On the run from the government that trained him and searching for the men who killed his daughter, it's not easy being Sam Fisher. Fortunately, playing as Sam Fisher is not nearly as hard, as we found out during our hands-on time with Splinter Cell: Conviction at Microsoft's X10 event. The first 20 minutes of the game not only offer a slick tutorial of Sam's potent abilities, but they let you flex those muscles in all sorts of creatively deadly ways. Human shields, clever misdirection, and brutal interrogation techniques are all in a day's work for Fisher, and we discovered how Conviction makes these things simple to learn and satisfying to execute.
Splinter Cell: Conviction starts off with some dramatic cutscene moments. A redheaded woman with a gun to Fisher's head, an interrogation inside a secure facility, and ghostly images of Sam's daughter all flashed by while the cacophony of the event drowned out any expository audio. When the game proper began, we found ourselves in a street-side cafe, populated by a bustling crowd of people. There is a vividness to the characters and the environments that feels like a refreshing break for the shadowy series. When loud noises caused the idle citizenry to panic and run from the scene, the rush of activity and the stillness they left behind was like a sensory palette cleanser, letting you know this isn't the same gloomy Splinter Cell you've played before.
This strong visual impression continued as we made our way into the area where fruit vendors had set up stalls. It soon became clear that the market was our first training ground, and with the help of unobtrusive onscreen prompts, we soon became comfortable with moving in and out of cover. If you pull the left trigger, you'll stick behind cover in a manner similar to Gears of War. Move to the edge of cover and small white indicators will appear on other cover positions, indicating where you will move to if you tap the A button. This simple system is consistent with the game's slick interface. If you've seen coverage of Conviction before, you're probably familiar with the text objectives that appear on the ground, on the sides of buildings, and on other in-game surfaces. The cover indicators are similarly placed. They are visible enough to catch your eye, but not big enough to intrude on the environments.
The overall effect of this style is to draw your attention to the environments. It essentially trains your eye what to look for, so pretty soon you are sliding between cover positions without even noticing the indicators. This same philosophy extends to story exposition and character developments. When Sam is interrogating someone or having a relevant memory, a black and white projection will appear on whatever surface Sam is looking at. These filmstrip-quality videos move with Sam's gaze, allowing you a glimpse into the narrative without yanking you out of the moment. All these elements combine to create an engrossing visual style that impresses straight from the get-go.
Just as we were getting the hang of movement, Sam had a very vivid flashback that took us back in time to his daughter's bedroom. Young Sarah (approximately five years old) is scared of the dark, so Dad sits on her bed and explains how the dark is nothing to be frightened of. Though it was hard to hear the actual conversation because of the noisy event venue, the scene still conveyed a touching sense of fatherly devotion. It also served to demonstrate the visual filters that Conviction uses to indicate how stealthy Sam is being. When the world around you turns black and white, you are hidden from enemy sight. When you are spotted or exposed, the screen is once again flushed with vivid color. A quick jump back to the marketplace showed this in action, but soon it was back to the bedroom. This time, the quiet evening at home turned dangerous, as breaking noises in the other room heralded the arrival of intruders. Sam leaves Sarah in her room and deals with the armed invaders in classic Fisher style. A quick takedown (press B near an enemy) leveled and disarmed the first one, and then the other two were quickly marked for death. Whenever Sam performs a melee takedown, he earns the power to tag (aim and hit the right bumper) and quickly execute (Y button) enemies.
It's a powerful ability and one that is clearly integral to Sam's survival. How many enemies you can shoot in one takedown depends on the gun you are using and how upgraded it is. Splinter Cell: Conviction has a Persistent Elite Creation (PEC) system similar to that found in the Rainbow Six series. This system allows you to upgrade your arsenal in single-player, as well as tweak your guns and outfits in Conviction's cooperative modes. Fisher's single-player loadouts are determined by his progress to an extent, but there is definitely room to increase your gun damage, magazine size, or even the number of targets you can quickly execute.
PEC points are granted for fulfilling a wide variety of in-game challenges. Some are single- or multiplayer specific, but the points are persistent no matter what mode you are in. Many of these reward actions are what you would normally perform in the course of battle, like performing silent takedowns or quick executions. However, there are a lot that encourage you to use Sam's abilities to their fullest extent. During our time with the game, we earned some points for taking an enemy as a human shield and then using his head to bash through a door. We garnered another reward (also door-related) for using our busted rearview-window mirror to check under a door and then busting it in and knocking down an enemy on the other side. We also progressed toward a third reward by popping out of cover and grabbing our enemy's attention. When we dove back into cover, a silhouette remained of our last known position. Flanking and killing an enemy who was investigating our silhouette brought us one notch closer to the "cat and mouse" reward. Finally, we scored some points for shooting a large chandelier and bringing it crashing down on our enemies' heads. Good times.
Splinter Cell: Conviction is dedicated to making it easy to be the deadly Sam Fisher that we all know and love. The slick interface makes maneuvering through the environment feel natural and intuitive. Onscreen prompts and streamlined controls make your formidable array of abilities easily accessible. And a robust rewards system encourages you to make the most of your skills. As if we needed any encouragement to grab our daughter's murderer by the throat and smash his face into a grand piano.
Of course, this is all based on the first 20 minutes of the game. How Fisher's abilities evolve and where his adventure will take him remain a mystery. To read more about Splinter Cell: Conviction, check out our latest hands-on with the cooperative Deniable Ops mode. Splinter Cell: Conviction is looking sharp and is on track for an April 13 release on the Xbox 360 and PC.