Splinter Cell: Conviction.

   13/07/2009 at 20:00       Richard Horne       3 COMMENTS.
For a long time it appeared that Ubisoft was treading water with the Splinter Cell franchise. Some could argue that the second and third Xbox titles were only incrementally better than the last. And that with Double Agent on the Xbox 360, the Canadian giant had quite literally lost the plot with its sub-par graphics and by now, formulaic gameplay mechanics.

Sure, the games had their fans and no doubt their respective multiplayer communities would proclaim their Spies vs Mercenaries gameplay to be the epitome of tense multiplayer action. But Splinter Cell turned into a very esoteric experience. It was difficult to get into the games unless you'd been there from day one and playing as a beginner online was worse than any bad experiences you might have had playing Counterstrike, Halo or Call of Duty.

But fast forward a year or so to when Ubisoft first showed off Splinter Cell: Conviction. When the best things you could say it had going for it were Sam Fisher's new beard, the fact that he could now hide in and amongst busy crowds (something IO Interactive had already done with Hitman: Blood Money) and his new-found ability to throw tables and chairs at people, and well, you could be forgiven for worrying that the series was degenerating into a by-the-numbers generic third person stealth-em-up.

But then came the silence.

[THUMB1]The game's proposed release window came and went and still we heard nothing. Rumours persisted about a complete re-design and these were strenuously and repeatedly denied, but still the guys at Ubisoft remained silent. Many commentators even speculated that after the success of Ubisoft's fresh and new IP Assassin's Creed, the game had been canned altogether.

Then all of a sudden we found ourselves watching a new version of the game being demoed at E3 and the contrast couldn't be sharper. "Sam has changed, and this time he's on a personal mission." So says the game's new tag-line.

And with this second (or even third) version of Conviction, Ubisoft has really pulled out all the stops in order to innovate, instead of simply renovating. Taking cues from its peers and Ubisoft stable mates, the game pick-pockets the best bits from Rainbow 6, Assassin's Creed, the previous Splinter Cell games and Atari's Bourne Conspiracy and distils them down into what frankly looks like potential game of the year material.

[THUMB2]Fisher's animation in Conviction is as fluid, organic and dynamic as Altair's ever was with Sam leaping and bounding from window ledges and ventilation pipes with all the agility and grace you'd expect from a trained super-assassin.

The ways he's able to pin-point and assassinate targets, as well as use everyday objects such as a car wing-mirror or a piece of broken glass in order to peak under doorways is very reminiscent of Rainbow Six: Vegas.

The myriad of brutal ways in which it's possible to use his surrounding environment in order to interrogate or assault his combatants also very much reminds me of the context sensitive takedowns in the Bourne game.

But then this isn't just imitation for imitation's sake. Conviction seems to be cherry picking innovations that genuinely add to the overall experience, while also contributing towards making the environments and the 'rogue-spy seeking revenge on his former employers' cliché believable, engaging and above all compelling.

Conviction's also not short of an innovation or two of its own. Enemies will belligerently track and chase Sam, but if you manage to successfully evade and escape their line of sight, you'll see a ghostly shadow highlighting exactly where the enemy last saw him. Which cleverly allows you to flank or surround your enemy while he's still looking out of the window you leapt out of thirty seconds ago.

[THUMB3]The game also makes for a hugely cinematic and immersive experience in the ways in which it presents its level objectives and flashbacks. Ubisoft has deliberately designed the game so that it doesn't remove you from the action with lengthy cut-scenes or CGI interludes. Instead, flashbacks or mission objectives are projected on to Sam's surrounding environments. Instructions such as "Infiltrate the mansion", "Get Sarah's Killer" or a telling piece of intel, carefully coerced out of a target are stylishly rendered on the walls.

Ubisoft explains: "One of our objectives in Conviction is to keep you immersed in our world and make our narrative move at a fast pace. So our story unfolds in realtime, projected in the environment... And we do the same for your objectives."

And while on paper this might sound like an immersion breaker, or the furthest thing from Sam's usual level of discretion, this new mechanic actually looks hugely impressive and in my opinion is set to become the new lens-flare, breast physics or bullet time. In other words, soon to be copied by everyone.

Ubisoft also seems to be striving to ensure the game features no cuts in the action. When moving from one location to another, the game classily zooms slowly out in a Google Earth style before zooming back in again on the next location. There's a definite and conscious attempt at maintaining the flow and pace of the game.

And now, instead of being perceived as a going-through-the-motions lazy sequel, instead we have a Sam Fisher game that has all the hallmarks of Jack Bauer in 24, is as brutal and action-packed as any of the Bourne Films and in fact reminds me a lot of the excellent Taken starring Liam Neeson.

Sam is back and he's badder than ever. And as Ubisoft promises: "Driven by his emotions, Sam is now the ultimate predator. His actions are fast brutal and when needed, lethal." And I for one, would not want to fuck with him. And, unusually for a game that's seemingly gone through development hell, the wait and reboot appears, at first glance, to be worth every single drop of blood sweat and tears that have undoubtedly been shed over the last few years.

On a final note, I just hope that Ubisoft doesn't steal the obligatory screen tearing a lot of its output has suffered from.

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