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Splinter Cell: Conviction Hands-On

We go rogue with Sam Fisher's next mission.

 They should've brought more guys.
 They should've brought more guys.
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction has seen a long and turbulent development cycle, one that finally seemed to have found its footing at E3 2009, when Ubisoft showed a sequence from the game that replaced the shaggy-haired tramp that had originally been cast to play Sam Fisher with a lean and focused revenge engine. It also introduced a host of stylistic and mechanical changes for Splinter Cell--one of the few remaining stewards of the rigid, pure stealth philosophy--showing a game that still encouraged you to operate from the shadows, but with a higher priority on speed and brutality. Ubisoft had that same sequence, preceded by a tutorial that sheds light on the game's mechanics and Sam Fisher's state of mind in equal measure, in a playable form at Microsoft's recent X10 event. As eager as I was to see something genuinely new from Conviction, my 20 minutes with the game left me even more excited for what they haven't shown.
The opening sequence in Conviction hammers home what we already know about the metamorphosis of Sam Fisher from Third Echelon company man to a bitter outsider intent on using his formidable and dangerous abilities to mete out some semblance of justice from those he believes have wronged him. There's an early, eerie flashback at the start of Conviction that serves double duty of introducing some of the game's new mechanics as well as reopening the gaping wound of Sam's daughter's death. Sam explains to his young daughter, afraid of the dark, that it's easier to see the monsters coming and stay hidden when the lights are out--a fundamental truth for Splinter Cell that still rings true in Conviction.
Moments later, the Fisher house plays host to a pair of the world's unluckiest home invaders, who quickly fall victim to Sam's new mark-and-execute ability. This pretty much does what it says, letting Sam mark two enemies and then auto execute them with the press of a button. It's perfect for guards who seem to have a knack for patrolling in pairs, though abuse of this system is tempered somewhat by the fact that you need to first take down another enemy hand-to-hand before mark-to-execute is made available. Incapacitating enemies up-close is also a single-press process, and though I didn't find it hard to keep Sam charged up, it's worth noting that this stuff appears to be from the very, very beginning of the game.
 Cover is your friend.
 Cover is your friend.
Jumping back to modern-day Malta, Sam is on hunt for the man he believes to be responsible for his daughter's death, a man that happens to be holed up in a massive seaside mansion crawling with guards. The open-air markets and cafes surrounding the mansion are similarly infested, which makes them a good place to learn about Sam's cover-to-cover system, which recalls similar systems in games like Gears of War. Make no mistake, Conviction is looking like more of a straight shooter than any of the Splinter Cell games before it, and the shooting feels more forgiving and approachable. I wasn't blind-firing clips into enemies, but I didn't feel like I had to be overly conservative with bullets, either.
Infiltrating the mansion through an open window, I made my way through the mansion, shooting out lights, snapping necks, and using a busted-off car mirror to check under doors before proceeding to the next room. When I did get spotted, disappearing was made significantly easier with the “last known position” feature, which creates a silhouette of Sam where the enemies think you are. Last known position isn't strictly a damage control feature, though--I also found it handy for drawing groups of enemies to a specific location, and then sneaking right past them. The mission cultivated with an interrogation sequence with Sam's target, which punches up outpours of information and exposition with quick flashes of extreme violence. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot to the interrogation process, but I'll be damned if it's not immensely satisfying to smash a guy's head through a piano's keys to get him to talk.
In some ways, Splinter Cell is eschewing some of the mechanisms that made past games such a specific and measured experience with Conviction, which may be disheartening for fans still pining for the good ol' days of stealth action. What it might be losing in mechanical sophistication, though, it's more than making up for with a much more visceral, and personal, experience.