We've already seen some pieces of the single-player campaign in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction--a reboot of sorts for the Splinter Cell franchise that reworks some of the old elements from the series and introduces new ones, such as the mark-and-execute feature as well as new storytelling methods. This approach and many of those features carry over to Conviction's multiplayer modes, which Ubisoft Montreal's game director for multiplayer, Patrick Redding, says is an extension of the single-player experience and not just something that has been tacked on. "We started working on multiplayer around the same time we did the major course correction on Splinter Cell: Conviction. We really wanted to avoid a situation where multiplayer was just an arcade mode that lived in a little bubble off to the side and people jumped into it when they were done with Sam Fisher," he says. "One thing that was really important for us was the idea of having a storyline for multiplayer. There's actual integration with what players are doing in the game and [other things] going on in the Splinter Cell universe. We're extending the experience in a few different directions."
Redding says that a big part of that experience is the fantasy of being one of the world's best special agents, moving in and out of the shadows to complete missions with utmost efficiency. But Conviction brings something a little different to the table by exploring what happens when you remove the rules of engagement. What happens when a special agent can do whatever is necessary to get the job done? "You can take that guy off the leash," he says. "You can say 'no more rules of engagement,' unleash violence on your enemies, slip back into the shadows and disappear. We wanted to make sure we were retaining that same fantasy and keeping it consistent into the multiplayer experience. All of the tools for doing that work really well when you can take two players, put them together, and say, 'OK, you guys are going to multiply out the effectiveness of all these mechanics by working together to dominate and take out the AI.' That meant co-op was going to be our focus." There are two major aspects to the co-op experience in Splinter Cell: Conviction. The first is the two-player co-op prologue to the game's single-player experience that takes place a few months before Sam Fisher's hunt begins. "Rather than saying we're going to take a few maps from single-player, a couple of Washington DC locations, and let two players play through them on an alternate path, we said 'no,'" says Redding. "We're committed to having a fresh location that's distinct and provides a bit of backstory and context to what Sam's dealing with, but it's also unique and specific to co-op." There are four maps in this co-op prologue set in the former Soviet Union, and the entire mode has its own set of unique characters (including its two playable agents) not found in other portions of the game. Redding says that these maps provide about an extra five to six hours of content with each map taking about an hour and a half to two hours and individual sections taking about 20 to 30 minutes. This mode also has three difficulty settings to accommodate a broader spectrum of players.
The setup: Third Echelon--Sam Fisher's former employer--receives word that a group of warheads have gone missing from Russia's arsenal and are going to be sold to the highest bidder. Since Third Echelon can't simply send an agent into Russia without potentially provoking a massive incident, the secretive division works with its Russian counterpart to have its own agent, codenamed Kestrel, accompany the American agent, codenamed Archer. "We have these two agents who are ostensibly working for rival organizations," says Redding. "They don't really trust each other and they don't really like each other. They don't know if they can depend on each other at the outset, but over the course of these four missions--and at the same time players are also getting used to the gameplay and working with another player--you can feel that relationship evolve. Both of them are experienced spies with interesting backstories that help fuel that tension."
In our hands-on of one co-op map, we join Archer and Kestrel in an old bunker located deep beneath Moscow that would have served as a transportation system in the event of a nuclear attack. The two walk through an initial tunnel before reaching a wall with large white letters projected across a certain section instructing the two to breach it. This projected text effect is the same as the one shown in the single-player campaign that delivers information such as your location or mission objectives. Once through the wall, the two make their way to a train station where a large train car is parked, blocking the view of their arrival from the guards patrolling on the other side.
At this point, there are several ways to approach the situation. Both agents can run in with guns blazing, but ultimately, that only makes things more difficult, because the guards will call for backup. The most effective solution is to briefly split up and try to take out guards (quietly) on either side and head toward the stairs near the back of the platform. As Archer, we take the high road and climb on top of the train car while Kestrel goes to the left side to take out a guard by grabbing him and snapping his neck. By doing so, Kestrel earns a token for the team that enables them to perform a mark and execute on enemies. Since we're on top of the train, we can mark an enemy for Kestrel to take out by pressing the right bumper on the Xbox 360 controller--a small arrow appears over that enemy's head indicating he's marked, and it will change from white to red when in range of your weapon. If they're in proper position, Kestrel and Archer can perform mark and kills at the same time (you can see which enemy the other player has marked and vice versa), which is especially useful if you're presented with multiple targets.
