Splinter Cell Conviction Preview: A Smoother OperatorS

Ubisoft hadn't shown Splinter Cell Conviction to the public in two years but brought it back impressively this E3. The game's creative director said it could be tricky for people to play during an E3 demo. But the game seemed to play quite well from what we witnessed.

What has wowed people at E3 who have seen the new Conviction in action is how cinematic and how stylish it looks at every second. One striking visual signature is the giant mission goal text directions that appear to be digitally painted on the walls of buildings as you stalk through the game's open-world levels. Imagine a mansion painted with full-story-high letters telling you to infiltrate it. Or imagine having your mission directives displayed as a black-and-white film projected dynamically on a bathroom wall on and around Sam and the guy he's beating up.

But is stylishness what Sam Fisher and his world needed?

What Is It?
Splinter Cell Conviction is the fifth console Splinter Cell game, slated for an exclusive launch on the Xbox 360 later this year. When it was shown in 2007 it seemed to feature an unkempt Sam Fisher elbowing his way through a park in Washington D.C. A preview trailer for the revamped game leaked before E3, suggesting that the game had been changed and would be re-introducing some of the slickness of Sam in his super-spy prime.

What We Saw
Brian Crecente and I both witnessed part of a demo level set up by Ubisoft for E3, which was demoed by the creative lead on the game. The demo opened with Sam Fisher beating up a guy in a bathroom before Sam's objectives were displayed on the bathroom wall. This semi-interactive scene segued into a more traditionally controllable game of hunting enemies — men on city streets and then inside a mansion, in this case — in order to set up the perfect stealth kills.

How Far Along Is It?
The game is set for a fall release, and the slice we witnessed seemed to have most of the bells and whistles of a finished game.

What Needs Improvement?
Whatever Makes It Daunting: The Ubi people demoing the game said it would be challenging for us to play. Such is the nature of all stealth games, it seems. The added complexity of the mark and execute system is the likely culprit, but one would think that the game will teach its players how to play it well. Otherwise? Well, no one likes playing a Metal Gear or Splinter Cell the wrong way, with the alarms blaring and stealth tactics all but abandoned.

What Should Stay The Same?
Targeted Assassination: Splinter Cell Conviction's core mechanic is a smart one that rewards a player's effort for employing stealth tactics with striking rewards. There is a multi-step process. First, Sam must kill a bad guy — any bad guy in the open environment — using hand-to-hand combat. You can spot bad guys by stepping into the shadows. That desaturates color from most of the world. Only enemies remain displayed in color. Once Sam's victim is killed Sam can then target other enemies for stealth assassinations. The number of enemies who can be targeted is determined by the weapon Sam wields. The pistol Sam Fisher had in the demo allowed two targets per time in assassination mode; other guns will permit four. Sam crept into a dark mansion and looked toward two enemies. Pressing a bumper button tagged each one with a circle over their head. Ideally, the player would wait until both tagged victims were within Sam's line of sight. That could require some waiting. Once in line, the circles above the bad guys' heads would change color and I'd press the Y button. Sam would go into a stylish, automated gun or hand-to-hand assassination animation, taking out both guys in one move sequence. Hard work, rewarded.

A Great Look: The game's developers were inspired by some of the in-world floating text seen in the movie Man on Fire and the TV show Fringe. The result is a game world that has text and even movies that splash onto walls, showing the player what his or her motivation is or reminding them of the mission's goals. The game also shows cinematics of levels during loading sequences and even makes some of its in-engine cutscenes interactive, like the opening one in the E3 demo's bathroom that enables the player to have Sam drag the man he's questioning to different parts of the room to see what pressing X does while they talk. (Dragging the guy to the urinal while pressing X is bad for the guy's face, that's for sure.)

Final Thoughts
Splinter Cell Conviction had been absent from the public eye for so long that it was easy to assume it had fallen apart. Instead, it appears to be coming together smartly, as a stealth game that allows the player to stage some terrific action scenes. Few games shown at the press conferences this week at E3 had as confident a visual design. Like many a Ubisoft game, there are strong ideas here. Let's hope they make for a strong game.