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Ubisoft sneaks oodles of co-op action into Splinter Cell Conviction as the game gets prepped for launch early next year...
It's fair to say that the messages have been mixed with Splinter Cell Conviction so far. The game's release date is probably the most mixed of these messages (having gone underground for long periods of its development after first being sighted in 2006), although a hefty dose of obscurity has also surrounded the gameplay. Whether Conviction is an action title or a stealth game has been the subject of much debate and, while the truth is that it's essentially a mix of both gameplay types, this fact has still been enough to rile the fans of a game series that once harboured the seminal stealth 'em up, Chaos Theory.
But let's put all of that doubt aside for a second. Let's assume that fans will warm to Sam Fisher's new Jack Bauer/Jason Bourne styling, the controversial Mark and Execute system, and the less punishing blend of stealth and action. Let's assume that gamers will welcome Sam back like a war hero who's been held in an internment camp for the past four years. Ticker-tape parades are what await him, then, but the real question is can Sam ever be the same again? Despite all he's been through, can he rise above it all and be the man we once knew?
One thing's for sure: at the very least, Conviction won't be starved for content thanks to an extra large side-portion of co-op stealth for the game's multiplayer. And this isn't just co-op support that's been latched onto the game's main campaign. On the contrary in fact, Ubisoft Montreal has developed an entire Prologue co-op campaign for 2 players that sits apart from the main campaign and serves as an introduction to Sam's story. Instead of being told from the familiar perspective of Mr. Fisher though, this Prologue is seen through the eyes of a Third Echelon agent and an accompanying operative from the Russian intelligence services.
The Russians have teamed up with Third Echelon to recover four EMP weapons that have been stolen from the country's armed forces and the aim, as you might expect, is to retrieve them before they end up on the black market. Unlike the initial missions of the single-player campaign (where Sam is out-on-the-lam, attempting to evade Third Echelon without the aid of his trusty gadgets), Conviction's co-op Prologue will feature high-tech stealth gadgets from the outset such as sonar detection systems and keyhole cameras to name but a couple. There are also the standard co-op dynamics, such as the ability to revive your teammate, as well as chokeholds that your partner can get stuck in with enemies (you'll then have to rush to their aid before the bad guys asphyxiate them).
Ubisoft Montreal walks you through one of the co-op levels in Conviction's Prologue campaign...
Other than this though, the gameplay is largely familiar to the single-player and incorporates back-of-the-box features such as Sam's Last Known Position system and Mark and Execute (albeit this time a "Dual" Mark & Execute system that allows you to share marks and make simultaneous executions). While we still have our doubts surrounding these features (not least the impossibly angled shots that Mark and Execute seems to throw up), a brief hands-on session with the co-op campaign may have revealed an all together more troubling issue with Conviction in its opponent AI. There were a couple of moments where NPCs didn't seem to notice us when we were right in front of them, while their reactions between states of alert and regular patrols was a little flakey (a bit like they were drowsily waking up, stumbling around confusedly while trying to locate an alarm clock).
There are explanations for these apparent problems though. For example, Ubisoft Montreal provides numerous dark areas for you to conceal yourself in, although the balancing with this is a little strong at this stage, which perhaps explains why we seemed invisible to NPCs in some areas even though they really should've been able to notice us. Additionally, there are other difficulties to take into account when programming stealth AI for co-op gameplay (as Game Director, Patrick Redding told us, having 2 players essentially multiplies the chances of exposure exponentially), which could explain the drowsy alert states we saw in our co-op hands-on. At this point, we simply haven't had enough hands-on time with the game to make a definitive comment on the AI and there's still plenty of development time left for Ubisoft Montreal to iron out potential issues like these anyway.
Nonetheless, five to six hours of gameplay has been promised for the Prologue campaign across three separate difficulty settings. But the added co-op content doesn't end there. Ubisoft Montreal is also incorporating 2 player co-operative Deniable Ops into the package, which can be played across four modes and in six separate maps (including two exclusive Deniable Ops maps and four from the Prologue campaign). The modes on offer are Hunter, Infiltration, Last Stand, and Face-off. Hunter and Infiltration stick to the simple task of eliminating enemies as you progress through a map, although Hunter is built around forgiving stealth gameplay while Infiltration is for the purists (i.e. if you get detected by enemies then it's game over). Last Stand is basically a take on Gears of War 2's Horde mode and assigns players with the task of defending an EMP warhead from hostiles for a specified time, while Face-off forms the only adversarial mode of the bunch and pits one player against the other in a map that spawns AI opponents for both players to contend with.
Throughout both these Deniable Ops and the Prologue campaign, Ubisoft Montreal is integrating an XP system from which players can achieve stealth points for completing certain tasks (this is becoming the standard in shooters these days in light of Modern Warfare's multiplayer success). Points that are earned can then be spent on upgrades, weapon accessories, and items that can be used to customise your in-game avatar, which should add considerable long-term appeal to the modes for levelling-up addicts.
Splinter Cell: Conviction has lots of promise but, equally, there are also things that worry us about the game. AI is a slight concern at this stage and, while we've begrudgingly accepted that Splinter Cell may not be the pure stealth experience it once was, we're still a little dubious about the ways in which action has been incorporated into the gameplay. Nonetheless, a substantial co-op constituent that sits strongly alongside the single-player game, while also adding considerable additional content, was definitely the right decision for Conviction's multiplayer.