Splinter Cell: Conviction
What's a modern developer to do? The problem: as the cost of games development balloons higher, bumping up the retail price, consumers demand more value with each and every shiny disc they intend to purchase. The likes of Modern Warfare, Gears of War and Halo have set a precedent of games sporting fully-fledged (and fleshed out) multiplayer modes alongside their gripping single-player adventures. It's all one big Catch-22 situation. And you just try and get the money for all that from the suits holding the money briefcases.
But Sam Fisher isn't exactly an unknown quantity, and Ubisoft have been funnelling his latest adventure shiny coins from their lucrative coffers for yonks now, completely safe in the knowledge they hit rock bottom with the maligned 2007 beardy-Sam debacle. It's probably a meaty enough title to stand on its own - we've previewed its Bauer-meets-Bourne singleplayer escapades twice now - but Ubisoft have called us to their stables on this occasion to show off how adamant they are to feed gamers a little something extra. "It became apparent that co-op was the way to go", says co-operative design virtuoso Patrick Redding.
Not Spies versus Mercenaries, then? Let's not forget the adversarial mode Splinter Cell's been dabbling with since 2004, which has finally seen the chop for, I presume, being a lot more fun on paper than in reality. It only makes sense for Ubisoft to rejig the multiplayer.
Now there's a fricassee of traditional modes, starting with the game's 'Deniable Ops' missions. Deniable Ops contains four game types, with each aiming to be entertainingly functional instead of revolutionary. The Hunter mode, for instance, smacks entirely of Arkham Asylum's stealthy challenge rooms, dumping one or two players into a cherry picked section of another map and having them pick off all the meticulously placed opposition as quickly as possible. Hardly redefining multiplayer gaming, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn't fancy giving it a go. Last Stand is your typical (and presumably mandatory) survival mode, with the two of you holding down a nuclear warhead from as many never-ending waves of goons as possible.
The most boring of the Deniable Ops appears to be Face Off, which functions as a simple deathmatch argy-bargy instead of an exciting replica of John Woo's 1997 movie of the same name. The last mode, Infiltration - described as a "present to the loyal Splinter Cell fans" by Redding - is an ultra-punishing run through the game's co-op levels where being detected causes an instant game over.
But it's undoubtedly the aforementioned co-op mode which makes up the bulk of Ubisoft's multiplayer focus. Billed as a prologue campaign to the single-player game, it clocks in between an apparent five and six hours - though assume more if you and your partner dance around like drunken double amputees with two left prosthetics. It's all set (before the main Conviction campaign) in the grimy remnants of collapsed federation Russia, with the skintight-outfit-loving lot at Third Echeleon working out, probably by using some fancy spy technology like you'd see in an episode of Spooks, that a handful of old (but still deadly, one would assume) Russian warheads have gone absent. It's a bit of a politically sensitive situation, understandably, which forces arrogant Third Echelon agent Archer into an unwanted partnership with Voron agent Kestrel, his sullen Russian equivalent. "These two guys, in that classic buddy movie set-up, have to get along with each other and be able to team up", says Redding.
Which will at least stop couples arguing over who gets to be Sam Fisher. But Archer and Kestrel represent far more than that, at least according to Redding: "one of the challenges in a series as well established as Splinter Cell is that people have a certain affinity for [Sam Fisher]. People recognise Michael Ironside's voice, and there's a certain cynicism in there that they find really compelling. One of the things that we did was say what can we do to make [Archer and Kestrel] not the stereotypical - oh, it's the graduating class of Splinter Cell school - y'know? We didn't want to go there. In the end what we realised was that out of espionage literature and film is that there's a lot of interesting archetypes we can play with." To be fair, I'd be more than content if they just dug out some classic buddy cop movie tropes.
Get down to the nitty gritty of the proceedings and it's exactly what you'd expect. Enemies pour in from multiple choke points, forcing you to assist each other, and certain obstacles require the both of you to press buttons at the same time to overcome them. Teamwork, then. Some of the game's highlights are also some of its most elementary touches, such as sections where one play can move into an advantageous position - over a well-placed office partition or up into the ceiling - and give the cosmopolitan duo the drop on an unsuspecting group of guards.
Conviction's new features all remain intact, too. Most prominent is Mark and Execute, which allows each player to queue up a series of targets, only with the co-op game sharing the marks between both. In practice it allows one player to tag an enemy walking in the direction of their partner, giving them the ability to pop off one of the game's slick, slow-mo instant kills.
The grizzled interrogations carry over, too. At the end of the mission on show one of the pair is forced to cover the other from attacking enemies whilst they're smacking around (read: subtly extracting information from) their target. Here, and unlike in the singleplayer game, it feels like there's still a gameplay world when the interrogation sequences are being carried out. It all goes bad when there's a tussle and the interrogator becomes the interogee (probably not a word) - forcing the other co-op player to do something swish to save the day. We weren't allowed to see what: the screen fades to black at this point.
It's good, then, but in many respects it further exemplifies the game's biggest problem: knowing when, and how, to create those big, flash moments in the game's landscape of whizzy tools, spiffy destruction and sweet, sweet stealthy bits. The AI is touted as tricky and emergent, which means you shouldn't be able to flawlessly run the same route day in, day out: even the folks at Ubisoft, who've played the level a fair bit, ran into a few sticky situations.
But is that sort of gameplay really a problem? Overcoming adversity should be half the fun, after all, and the game equips each player with enough gadgets and abilities to wriggle their way out when things inevitably go asunder. Knowledge, as they say, is power - the old saying indubitably carries over to the co-op levels Conviction. Mark & Execute and the Prepare, Execute and Vanish loop might look and sound better written on the back of the box, but it's a firm understanding of the twists and turns of each level, and you and your partner knowing where best to position yourselves, that gives you the best chance of having the action on the screen mirror something out of a edgy summer blockbuster.
Linking all the modes together, unsurprisingly, is a persistent experience system that allows you to unlock all sorts of shinier, whizzier equipment as you go along. It's the same feature as was used in Rainbow Six: Vegas, which is still in the fairly unique position of allowing players to customise their in-game players. Although there's only so much you can do with players who dress entirely in black - different goggle colours, perhaps?
Ubisoft are aiming for both quality and quantity with their multiplayer modes, and after my brief hands-on it feels that the co-op mode, at least, is far more than just a token add-on. The other modes look decent, too, but I wasn't allowed a go. If Modern Warfare 2 (and, of course, history) has taught us anything, though, it's that America and Russia can't get on for too long: Archer and Kestrel just might be the first harmonious pairing in history. Or perhaps they'll just end up killing each other.
Splinter Cell: Conviction is out for Xbox 360 on the 26th February. Our thanks to Patrick Redding and the team at Ubisoft.