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Splinter Cell: Conviction

Murder in the Dark

"The thing you have to understand is this: the Sam Fisher you knew is dead." This is the first line of dialogue from Splinter Cell: Conviction's opening cut-scene, though it's been so long since we last saw the tippy-toed hero that it's hard to remember exactly what we knew in the first place. Ubisoft promise that it's actually coming out for real this time, though. The release date has been slipperier and more evasive than Fisher himself, but now it's definitely done. Finished. Out in April.

Next it's on to a slightly awkward dream/memory/tutorial sequence where Fisher tucks his daughter into bed. She's having a hard time sleeping as she's afraid of the dark, but Daddy cheers her up by telling her that darkness is fantastic and that you're much safer in it. Hint. Leaving her bedroom, Sam discovers that his house is under attack by a murderous mob of intruders - the game shows how evil they are by having the villains discuss raping any women they find in the house - and doesn't hesitate to whip out his pistol and dispatch some swift justice. Alas, poor burglars, there shall be no raping for you. This sequence reminds us of the following: 1) that Sam has elite NSA training and 2) he doesn't take kindly to people messing with his family.

But now Fisher's daughter is dead, run over by a drunk driver. Like the one decent season of 24 where Jack Bauer has to protect his family, the new edgy Fisher is driven by grief and his own personal motives. Seeing as how the game's opener has him fiddling with a bomb in the White House, though, it's probably safe to assume that his quest to discover the truth may have some overlap with a dastardly scheme that threatens to destroy freedom, justice and the American way. Nevertheless, it gives Ubisoft a good reason to bring Fisher out of retirement and into grisly interrogation scenes that usually involve heads going through furniture.

The game kicks off good and proper 72 hours before mucking about in the White House, and we see Sam taking a retirement break in Valletta, enjoying a coffee from an upmarket bistro and - seeing as how he hasn't got a book, newspaper or Nintendo DS - taking in the bustling, sun-kissed populace going about their day-to-day lives. The peace and quiet is upset by a waiter delivering a mobile phone and Bluetooth headset and darts off before Fisher can say he actually ordered a slice of blueberry cheesecake. On the other end of the line is Sam's former techie colleague Anna Grimsdottir, who immediately tells him that the death of his daughter was no accident and that there's some armed guards coming to kill him so he should probably leave his caramel latte for another day.

That's how long it takes for Fisher to slip back into his old routine of spending three quarters of his life hunched over and sneaking up on baddies. Sam's now skulking around in a well-lit civilian area, though, and the game is doing its best to remind us that this is a new Splinter Cell with new design mentalities.

Take the rejigged cover system, for instance. Our new Sam effortlessly bounces around from point to point, with an on-screen marker popping up to let the player know when it's possible to zip from one location to the next. Sam can also aim from within cover, only popping his vulnerable noggin into the open when taking the shot. He's faster, has a far more accurate aim than in previous games and isn't nearly as bothered about being caught in the act.

In darkness, colour bleeds from the screen and the game renders in black and white. Meticulous gamers shrewd enough to perpetually escape detection will feel like they're stuck in an arty French movie, but the rest of us will see it as a handy on-screen indictor to know when there's enough time line up the perfect headshot. Whilst it's now possible to assault the enemy, it's by far the harder (and less stylish) way to play. Sam's still likely to receive a prompt trip to the Game Over screen if he tries to engage any pack of enemies directly.

Despite all the heavily publicised additions and changes (you can read more about those in our earlier previews of the game) there are still plenty of moments when it feels like every other Splinter Cell game. Fisher spends plenty of time shooting out light sources, for instance, and carefully evaluating the situation is always a better idea than charging forward. Mark and Execute might allow him to pop off a couple of mooks - in glorious action movie style - with a single button, but the game has a habit of throwing in more enemies to compensate.

The whole idea is to empower Fisher whilst keeping the signature qualities of the series intact. Stealth is still the greatest weapon, but the game is trying to make Fisher into more of a dangerous predator - Ubisoft are fond of the panther analogy - on the prowl as opposed to a stationery spider that waits for the target to walk into a trap. You still spend plenty of time crawling across conveniently located pipes, mind you.

Singleplayer promises to last a good 10-12 hours across 11 levels, though there's a whole assortment of multiplayer and co-op modes to bring more value to the overall package. There's the standard bevy of perks and levels, with the game featuring the Persistent Elite Creation system seen in the Rainbow Six: Vegas series, though the main draw for most gamers will be the dedicated co-op mode.

Here two players assume the roles of Archer and Kestrel, a buddy-cop pairing of US and Russian special operatives, and apply all the same tricks from the singleplayer across 4 fiendish levels. In one instance, me and a partner found ourselves bounding, climbing and crawling our way across an area and unable to use deadly force. Being spotted meant immediate failure - reminiscent of earlier titles in the series - and the only way to progress was to stay in constant communication. Tricky but satisfying.

Splinter Cell: Conviction wears its influences on its sleeve, and that's high-octane action movies alongside the holy 'JB' trinity of Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne and James Bond. Ubisoft have gone to great lengths to make their game more fundamentally accessible and much less fiddly without sacrificing difficulty and, from what I've played of the near-final build, the approach is paying dividends. It's set to be a glorious return to form for the much-loved series.

Splinter Cell: Conviction will (almost definitely) be released for 360 and PC on the 16th of April.

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