As the duo makes its way past the first set of guards, Kestrel sticks to the left side of the platform while we hit the right side, jumping on the wall to perform an Assassin's Creed-style, yank-over-the-railing stealth kill of a guard standing nearby. Kestrel does the same, pulling an unsuspecting schlub through the window of a small room off to the side. They then make their way to the back of the platform and toward some office space and their final objective for the mission, the interrogation of Major Rebko--a former high-ranking member of the Russian military who may know the whereabouts of the missing warheads.
But before getting to that point, we get a glimpse of a few other notable gameplay features of the co-op mode. When one player makes it to a checkpoint, a video projects itself on the wall that basically gives you a live feed of what the other player sees. This gives you an idea where the other player is (if he hasn't reached the checkpoint) and could prove to be useful if neither player is especially communicative. Additionally, both Kestrel and Archer have access to some pretty useful gadgets, one of which is sonar goggles. This incredibly useful item not only aids your vision in a dark room, but also gives enemy locations through walls, so you can turn them on inside a room and plan your assault accordingly. Another useful gadget--and one not entirely dissimilar from those that appeared in previous Splinter Cell games--is the snake camera that can slip underneath doors and give you a quick peek at enemies that may be on the other side. What makes this device slightly different from previous incarnations is that it grants the ability to mark targets, so you can theoretically breach the door and immediately perform a kill. Finally, in addition to EMP grenades, Kestrel and Archer have EMP backpacks that send a burst of EMPs to nearby electronic gadgets--namely lights and cameras--knocking them out of commission. These EMP blasts can even take out individual flashlights held by guards patrolling the area.
Of course, in stealth missions, any number of things can go wrong, but Kestrel and Archer have options. If either member of the team gets gunned down, there's a brief window of opportunity to run over and heal your partner, and if firefights get too intense, you can always try to grab a guard and use him as a human shield to help clear out the room. In fact, in this particular map, you can even hold a guard in a choke and walk him through the metal detector to get through without setting the alarm off. You may also run into a situation where an enemy grabs either Archer of Kestrel. If this happens, the player being held can time a well-placed elbow to the enemy, giving a quick opportunity for the other player to take a shot on him while he's dazed.
Conviction gives you more than enough information if you're ever in danger of being detected--color saturation changes depending on whether or not you're safely engaged in stealth, and whenever someone spots you, a meter appears above your head, indicating how much time you have before you can slip back into the shadows and remain undetected. You can also make extensive use of a feature called "last known position." Whenever you've been spotted and attempt to move out of sight, a silhouette appears onscreen. This silhouette remains as the enemy comes and investigates where he last had sight of your position, opening up potential opportunities to spring a surprise assault on your would-be attackers.
Ultimately, this all means that a slow and methodical approach makes things much easier for Kestrel and Archer, but the prologue isn't the only multiplayer mode where this strategy comes in handy. Splinter Cell: Conviction offers a separate set of multiplayer types known as Deniable Ops missions. "[These] are four game modes in addition to the story mode, but in three of the four modes, you can play in single-player or co-op," Redding explains. "The modes are Hunter, Last Stand, Infiltration, and Face-Off. These are playable in six maps--four of the maps are the same maps we're using in our story so you're able to go back into those maps and try them out in different ways. Then we have the two exclusive maps that are specific to Deniable Ops."
Hunter is an elimination mode where you jump into a particular zone and have to kill everybody. Infiltration is a stealth-focused mode where if you are detected by AI enemies and various security devices, the match is over. Last Stand is a survival mode where you have to defend a designated object from being destroyed, and while you can use stealth, a better method for victory is to use distraction and pull enemies away from the object. Face-Off is described as a spy-versus-spy-style mode where you find out who's the best superspy, but it won't merely be a one-on-one affair--enemies will also be patrolling around the map. "You've got hostile AI running around and your opponent player running around," says Redding about Face-Off mode. "Even though it's kind of a hazard, you can also use the AI to mask your own movement or use it to sniff out the location of the other player."
Ubisoft Montreal also wants to reward avid players of both the single-player and multiplayer campaigns. Therefore, Conviction includes a series of challenges that let you earn points to use in the Persistent Elite Creation System where you can upgrade various pieces of equipment that are unlocked. "If I have the MP5 submachine gun, I could add a silencer, or a scope, or a stock to it," says Redding. "[All of these things] affect the gameplay characteristics of that weapon. Similarly, I can personalize my avatar's appearance in the game by adding different skins, uniforms, or camouflage to it--most of which are there for aesthetic expression. There is a gameplay element to it. By altering my accessories--there are three levels of accessories--I can increase the amount of ammunition I can carry as well as gadget capacity and armor." This is a separate element from Ubisoft's uPlay feature, which also awards points for completing certain objectives in the game. Look for more on Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction before it hits the Xbox 360 and PC on February 23.