lights, take people down from behind and the like. And for all the emphasis on being brutal and primitive, there are still some classic spy gadgets to use: an EMP device in your backpack that will temporarily disable machinery, and the familiar sticky camera that can be shot at a wall (bonus: it now explodes on command).As soon as you alert the mansion guards they'll whizz about like heavily armed hornets, but I'm still sure that you could take them down silently if you stuck to the shadows. Even when you are spotted by one of your enemies, you can still lead them astray thanks to the new AI system that makes your opponents focus on your last known location: just pop into view, duck back into the shadows and then flank the bad guys.
But even if you don't manage such subtleties, I'm sure that most people are going to be swept away by Conviction. Yes, the new style looks brilliant with its projected objectives and videos: even as something as mundane as a staircase can become something quite compelling - the canvas for a flashback to Sarah's untimely death. As sad as it may be for Sam that he's lost his daughter, he now seems to be far more interesting than he ever was before - dishing out Krav Maga beatings with a fearsome fury. There's even an air of mystery to the characters who we already know. It's confirmed that Anna Grimsdottir will be back, but is she still a friend, or has she "done a 24" and turned traitor? And what are the motives of Victor Coster - Sam's old Navy Seals buddy? There are many questions, but there's only one way we're going to find the answers... and it'll have to wait until Q1 2010.
Splinter Cell: Conviction will be released on the PC and Xbox 360 in between January and March 2010.