"Dammit, Jack! The President's been taken hostage by Kamchatkans, and you've been framed for it! If you don't steal a helicopter and recklessly endanger the entire city, your daughter will be set on fire and shot into space!"
Oh, 24, you go from strength to ludicrous strength. And such a fertile furrow for a crop of videogames. Yet the universal law of movie-videogame wackness* means that Jack Bauer's pixelated outings have been just another human-rights atrocity for his CV.
Which is where Splinter Cell comes in. A desperate man, happy to go undercover and break a few necks, Sam Fisher has always had more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Bauer, and with the freshest outing, subtitled ‘Conviction', the differences are difficult to identify. Which, if you're in any way a fan of action espionage TV and movies, can only be a good thing.
Sam's gone civilian, trading in his trademark stealth-wetsuit-thing for a mucky jumper and cargo pants. He's also renounced a good deal of his penchant for non-lethal stealth. It's quite a change in design philosophy for Ubisoft, where the highest scores for a Splinter Cell level have traditionally been awarded for not being detected and rendering opponents unconscious.
Let me break it down for the old hands: In Conviction, you cannot render an opponent unconscious. You can't move bodies. You can, however, pick up any weapons you find - silenced or otherwise. These weapons can then be upgraded, provided you've scored enough points - which are acquired by doing things like chucking people through windows or blowing up three guys with one grenade. Yes, the design philosophy has moved a considerable stride along the sliding scale between ‘sneaky' and ‘shooty'. Seeing as most FPSes these days grudgingly allow players to attempt to play stealthily, it looks like action games will eventually all meet in the middle.
That's not to say there's no sneakiness at all. Thanks in large part to an intuitive and nearly frustration-free cover system that lets you scamper furtively from rock to rock without being spotted, most of the excellently-crafted levels are laid out like a ninja's playpen. Which would make stealth easy, if it wasn't for the guards. The real difference from previous games, though, is what happens after you've been spotted. Rather than yawning, stretching, selecting ‘restart from checkpoint' then having another swig of Stella while you watch the loading screen, it's now simply an excuse for more action. Your last known position appears as a static apparition, towards which the enemies will move, right into the jaws of your waiting trap... assuming, of course, you have a waiting trap. Rather than just an assault rifle and a manic grin. Actually, that works too. Players aren't penalised for their play style - whether it's sneaky as you like or grenade-happy gangsta, the level design and ‘just good enough' AI never stop being fun.
The plot's a typical 24-style affair, and I mean that literally: my favourite ever scene from any season of 24 was recreated precisely in one level. The plot synchs seamlessly with the gameplay, sometimes shifting the required focus between surveillance and violence in an instant.
So I liked it, then. It's everything I hoped it would be. Ubisoft's back-catalogue, if we pluck Far Cry 2 and Assassin's Creed 2 as examples, have given us a solid sense of place which some other games lack, and Conviction, with its focus around the iconic locations of Washington DC, is a worthy addition to this list. Many of the subgames and ‘fiddly bits' from the Splinter Cell series have been stripped away so as not to dilute focus on the gameplay elements the designers wanted to showcase. Much has been made of the new ‘mark and execute' manoeuvre, which allows Sam to select anywhere up to four enemies by observing them from a safe vantage point before popping up and wasting them all with a series of perfectly accurate headshots. Even when you're on the hoof, slowly being cornered by visored mercenaries with assault rifles, you've always got a trick or two left up your sleeve. There aren't many games that make you feel like quite so much of a badass.
It is, then, with a heavy sigh that I have to break the disbelief for a second, to point out the heartbreaking letdowns that always come packaged at no extra cost with any new Ubisoft title. I've already burst a blood vessel or two over Ubisoft's satanic DRM, so I'll not bore you with it again here. Nor will I allow it to affect the mark I give the game - I believe I've made my point, but it's still present this time round. I have an ATI graphics card that clashed with Conviction and led to a bluescreen every ten minutes or so until I downloaded some new drivers which are still in a test phase. And you may have noticed no mention of the much-vaunted co-op multiplay - it's not that I'm a sad loner with nobody to hang out with, I simply haven't been able to connect to the Ubisoft friends server. So, currently, no multiplay for me. I'm sure it's great though. If I finally get access to it, I'll add to the review.
Splinter Cell is one of those series that inspires fervent loyalty in its fans, and I must confess to having been a rabid fan since the original. The more forgiving, action-orientated pace of Conviction (not to mention the brutal interrogation scenes and tightly-written story) makes me inclined to suggest that this is the best of the lot. Big up to Ubisoft - your DRM is a monstrous insult to humanity, it takes you sixty years longer than planned to release every game, and there are always bugs throughout, but good gravy you do make awesome, awesome games.
* - The one exception to this rule, of course, being Ghostbusters on the ZX Spectrum 48K.