Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction – hands-on

Picking up roughly two years after the events in Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Conviction puts you into the role of one very angry Sam Fisher and aims to strike a new balance between tip-toe snooping and punchy action. In the hands-on session we played at Microsoft's X10 conference yesterday, we played the first two levels – Merchant's Street Market and Kobin's Mansion –to get a sense of how it all went down.

Conviction is still a third-person stealth action game loaded with shadowy environments, silenced pistols, and high-tech, hand-held EMP devices. But in this new chapter, instead of the dual role he played in Double Agent, Fisher is a hardened, dangerous, loose cannon, ready to snap the neck off anyone in his way. The pace is faster, the action is more physical, and the presentation (video, objectives, seamlessness) are TV-like. Using a few borrowed Rainbow Six Vegas mechanics (marking and executing enemies, for instance) infuses the stealth gameplay with more vibrancy than the series has seen in years. And, to make things more up front and personal, you're rewarded for engaging in physical combat, which transitions Fisher from all that sneaky shadow killing to more of a "Oh, hi! I'm breaking your arm in 0.5 seconds" kind of combat.

Visually, Conviction provides a cleaner, more defined looking, plain-clothes Fisher, touched up with short haircut and a little gray around the edges. Fisher regularly finds himself in populated areas, such as high density cafes, restaurants and county fairs. This slightly new tactic for Ubisoft Montreal, more often than not, creates a sense of immediacy and horror. Nobody wants to put a bunch of innocent pedestrians at risk, and the crowds make it easier to lose enemies but also harder to stealthily kill anyone.

The first level is a big training session. Fisher starts with nothing but a handgun. Replete with weird Max Payne-like flashbacks with Fisher talking to his four-year-old daughter (who looks like a scarily animated puppet), the Merchant's Street Market level introduces hand-to-hand combat and the Rainbow Six Vegas inspired "mark and execute" moves. The system is pretty slick, and starts off with your ability to knock off two enemies at a time.

To earn mark and execute abilities, Fisher must perform hand-to-hand kills. As you earn points by exploring a variety of ways to better your opponent, you'll earn points, which translate into currency to upgrade weapons or buy more powerful ones. For instance, Fisher can modify the default MK.23 silenced handgun with hollow-point tips or add an item to smooth out kickback, making it more accurate. Or he can simply buy a better weapon. Better weaponry is tied into the mark and execute system: select weapons enable Sam to kill four or even five successive enemies, instead of just two. Fisher is encouraged to pick up every weapon an enemy drops, activating those weapons in lockers hidden throughout levels.

The tail-end of the level reveals the E3 demo where Fisher interrogates a thug connected with his daughter's murder. By slamming him into the bathroom's mirrors, sinks, and toilets, Fisher makes very hard porcelain appear as fragile as a wine glass. It's a wonder these thugs can talk at all after their jaws shatter.

Once through the market, Fisher enters into more familiar ground, Kobin's Mansion, filled with lots of rooms, balconies to hang from, and strategically placed ceiling pipes perfect for drop kills. If the Merchant's Street Market was all about crowds and the outdoors, Kobin's Mansion deals with more confined areas requiring more stealth, precision, and planned attacks.

Actually, the mansion contains pretty large rooms filled with multiple options from which to hide and/or attack. You'll see obvious things like bright shiny chandeliers, ripe for dropping on a few enemies, or enemies standing just beyond a door. Using the broken side mirror from his car, Fisher can peek under doors to plan attacks, and by bashing the door down onto an unsuspecting enemy on the other side, you'll earn hundreds of points.

One of the newer features is LKP, or Last Known Position. If spotted by an enemy with a flashlight, a silhouette of Fisher will remain on screen in that location, drawing all enemies to that spot. You simply flank around them as they search the area, picking them off one by one. The new feature encourages movement, not squatting or camping, and keeps the action lively. On the whole, the enemy AI is pretty lively, too, thoroughly checking every nook and cranny of a room, and quickly reacting to any suspicious movement.

Ultimately, you'll find Kobin and tortur… er, "interrogate" him, to learn why he killed your daughter. But Conviction wouldn't end after just two levels, would it? So, after beating the pulp out of Kobin and getting some answers, Conviction opens up a bigger conspiracy, which we’ll find out all about when the game releases this April 13th.

Feb 16, 2010