Splinter Cell Conviction Impressions: More Panther, Less Grandma

I wasn't playing the new Splinter Cell right at the Tokyo Game Show last week. So the game's creative director reached over and turned off god mode.

What you shouldn't do when trying out a level of Splinter Cell Conviction is to make Sam Fisher run through a warehouse, shooting wildly. That's not what Max Beland, creative director of the game at Ubisoft, wants, because it doesn't work when the cheats are turned off.

In Japan last week at the Tokyo Game Show, Beland showed me a new sequence of Conviction, a chunk of a level excised for examination by the press. Since early June, Beland and his colleagues had only been showing a special demo version of one of the game's earlier levels, a shortened sequence designed to show off named features like "Mark and Execute" and "Last Known Position." The level shown in Tokyo, however, represented a more complex gameplay scenario. It offered a taste of how Conviction will play past its training-wheel stages.

This new night time level involved Fisher infiltrating a warehouse where a terrorist group was creating EMP bombs to detonate in Washington, D.C. Fisher approached the mission in his spy gear, signature tri-lensed goggles on his head. I'd need to use Sam's new moves. but I'd have to be careful.

The Mark and Execute feature lets the player tag a few enemies for the kill, marking each with a tap of a controller shoulder button. That causes small icons to appear over their heads. Fisher is able to rapidly and automatically shoot and kill any marked opponents with the single press of a button — but only after he's killed one with a melee move. The catch is that melee kills only work when an enemy is approached from behind.

So imagine the possible tactical approaches needed to successfully mark and execute when Fisher, outside of the warehouse, comes upon three soldiers standing near each other for guard duty. Trying to melee any one of them as they stood together would alert the other two and result in a quick death.

I marked a pair of them and waited for a third to wander off. I then had a creeping Sam spring out of the shadows to beat down the wanderer. As soon as the guy was dead, I held down the execute button to cause Fisher to wheel around and quickly pop shots off at the two marked guards. The set-up took 30 seconds. The finish occurred in a flash.

Splinter Cell Conviction Impressions: More Panther, Less Grandma

Creeping closer to the building, I encountered a man i from whom Fisher needed information. He looked like the other guards, but Fisher's crosshairs turned into an X when they drifted over him. I couldn't kill the guy. Instead, approaching the man triggered a change in the game's lighting. I had begun an interrogation sequence. The background darkened as Fisher and the man were isolated, as if by spotlights during a play. With limited freedom of movement, I could make Fisher smash the guy into a truck's door, against a tree or just into Sam's fists. This is how you get information from the bad guys in Splinter Cell: Conviction, punctuated, in this sequence, with a knife stab through the hand. No Geneva Conventions here.

I crept through some dark areas as I worked my way into the building. Even in darkness, I did not need night vision to see, notably. In dark areas the game's graphics become grainy, but the expected night-vision overlay doesn't come into play. Beland doesn't like green night-vision sequences in games and told me that Fisher's goggles aren't used for anything like that; just for sonar scans, which show enemy positions through walls.

Inside the warehouse the situation would get tougher. The big warehouse room was full of guards who were on the move. Standing still, they'd be easy marks. In motion, they weren't. I tried to mark them, then tried to drop onto another for the starter melee kill. I messed it up and started the running and gunning. Beland must have been shaking his head. He told me he was going to turn god mode off. My Fisher would now take damage and was quickly nearly bullet-shot to death.

Splinter Cell Conviction Impressions: More Panther, Less Grandma

To shake the enemies, I used the Last Known Position feature, which, during alert moments, automatically displays a ghostly after-image of Fisher's body where the enemies last have sight of him. I got the bad guys looking for Sam in one spot as I dropped into the shadows. A white translucent Sam Fisher outline remained above, marking the last known position. I made Sam creep through an underground tunnel, turned on sonar radar when he emerged to orient their positions, and crept back up and over for the kills. Who needs god mode, huh?

Running out of time to play much more, I brought Sam to a smaller room and threw a sticky camera onto the ceiling above a trio of guards. The camera can be used to mark distant enemies for execution. That helps for a set-up, if you can find someone closer to melee — and if you have the marked targets in Sam's line of site. He can't execute if his view is obstructed, after all. I had no time to find a melee victim. So I detonated the sticky camera. Enemies defeated.

Before I had gotten my hands on the game, Beland and a colleague had run through the same level. They'd reached a more advanced area that did an even better job of showing how Conviction's maneuvers need to be used in combination. Fisher had come across a room dug-out in the middle of the floor. It was no bigger than a bus and it had no ceiling. There were three or four guards in it and it didn't have many shadows in which to hide. Fisher could easily mark all of the guards from above, but he'd need a melee kill in order to execute them. He could drop into the room and just start fighting or shooting, but the guards would overwhelm him. The solution to the problem was to mark the guards, then activate a flash bang to stun them all, drop down and melee one of the guys during the confusion, then… execute the rest.

Back at Penny Arcade Expo earlier this month, Beland told witnesses of a different Splinter Cell Conviction demo that he wanted players to experience a more active version of stealth gameplay. He wanted players to take to the shadows like a panther rather than like a grandma, to stalk rather than to hide. With god mode off, I learned, you can do that. The results in Tokyo were disturbingly violent at times, but, in terms of gameplay, quite satisfying.

Splinter Cell Conviction is set for release in February on the Xbox 360 and PC.

(NOTE: The top two images for this post is a screenshot for the game. The last is concept art of the level I played at TGS.)