Splinter Cell Conviction
Whilst Splinter Cell Conviction's slick E3 demo featured Sam knee-deep in his vendetta to find out who killed his daughter, the level on show at TGS 2009 has Sam wading through the middle of another problem: EMP bombs scattered around Washington DC. Despite his grumbles, Sam stalks around the terrorist's run-down building like a natural. Not bad for a man supposedly born in the 1950s. It just goes to show that you can take the man out of his SIGINT ninja suit, but you can't take the ninja out of the man.
"What we've tried to do is not pack the game full of features, but make it so that things are accessible, and that you can really feel like you're Sam Fisher" explains executive producer Alexandre Parizeau. "Think about what the [previous Splinter Cell] games have to do to force you to play stealth: you were trying to aim, and you couldn't shoot! It was super hard to shoot, but you're Sam Fisher. This guy can handle a weapon, right? He's trained his entire life, he's been in the Navy Seals - why can't I shoot as well in Splinter Cell as I would in Call of Duty?" To prove a point, Alexandre springs out behind cover, uses a terrorist as a human shield and takes out three guards with quick, well-aimed shots to the head.
Stealth is still very much the focus, and in this new level it's often a necessity. The idea, according to Alexandre, is that the silent approach "makes you even more powerful" and, whilst the game is always exciting, "it's even cooler if you do it with stealth". Which I assume roughly translates to using ace looking takedown moves and shiny gadgets.
Chief among the new toys on show is the return of Sam's treasured goggles. Absent from the E3 demo, the iconic triangle of green lights was definitely a welcome sight. They've been modified, in this level at least, into sonar goggles, which can peek through walls to showcase nearby enemies. It's a much different experience using the glass from a wing mirror to peek around corners. Alexandre tells us that Sam's equipment becomes "more high-tech" as the game progresses, and promises exciting further upgrades. We're more than happy to hold him to that.
Back in the level, and with me eager to test out these new toys in the field, it's revealed that the most pressing objective in Sam's ever-expanding list of tasks is to rescue a captured female scientist from inside the abandoned building currently housing the EMP bomb. The terrorists are a stupid bunch, if their haircuts are anything to go by, and without the scientist they'll be unable to do much with their high-tech computer-wiping tool. But, and following in the footsteps of countless episodes of 24, the scientist is a bit weak, and is more than likely to give in and probably ruin everything. It's clear that Sam Fisher, whilst trying to track down his answers, is begrudgingly becoming America's only hope.
Sam extracts most of his information by force, and learns about the current situation by roughing up a guy, with another needlessly silly haircut, once he's swiftly dispatched his companions. After dunking the victim's head into the bonnet of a car and delivering him a swift kick in the family jewels, there's a quick tussle and Sam plunges the attacker's knife into his hand, affixing him to a nearby tree stump. He soon talks, and a stylish projected movie plays out on the side of the building.
There's definitely a sense of masochism present in Fisher's interrogations. The scenes, viciously choreographed, show the brutal reinvention of Sam Fisher. As Alexandre tells us, "this is a guy that's spent his entire life working for the military. He's lost so many people around him. And now he doesn't even have his job, so he's lost everything". I'd be cross too.
As we've come to expect from the game, there's more than one way to go about your task. It's clear this level is from a later point in the game than the previous E3 mash-up demo: Enemies, not simply walking victims anymore, are positioned in sizable packs and open areas. Despite Sam's considerable bump in combat expertise, he's still rather pervious to bullets, so to effectively dispatch these more aggressive foes the use of all Splinter Cell: Conviction's new tricks is demanded.
In Alexandre's hands, Fisher climbs into the building silently, and skulks into the main room. He takes out the area's many hostiles without breaking a sweat. When I have a go, I waltz in through the front door and immediately alert the guards, who all come bundling out to see what's going on. Despite my ineptitude, it's a good opportunity to test out the game's two bread-and-butter mechanics: the last known position tool, which leaves a silhouette of Sam whenever he evades his pursuers to help plan further attacks, and the mark and execute feature, which allows the player to queue up a limited series of instant, flash executions with a touch of the Y button.
The pistol we're using in this demo comes with a maximum of three marks, which is one more than the handgun in the E3 demo. But our new pistol is louder, which means it's a riskier weapon to use. Alexandre tells us the finished game will have an amount of weapon customisation, so I presume the player will be able to tweak part of their load-out to their own preference. I'd have been quite happy to sacrifice a potential execution for a silencer.
Carrying on, the trend of failing to live up to Alexandre's slick precedent repeats throughout the rest of the level. It becomes clear that turning Sam into a lethally efficient predator is slightly outside of my grasp, and instead I bumble around like a mercenary who is lucky enough to have a good aim and a bag full of whizzy gadgets. But the difficulty is a welcome addition from the easier E3 demo. After slowing down a bit to plan out a course of action, the game takes on a new light, and suddenly I'm leaping out of the shadows and vanishing back into the darkness after taking out my targets, which is immensely satisfying.
Just as I'm about to declare myself the offspring of Jack Bauer and a ninja, my time with the demo comes to an end, with February 2010 flashing up on the screen. When asked about how far along Ubisoft are with development, Alexandre admits "there's a lot of work left. We're in a phase where we need to polish, and iron out the difficulty curve. We really want to make sure it's consistent throughout: that it's a true successor to the Splinter Cell series". In our opinion, Splinter Cell: Conviction looks like it's well on the way.
The TGS demo is rougher, looser and less polished than the one shown at E3. But it's also much more of a game, and we came away from the demo desperate for more. There are still plenty of bits to be tweaked, balanced and optimised, but Ubisoft are clearly treating the game with the utmost respect. And Alexandre's so confident he even tells us Sam Fisher could beat Batman in a fight: "Batman's just a costume", he concludes.